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Water and the Fashion Industry

Anindita Rajesh

Consumerism booms at the end of the year, from Black Friday shopping to purchasing

holiday gifts. This, coupled with the need to consistently purchase everyday items, has caused consumer demand to spike, and companies must in turn increase their supply. Specifically, demand within the fashion industry has risen significantly. This poses an issue as the industry is one of the most water-intensive. Currently, approximately 4% of global freshwater extraction is attributed to the fashion industry, and this number is predicted to double by 2030.¹ While 4% may seem small, there is a large overlap between the countries in which the majority of factories are located, and the countries facing water scarcity, so a rise in clothing production will only exacerbate water stress if consumption practices are not changed.

Image from Unsplash

How does the fashion industry impact water sources?

When looking at water consumption within the fashion industry, it is important to consider the entire supply chain. In the 1990s, polyester became the most commonly used textile fiber, surpassing the use of cotton. Currently, 62% of clothing is made using synthetic fibers, while about 24% is made from cotton.²

Synthetic fibers are derived from fossil fuels and are relatively cheap to produce,

allowing companies to keep up with fashion trends. However, synthetic fiber production

contributes largely to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air and water pollution.³ In terms of the actual production process, the inputs are crude oil, energy, and chemical reagents. Factory runoff not only contributes to chemical contamination within freshwater sources, but also increases eutrophication rates. Eutrophication contaminates water sources, but also can lead to algal blooms, and consequently hypoxia, making it difficult for aquatic organisms to survive. This then puts a strain on the food chain, as animals and humans who rely on aquatic organisms for food must find a new foraging ground.⁴ The use of these fibers in textile materials causes similar environmental harm, with additional water contamination being caused by microplastics, and toxins in production waste.⁵ Freshwater sources with these pollutants are either no longer able to be used by local communities, or can cause severe illnesses such as cholera, diarrhea, and even cancer if continued to be used.⁶ This pollution continues to compound, as emissions from transport leech into waterways, and the continual use and washing of clothing increases microplastic pollution into freshwater sources.

Cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops. For cotton growth, many fields are not

located in rain-fed areas, which increases the need for irrigation and the depletion of

groundwater sources, often increasing water stress in regions already facing scarcity.⁷ This issue is further exacerbated due to recent climate change patterns yielding severe droughts and intense flash-flooding, leading to inconsistent water availability for farming. Additionally, insecticides and pesticides are applied to many cotton fields, further increasing chemical leeching into waterways.⁸ Following the growing and harvesting of cotton, it is spun and woven, then undergoes a process known as “wet processing”. During this stage, chemicals are combined with water for use in dyeing and printing. The remaining water is then often dumped into surface water sources, increasing pollution.⁹ However, unlike clothing made from synthetic fibers, cotton clothing is more durable and long-lasting, and does not cause microplastic pollution during consumer use.¹⁰

What is being done to mitigate the environmental impacts?

Currently, only a few options have been developed. Factories are developing membrane

filtration systems to filter wastewater.¹¹ This water is then combined with clean freshwater

sources and distributed to local communities, or recycled within factories. Additionally, farmers are working towards implementing drip-irrigation and micro-irrigation practices on cotton fields, and minimizing chemical use. A switch to organic cotton farming is also being made.¹² Lastly, a procedure known as Recover Cotton is emerging. Using this technology, raw materials can be upcycled and colored fibers from unwanted clothing can be recycled, to develop new textiles without the need for farming and dyeing.¹³

1 “The Issues: Water,” Common Objective, accessed December 4, 2022,

2 “What Are Our Clothes Made From?,” Common Objective, accessed December 4, 2022,

3 European Environment Agency, “PDF,” January 28, 2021.

4 “Synthetic Fiber - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics,” accessed December 4, 2022,

5 European Environment Agency.

6 Li Lin, Haoran Yang, and Xiaocang Xu, “Effects of Water Pollution on Human Health and Disease Heterogeneity:

A Review,” Frontiers in Environmental Science 10 (2022),

7 “The Issues.”

8 “What to Do About Microfibres in Clothing,” Good On You (blog), October 28, 2021,


9 “Textile Wet Processing - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics,” accessed December 4, 2022,

10 Catherine Salfino, “How Natural Fibers Can Help to Protect the Planet’s Oceans From Microplastic Pollution,”

Sourcing Journal (blog), March 19, 2020,


11 “Water Reuse in the Textile Industry,” accessed December 4, 2022,

12 “The Issues.”

13 F. A. Esteve-Turrillas and M. de la Guardia, “Environmental Impact of Recover Cotton in Textile Industry,”

Resources, Conservation and Recycling 116 (January 1, 2017): 107–15,

Disclaimer: All information, content and materials on this blog are for general information purposes only. Any opinion expressed by the author is not necessarily the opinion of Penn Club H2O or University of Pennsylvania.

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