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The fashion industry is known to be a major contributor to water pollution, especially fast fashion. Fast fashion involves producing large quantities of cheap, trendy clothes, which are often made from synthetic materials such as polyester. The production of these materials requires huge amounts of water, energy, and chemicals, which can lead to the release of toxic substances into waterways. Additionally, the dyeing and finishing processes used to color and treat textiles can release harmful chemicals and heavy metals into the water, which can have a devastating impact on aquatic life and ecosystems. The fast fashion industry is also notorious for its unsustainable production practices, including the dumping of untreated wastewater into rivers and oceans, further contributing to water pollution. The sources of water pollution from fast fashion are numerous and complex, highlighting the urgent need for more sustainable and ethical production practices in the fashion industry.
The following is a more in depth look at the various sources of water pollution from fast fashion:
Pre-production is the preemptive planning conducted before bulk garment production. This includes designing, developing samples, approvals, sourcing materials, testing raw materials, pattern making, etc. During this stage of the clothing manufacturing process, there is a significant amount of waste and pollution emitted. A large amount of the fabric used is wasted in all stages of pre-production. This may be because of mistakes related to the type of garment, fabric design, cutting, and so much more. Beyond waste, many of the fabrics (such as cotton) are water intensive and drain water supplies from communities. The pre-production stage shows the amount of water usage, waste, and pollution created by the fashion industry before anything enters the production and manufacturing process.
Currently, the main source of water pollution is wet processing. Wet processing occurs after textile fibers are spun and woven into fabric. Fabrics are treated with chemicals, dyed, sized, stitched, and/or printed on in order to be “finished.” This stage in textile processing is very water intensive and contaminates surrounding water bodies.
This step is a major water polluter because it involves the application of a vast number of chemicals and dyes. On average, it takes nearly 8000 different synthetic chemicals to turn raw materials into a finished product, and excess water is dumped into local waterways. Globally, 20% of all water pollution stems from the dyeing of textiles. In many countries around the world, this form of pollution is unregulated and is occurring more frequently than ever.
More clothing manufacturers have shifted to using synthetic fabrics (like polyester and nylon), which are made from plastic. When these fabrics break down, they create microfibers– tiny synthetic fibers that can easily spread across water bodies. The microfibers are released throughout the article of clothing’s life, including the production process, and after they are sold. Typically, they “drop” or “fall” from clothing when it is created, worn, and washed. Essentially, when synthetic clothing is washed(such as athletic clothing), microfibers are shaken loose and slowly enter the water system. This type of pollution can take hundreds of years to decompose, which is why it disrupts marine life where it is ingested– there are some instances where these fibers are found in seafood (a process known as bioaccumulation). Microfibers play a major role in why the fashion industry is harmful to the environment.
It is estimated that nearly half a million tons of microfibers are discarded into the oceans every year, with over one-third of the fibers coming from washing synthetic clothing. Because of their size, they easily move around the world– microfibers are one hundred times finer than human hair. All over the world, there were traces of microfibers found in drinking water. In addition, these polymers are ingested by marine animals and work their way up the food chain– even into food found in our local restaurants and grocery stores.
Wastewater from synthetic fabrics is also very harmful. Arsenic, benzene, lead, and many other pollutants have been identified in water used for synthetic processing. In general, this wastewater can drastically affect photosynthetic function in plants (as this water can be absorbed by the plants) and is very lethal to marine and human life, . Specific chemicals in our drinking water or food (such as arsenic) can cause a multitude of health issues, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and early death. Unfortunately, exposure to harmful chemicals within the fast-fashion industry is standard procedure.
Clothing, especially clothing made by fast fashion companies, uses a vast amount of harmful chemicals in order to be “finished.” The chemicals are used to bleach, color, or soften clothing or make garments water-resistant or anti-wrinkle. Clothing typically is treated with chemicals, washed, then treated with chemicals, washed, and so on and so forth until the effect wanted is seen. This process contributes to the emission of over half a million tons of microfibers into waterways.
Chemicals have become more common in the manufacturing process because of their low price and relative ease (for the manufacturer, not the consumer, worker, or the earth). It takes nearly 200 tons of water to produce one ton of dyed textiles. Because of the importance of water in the production of clothing, manufacturing plants source fresh water and release their liquid waste (waste that is toxic and undrinkable) into those same water bodies. In order to have access to large amounts of fresh water, manufacturers tend to locate operations in or near waterways in developing countries as it is cheap. However, this means local communities lose vital resources (as they are dependent on these freshwater sources for food, maintaining livestock, etc.).
In some countries, there are protocols and regulations in place to prevent severe water pollution. However, many developing countries do not have protective legislation in place, and the ones that do, do not monitor water quality. The lack of enforcement and general environmental care on either side allows for damaging water pollution.
A major portion of the chemicals that are used in the production/manufacturing of fast fashion include textile dyeing. It is the biggest offender of water pollution and contamination in the fashion industry and, globally, the second biggest (overall) polluter of water.
