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How Fashion Contributes to Water Pollution & Environmental Degradation

Consumers Obsession with Fashion and its Rising Toll on Water Pollution around the Globe

When you buy your favorite jeans, you probably have no clue that massive amounts of water are being wasted and polluted in the production process of those jeans and all other clothing products. In fact, clothing manufacturing is such a polluting process that this was one of the major reasons why over the last three decades many large companies have moved their factories off shore to countries in Asia and Latin America, where they didn’t have to deal with tough environmental laws and government regulations. Importantly, they also no longer had to face public scrutiny and criticism about contamination of the nation’s rivers and lakes, and its negative consequences for the US citizens who lived near by. Conveniently, this issue has been permanently moved out of sight, and therefore out of minds of millions of happy American shoppers. The truth is that now bodies of water are being polluted all over the globe, and we are responsible for a large portion of this damage. Blindly, we continue to the run on the consumer treadmill that the greed of the western clothing manufacturers has put us on, and keeps us on it a the ever increasing the speed, and at the expense of our environment.

Lets press the stop button and look at the hard facts:

Cotton and water pollution

Our love for all things cotton accounts for 8.5 billion pounds of cotton fiber produced in the US each year. That not being enough to satisfy our needs and wants, we import 25 percent of the world’s cotton crop, in the form of lint, thread, fabric or finished products. To obtain the cuddly look and feel of cotton, the cotton fiber has to undergo extensive processing even before it is spun into thread, all of which requires excessive use of water. Procedures such as treating the fiber with caustic sodium hydroxide to remove waxes, bleaching it to allow dying to the desired color, as well as anti-wrinkle treatments with such carcinogenic compounds as formaldehyde, all require large quantities of water. For example, bleaching the cloth for just ONE shirt generates as much as 15 gallons of polluted waste water!

Harmful Effects of textile dyes on water

Dying textiles causes the most water pollution, and is most difficult to hide. Currently, the world textile industry uses 10,000 dyes and pigments to achieve all the spectacular shades of clothing that we enjoy wearing. On the flip side, people in countries like China, India, Mexico, Bangladesh, Indonesia, etc who live next to the dying plants, which are invariably located near bodies of water such as rivers, lakes, and ponds, report that drinking water that flows from their taps can be green one day, and red the next day. Dye effluents can contain such hazardous metals as copper, cobalt, chromium, nickel, zinc, lead, antimony, silver, cadmium or mercury, all of which can pass untouched through the water cleaning facilities.

Clusters of dying plants in these countries can dump around 7 million litters of effluent per day into their own land. Having seeped into the ground, the dye pollutants and salts render local groundwater unsuitable for farming irrigation. Moreover, drinking water in these regions has to be brought into surrounding villages from outside areas that are unaffected by the dye plants. In 2004, tests conducted in Sanganer, North India revealed that textile and dying plants have released so much polluted effluent, that water from the major stream flowing through the city is actually capable of causing genetic mutations. I doubt you would want to drink that water or have your children drink it, would you?

What are the alternatives?

It is obvious that being aware of these facts will not immediately put a stop to our voracious consumption, or halt the big clothing corporations from engaging in environmental and human rights abuses. However, as consumers we can start making more environmentally conscious shopping choices. One way to to do this is to buy Eco-friendly clothing from local designers, artists and small companies that follow green production practices. Also, there are various designers that produce handmade clothing, all together avoiding the negative impact on the environment that big production causes.

Some people may object that clothes made by local designers and sold online, or in boutiques are a lot more expensive than what you can buy at the Gap, and many people simply cannot afford it. While it is true that designers and artists who make the clothes with their own hands charge more, you need to ask yourself difficult question: do you really need those 10 new shirts that you just got on sale at the Gap, in addition to the 30 that are already in your closet? Instead, consider paying more for better quality clothes that do not contribute to environmental pollution, buying less, and wearing what you buy for more than one season. It may actually also save you money in the long run. The bottom line is that if you love to shop, buying something local and handmade allows you to own something unique, while supporting American small businesses, and taking a strong stance against polluting our Earth.