Season 1 episode 3
Water pollution fast fashion
Water is the world’s most valuable resource. Every human, animal and plant depend on it to survive. Luckily for us the Earth has an abundance of water and a fantastic eco system that automatically recycles it. Why then, are we facing water shortages globally? And why do experts say that the “The wars of the future will be fought about water.”
Hi friends! I’m your host Lilli and this is Seams Fabricated. A expose podcast that deep dives into the exploitation of the fast fashion industry, and discusses ways to path a more ethical and sustainable way forward. When most of us think of water shortages, we may think of water bottles being donated to the poor, or rural African communities. But the reality is that water shortages are a worldwide issue. I have faced many droughts here in Australia in my short lifetime. It’s not fun having water usage restrictions in 35 degree heat. It’s expected that by 2040 many major cities will face drastic water supply issues including London, South Paolo, and Melbourne.
The Earth has an amazing eco system when it comes to recycling water naturally. 71% of the Earths surface is covered by water. Our vast oceans hold space for millions of plants, animals and microorganisms. Rivers and lakes provide much needed fresh water for wildlife and humans. The way this water system works is by 3 key factors I’m sure we’ve all heard about. First is evaporation. When water on the surface heats up it is lifted into the air in tiny invisible particles. This process automatically purifies the water. When there is enough water vapour in the air, clouds form, and fresh water is released from the sky. And Tada we have clean fresh water, a literal gift from the heavens.
Although the Earth is filled with water, 97% is ocean water and too salty for us to drink. Another 2% is frozen as icecaps in the north and south poles. Which leaves us humans, land animals and plants a measly one percent to work with. Our planet cannot run out of water, we have had and always will have the same amount of water. The problem lies in how we are using this precious resource. While living through water restrictions we had to limit our shower time, were not allowed to fill pools, and could only use one bucket of water to wash the car. But when you compare household water usage to that of agriculture and factories, a much larger issue is unveiled.
The fashion industry uses 79 Billion cubic metres of water per year, making it the second most water intensive industry in the world.
To make one cotton t shirt it takes 2,700 litres of water to grow the cotton, process it and dye it. For one T-shirt. The same amount of water can provide clean drinking water to a person for 900 days.
A pair of jeans takes 1,800 gallons of water and a leather jacket, 7,900 gallons of water. These three items alone use enough water for a small community to live on for a year.
Cotton in particular is an extremely thirsty plant and requires a lot of water to grow. While famers tend to the upkeep of growing these thirsty future fabrics. They also have to combat pests, and resort to massive amounts of pesticides. These leach into the soil, air, and water causing a multitude of problems.
Pesticides were originally used as chemical warfare during world war 2 and since have been commercialised for monetary gain. Unfortunately some of the most harmful pesticides are used on conventionally grown cotton farms. Amounting to more than 10 percent of the worlds pesticides every year resulting in $2.6 billion spent on harmful chemicals.
When pesticides are used they not only harm the environment, they also harm humans, animals and micro organisms. Many studies have linked pesticides to increased cancer rates and reproductive issues in both humans and animals. Unfortunately it’s not just the farm workers that are exposed to these chemicals, but everyone in neighbouring communities including young children.
Thankfully more companies are becoming aware of the dangers of pesticides and are offering products made from organically grown cotton. Which is safer for the environment and the workers.
The fashion industry is the second most water pollutant industry, right behind oil. But not all of this pollution is caused by pesticides. A much bigger issue is lurking inside the factories themselves. It’s estimated that about 20% of industrial water pollution worldwide comes from the dyeing and treatment of textiles. According to the Environmental Protection Agency these chemicals are some of the most toxic chemicals known to mankind. These chemicals not only put factory workers at risk daily but create toxicity issues within entire communities.
After a government investigation into China’s waterways, it was found that more than 70% of China’s rivers and lakes are polluted. Almost half contain water that is “unfit for human consumption or contact.” Meaning that not only is it not safe to drink, but it is not safe to touch.
With 1.4 Billion people relying on clean water in China, millions living along side rivers such as the Yangtze River suffer with increasing rates of caner, skin irritations, breathing problems and loss of smell. Testing done on rivers like these have returned scary results, including oxygen levels of zero, complete death of natural living organisms, concentrations of chemicals and heavy metals by over 50%, which means that the river is literally more chemical than water.