Bright and vivid colors have become more common in our clothing, which is causing a lot of problems for the waterways as their waste is being dumped without any care. The World Bank has researched and identified over 70 toxic chemicals that have entered water bodies as a result of textile dyeing. In Bangladesh, people who live near districts where there is a lot of garment manufacturing say their water is pitch black and lacks biodiversity. Children and older people get sick very quickly if they are near this water, and many have to decide between having a steady job (at the factories) or the health of their families. Some of the health issues caused by these dyes include various forms of cancer, gastrointestinal problems, and skin irritation.
The inside of factories is also very harmful to workers' health. There are typically no safety measures in place. Gloves, safety goggles, or even masks are not provided, and shoes are rarely worn, which is dangerous because the dyes used can be very detrimental to their health. The garment workers are working in very dangerous conditions, at very low rates, in order to try and pay for their basic needs.
Landfills and Waste
Over 90 million tons of waste are produced per year, and the value of this discarded clothing totals to nearly $400 billion wasted per year. Fast fashion is a big culprit in producing waste because of the continuous release of clothing that is new and trendy. These articles of clothing are typically poorly made and easily tear or rip, decreasing their life cycle and increasing the likelihood of them ending up in landfills. The life span of clothing has been decreasing in recent decades, and the introduction of fast fashion has exponentially expedited this trend. Over 80% of textiles end up in landfills, where decomposition takes up to 200 years. Or, they are shipped and discarded in developing countries so that the physical warehouse and storefront space is available for something else.
Cotton is one of the most used natural materials in the world (over half of the textiles in the world contain cotton), and it is very water intensive. It takes anywhere from 10,000-20,000 liters of water to cultivate just one kilogram of raw cotton, based on its geographical location. Half of the cotton crops around the world cause severe strain on local water supplies and communities. The volume of the Aral Sea in Central Asia has decreased because of cotton farming irrigation practices. Many farms use pesticides and fertilizers in order to meet the high demand for cotton These methods severely damage soil quality by destroying many underground microbial communities and contaminating nearby water sources.
Cotton is the most profitable and mass-produced non-agricultural crop. Current cotton farming practices are very toxic because of synthetic chemicals such as herbicides like Glyphosate, Trifluralin, Diuron, and Parathion methyl– which can negatively affect humans and local biodiversity. It is reported that cotton farming uses 7% of herbicides, 16% of insecticides, and 4% of worldwide nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers. Nearly 7 pounds of chemicals are used to produce 2 pounds of raw cotton. Some places, such as the European Union and the United States, have regulated these harmful chemicals. However, many East Asian countries, the countries that produce the most cotton, have no regulations in place. In many of these countries, the effects of cotton farming include reduced soil fertility, increased ocean acidification, eutrophication, and, most obviously, climate change.
A more sustainable option to deal with cotton is sourcing it from certified sustainable farms, as it can lead to significantly decreasing water consumption and pesticide use. Shifting to organic cotton farming is also an option, which has the potential to save over 200 billion liters of water, and its practices emit fewer greenhouse gasses.
Lastly, deadstock is a culprit in water pollution from fast fashion. Deadstock is pre-consumer waste, which means garments that are not sold or returned are thrown in a landfill because it no longer has “space” on the shelves. The removal of deadstock (and deadstock in general) uses a lot of energy, and the material, water, and chemicals used to make the garments are wholly wasted. Many fast fashion companies (and stores that we commonly see in malls: Shein, H&M, Forever 21, Zara, etc.) have billions of dollars of deadstock at the end of every year, which typically is burned in order to reduce the physical space it takes up. H&M, for instance, uses a plant in Denmark that converts waste into energy through incineration. Even though these plants help convert waste into energy, it emits a lot of greenhouse gasses and pollutes the environment (both air and water).
Some fashion brands simply dump their deadstock waste into developing countries. A prime example of this can be seen in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Around 60,000 tons of clothing is dumped in the northern part of Chile in hopes of being sold across South America. This is clothing that was unable to be sold in Europe and America. Only ⅓ of the clothing actually makes it to other countries in the continent, and an even smaller portion is sold.
Why is this important?
It is important to know about the sources of water pollution from fast fashion because it can help raise awareness of the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry. By understanding the negative effects that fast fashion has on our water resources, we can make more informed choices as consumers and advocate for more sustainable and ethical fashion practices.
Water pollution can have severe consequences for both human health and the environment. Polluted water can lead to the spread of water-borne diseases, contaminate food supplies, and harm wildlife and ecosystems. In addition, the chemicals and pollutants released by fast fashion production can have long-term effects on the environment, including bioaccumulation in the food chain, soil contamination, and groundwater pollution.
By learning about the sources of water pollution from fast fashion, we can also support efforts to promote sustainable and ethical fashion practices. This includes advocating for better regulations and policies to protect our water resources, supporting companies that prioritize sustainable and ethical practices, and making more conscious choices as consumers, such as buying clothes made from natural and sustainable materials, buying second-hand or vintage clothing, or renting clothes instead of buying them. Overall, knowing about the sources of water pollution from fast fashion is critical to promoting a more sustainable and equitable fashion industry.
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