Typically when we think about the relationship between water and clothes it’s about which rinse cycle to use on laundry day. Think again, industrial textile production affects water in ways that outlast the lifetime of fashion or clothes.
Non-organic cotton crops heavily use pesticides and fertilizers. These pollutants make their way into rivers and ground water, threatening fish, food and families and the water we use for drinking and food preparation. Ingestion of pesticides can cause nervous system ailments, cancer, even death, particularly among children. As it happens, dependence on ground water is more prevalent in cotton-producing and manufacturing countries such as Pakistan and China.
Organizations worldwide are lobbying to make textile production more sustainable and responsible. In China, for example, environmental NGOs such as Friends of Nature have exposed serial, high profile multinational polluters and provided public education on water pollution. Their colleagues at the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs identify and publish maps of areas of extreme water pollution and evaluate the environmental performance of corporations in China. They deserve the respect and support of consumers and producers alike. As consumers we need to make responsible choices and inform ourselves about the labour and environmental practices of our favourite companies and brands and support those who produce quality, durable products in socially and environmentally responsible ways. Otherwise the mass-market fashion industry will continue to peddle trendy clothes and make us partners in crimes against the environment and public health consequences.
Why should we care?
- Poisoning remains a daily reality among agricultural workers in developing countries, where up to 14% of all occupational injuries in the agricultural sector and 10% of all fatal injuries can be attributed to insecticides and herbicides.
- Pesticide use for cotton production has serious effects on wildlife. It has been estimated that pesticides sprayed in cotton fields kill at least 67 million birds in the U.S. each year.
- Pesticides often linger on clothes, and small amounts can be absorbed through skin contact.
- Cotton crops are volatile, particularly in ecosystems compromised by pollution. High costs are passed onto manufacturers and consumers.
- Finite ground water – fresh water – is used to water 53% of the cotton fields in the world and to produce 73% of global cotton production.
- Approximately 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, 3,900 children die daily from water borne illness.
- Americans throw out more than 12.37 million tons of textile material each year.
- Although only 2.4% of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, it accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide market and 11% of sale of global pesticides.
- It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans. 73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land.