These rivers once gave way to life to bio diversity, fresh water supply for locals and bathing water for children. A consistent supply of healthy fish meant that no one would go hungry. Polluting water supplies effects people on a very personal level. Taking away their basic human rights to stay clean and hygienic, to be able to drink clean water and feed their families.
Even underground water has been found to be contaminated after chemicals leached into the soil and eventually entered the water. Everyday over 800 children under the age of 5 die from diseases caused by contaminated water, which is immensely heartbreaking. This situation is completely preventable. My question is, how can companies let this happen? Surely someone is regulating these factories.
Here’s what you need to know. Over the past couple of decades the manufacturing industries in developing countries such as China and India, has lifted millions out of poverty, created an increase of job opportunities and helped to boost their economy, which is a great thing. However these countries also have looser restrictions and laws surrounding environmental waste and safe working conditions.
Wealthy brands outsource manufacturing to these countries to get a cheaper price. This leads to a very competitive market, and developing countries compete against each other for contracts to these companies. In order to lower their prices to get the deal, they are forced to cut corners wherever they can which ends in desperate people make desperate decisions.
One of the many sacrifices is the safe disposal of chemical waste. While alternatives and chemical treatments exist, they simply cannot afford it. Which leads to the easiest and cheapest option, dumping it into local lakes, rivers and oceans. Some has even been used as “recycled water” that was not properly treated, to irrigate crops, and has resulted in harmful compounds such as chromium ending up in cattle milk and vegetable produce that is then eaten by local families. Dead fish found floating on top of rivers are also eaten and sold in markets out of desperation.
An often debated question then arises, who is to blame for all this chaos? Garment brands are often quick to deny any responsibility saying that they had no idea this was happening or that it is not their problem. They don’t own the factory and they can’t control what they do.
The reality is that it is the brands responsibility to outsource to factories that are safe and clean. And to perform regular check-ups, and dispose of their waste in a safe way. They have all the resources, but they don’t want to spend the time and money to make these changes.
As for the rivers that are now dead there is hope. The Thames river in London was once used as an industrial dumping ground following the industrial revolution. By 1957, scientists of the Natural History Museum of London declared the river “biologically dead.” Through sewage treatments and diverting waste into a new system, the Thames river has begun to restore it’s bio diversity including the return of seals, sharks, birds and over 100 species of fish. The data from this year shows a much better picture than that of the 1950’s dead river, although new pollutants are still making their way into the water, conservationists are working hard on their research and giving this wonderful part of the Earth some much needed love and attention.
Some of these new pollutants that are affecting waterways are micro plastics and micro fibres. These are tiny pieces of plastic that make their way into soil, air and water. As humans we accidently consume micro plastics everyday. In the same way, fish and other animals are ingesting these too. It doesn’t just come from packaging and bags. 60% of our clothing is now made from forms of plastic that isn’t biodegrade, but instead disintegrates into tiny harmful particles. The most popular of these fabrics are polyester, nylon, and acrylic. By old clothes secretly shedding fibres and our constant washing of them, micro plastics are being sent out into the world like little parasites, slowly killing wildlife.
As consumers we are oblivious to all this chaos that goes on behind the walls of fast fashion. If the labels on our clothing said “may cause death to wildlife” or “proudly polluting the worlds waterways” we surely wouldn’t buy it. It is so easy to get caught up in our own reality, to believe the picture brands portray. Keep in mind, most money spent by big brands is spent on marketing their products, not on the product itself. What they are selling us is a lifestyle, keeping up with this seasons trends, and having an outfit that’s insta worthy. But we forget to ask where the products we buy actually come from. And I think a lot of people don’t think about it because they feel like it’s out of their hands. But thankfully the scene of fashion is changing. There are so many new ethical and eco friendly brands and companies paving the way for a more safe and sustainable industry.
Many big brands are also making an effort to change, and as consumers we can speed up this process by asking the hard questions and demanding transparency from the companies we buy from. As a consumer you do have a right to know where your product was made, and how ethical and eco friendly it is.
From the words of leading sustainable designer Orsola De Castro, the future of the textile and garment industry begins with the four T’s. Transparency, toxicity, traceability and textile waste.
Thankyou for listening to this episode of Seams Fabricated. My goal is to educate and inspire positive change within the fashion and textile industry. Please show me some support by sharing this podcast and subscribing or liking or whatever you do. You can find me on Instagram @seamsfabricated. I hope you have a lovely day and I will see you next week.
Documentary - RiverBlue