Water Pollution in Textile Production

Water Pollution in Textile Production

Typically, when we think about the relationship between water and clothes it’s about which rinse cycle to use on laundry day. Think again! Water is used extensively in the textile industry, for scrolling, bleaching and dyeing processes. Fashion has a huge hidden cost – water pollution!

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.

Man spraying vegetables in the garden

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. As consumers we need to learn about our favourite companies and brands’ labour and environmental practices and make responsible choices in supporting those that 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.

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.

Fast facts

  • Textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of water worldwide and the fashion industry produces 20% of the world’s wastewater.
  • The textile industry is responsible for about 20% global water pollution (The World Bank, 2019). 
  • The textile manufacturing sector in Bangladesh discharges an estimated 217 million cubic meters of polluted wastewater into the environment (CDP, 2020).
  • Cotton production is responsible for 2.8% of the annual global water consumption. 73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land. 
  • Conventional cotton production depends on pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers that contaminate the surrounding water bodies. Cotton production accounts for 16% of all insecticides used worldwide (CDP, 2020). More pesticides are used in cotton production than any other crops.
  • It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Over 92 million tonnes of textiles are disposed of each year, much of which goes to landfill. Microfibers, dyes and other toxic substances remaining on dumped fabrics seep into and pollute ground water and surface water sources (CDP, 2020). Washing one kilogram of synthetic fabrics can release 640,000 to 1,500,000 microfibers, whose impact on human health and the environment are still unknown.