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Water and Agriculture 3 - Rethinking what we wear

The world's most popular fibre is also the thirstiest
 Image by Jim Black from Pixabay

This page is dedicated to the people who make our clothes including the families of those who perished in the Rana Plaza collapse

There is no doubt as textiles go, cotton is simply the thirstiest crop around. You only have to look at the Aral Sea, once the world's fourth largest lake, to see the effect after only a few decades of cotton production (since 1961).  It takes on average approximately 20,000 litres (5,283 gallons) of water to produce one Kg of cotton which is enough to make one t-shirt or one pair of jeans. 

Each year the world produces 25 million tonnes of cotton, taking up 2.5% of the world’s arable land, mostly in the warm, dry and water - stressed places such as India, Pakistan, the southern states of the USA, China, West Africa and Uzbekistan and uses 3% of the world’s agricultural water. Though around one quarter of the world’s cotton crop relies only on rainfall, the rest requires irrigation with its attendant water losses. 

For the most part, both types also need vast quantities of pesticides and fertiliser – 10% of the world’s agricultural chemicals in fact, which create health and environmental problems for workers and downstream users, including those who use ground water, and make the land toxic and useless for other crops. Processing, dyeing and finishing those jeans takes another 2,900 gallons of water. To see what the textile industry does to rivers watch what happened to the Citarum River in Indonesia, home to 500 textile factories and now regarded as the world's most polluted river.    

Though moves are afoot to reduce cotton’s environmental footprint through more sustainable practices, only around 12 - 15% of cotton was grown organically in 2017 and while this is almost double what was being grown in 2014,  only a few manufacturers (one fifth) are as yet actively seeking it out. Obviously, if you must buy cotton, you should insist on buying this type, even though it may cost more, since returns may be lower and some standards such as Fair Trade Cotton also concern themselves with fair returns for workers, including not using forced labour or child labour.   

Alternatives to Cotton
For all that, cotton is still preferable to synthetics such as polyester and nylon which are made from  fossil fuels and use large amounts of energy and water to produce, along with a lot of chemicals.  Just one of them, nitrous oxide, is a greenhouse gas which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Click here to see the health implications for people living near such factories on the Citarum River. Microplastics released in manufacture and washing of such garments are now found in waterways and marine animals all over the world, including Antarctica.  Synthetic and composite fabrics which are impossible to separate, also linger in landfill for several hundred years. Rayon and viscose fabrics although regarded as 'natural' are still mostly made from wood pulp harvested from old-growth forests and also use very toxic chemicals to turn them into fibres.

Bamboo offers promise and uses much less water but only if mechanically crushed not chemically processed

Image by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay

Although bamboo is touted as a more sustainable crop – requiring both less water and no fertilisers or pesticides to grow, the process of converting it to fibres generally also uses a lot of energy and for the most part involves a similar chemical cocktail to that used in the manufacture of rayon.  Mechanical processing and recycling such chemicals in a closed system using the Lyocell or Tencel  processes, are better for the environment and use little water, but the technology is usually too expensive for poor countries to install and makes their product or even their country less economically competitive.

Hemp uses a tenth of the water that cotton does and needs no chemical inputs, but because the plant is visually indistinguishable from the drug -bearing variety it is not popular among US producers
Image by M. Maggs from Pixabay

Other natural fibres- hemp, flax, wool and even the humble nettle are all less damaging, use far less water, are long lasting and biodegradable or reusable at the end of their working life. Despite only needing a fraction of the water to grow and process (125 litres per kg plus 5-40 litres for scouring, versus 7000 -2900litres for I kg of cotton) wool growing requires a much greater land area to produce. The biggest problem however, is simply the sheer volume of material being consumed and often wasted. 

Blue Flax - Idaho
Image courtesy of Mike Goad by Pixabay

As soon as one country or company tries to implement better environmental control or insists on better working conditions – see what happened with the Rana Plaza, the industry moves to poorer countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar or Cambodia. Some some of the larger companies are reducing water and chemical inputs or improving their production lines - see for example Levi's Water Less system  or Nike's ColorDry process which has the potential so save 'trillions of litres of water in dyeing and also uses less energy and creates less pollution. Elsewhere innovative designers are reworking old fabric (see below) and some companies such as global chain H & M  are accepting returns of clothing for recycling.

Despite these valiant efforts, they are only a drop in the ocean. Current production still vastly exceeds what can be reused. Even if recycling reached 40% there would still only be a 4.4% water saving and a 6% reduction in emissions.

Canadian designers creatively divert fabric otherwise destined for landfill

In 2014 the global garment industry was already turning out 100 billion garments a year. Since then consumption in Brazil, China, Mexico and Russia has increased eightfold. Indonesia expects to increase its output 75% by 2030. The consequences if all developing countries follow suit, are too horrible to contemplate.

So what can we do?

Say goodbye to instant fashion. Buy less. Stop impulse buying.  Share, rent, buy second-hand. If you must buy new, read the label. Try for low impact natural fibres. The label will also tell you how to look after your garment so that it lasts longer. Insist that producers also show how and where their product is made.

Favour manufacturers who care for the environment and their workers.  Demand transparency and accountability. As retailers struggle, instead of beating down prices even more, they should make sustainability a major selling point. Go local. Be prepared to pay for quality over quantity and buy only things which will last and can be repaired. Young people are already turning away. Being short on means and high on environmental concern, they are opting for body art – piercing, tattoos, sculpted hair, healthy skin and a buff body to express their individuality, instead of expressing themselves through an abundance of clothing.  

The future of fashion

Mass produced fast  fashion "is so last century," notes fashion industry oracle, Li Edelkoort, who also asks, “How can an evening dress sell for less than a sandwich and still pay a fair price to workers?’ She proposes a return to a cottage style industry and urges manufacturers to band together, to stop blaming consumers and to set minimum prices which ensure decent wages and working conditions.

She also envisages a marriage between Silicon Valley and Slow Fashion and wants to see marketers and journalists do more to shape the future, rather than just encouraging us to buy more.  Click here to learn more.

One of my personal fantasies is to make use of those idle airport scanners to make clothes which really fit and suit me, rather in the way it's now possible to try different hairstyles with an app like Beauty Plus. I would also be prepared to pay more for fewer, well -made clothes that last. I was always envious of my husband's Harris Tweed jacket which lasted over 25 years, two years longer than our marriage.

My other, possibly more realistic fantasy, is to have someone remake things which worked well for me - fit, style, fabric etc. but which I have now worn to death. If you have the skills and materials to do something like this, I would love to hear from you with a view to a long term relationship. We don't need more stuff to clog our wardrobes and landfill, just a few honest garments which last.