By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted about fashion – an industry that creates excess waste, thereby contributing to global warming and which is also notorious for exploiting its workforce, especially so for the fast fashion side.
One immediate consequence of the pandemic has been a drop in consumer spending on fashion, which caused production and profits to plummet throughout the textile and apparel industry. With many people working from home, discretionary purchases of clothing to wear to the office was not a priority, especially in the face of such an uncertain future. At this point, no one can say whether this short-term trend is temporary or permanent. The appetite of younger people for fast fashion seemingly remains unabated, but their custom alone cannot sustain the industry.
This recent Water Waste International report, How fair is fashion’s water footprint?, caught ny eye. The report tracks the global fashion industry’s destructive impacts on Africa’s water supplies and on workforce health.
Many well-known brands source textiles in Africa, including Adidas, Calvin Klein, H & M, Izod, Levis, M & S, Reebok, and Tommy Hilfiger.
According to the report:
Pre- pandemic, Africa’s fashion exports generated revenue of US$ 4.6 billion a year, a figure which exceeds the annual flow of aid into Africa from any European donor. Africa now has an important toehold in the global fashion industry that in 2019 was worth US$ 2.5 trillion and employed 75 million people.
Yet when one looks at the impact this textile production has on Africa’s water supplies, the situation is depressing. I imagine one reason producers have gravitated to Africa is because countries have lax environmental standards – which means textiles can be produced at a lower cost:
Although pockets of good practice exist, our research shows that production of clothing, including for high street brands in Europe, the UK and the USA is killing Africa’s rivers through polluting discharges of untreated industrial wastewater. We find that the sector competes with communities and nature for access to scarce water, and that in some cases, factory needs are prioritised over the human right to water. We also find that factory workers, around 80% of whom are women, often lack access to safe water, washing facilities and toilets, and that this undermines their dignity, wellbeing and health, including through exposure to Covid-19 transmission. Notably, a lack of access to clean water and toilets in the workplace is a widely recognised indicator of modern slavery.
The report is short and is well worth a read. Although much of the evidence presented is anecdotal, the report’s analysis rings true to me. I’ve visited many textile producers, mainly in India and Indonesia, as I’ve researched my book on Indian textiles and I know from my first-hand experience how thirsty textile production is – even the artisanal variety that I’ve focused on.
From the report:
Reliable water quality monitoring data is not widely available, but we find credible evidence in all countries of non-compliance with pollution control law bytextile and apparel manufacturers and impacts on human health and nature as a result of untreated wastewater discharges. The textile industry produces potentially toxic metals, dyes, bleaching agents, and other pollutants with cardiovascular, respiratory, carcinogenic, and neurotoxic impacts on human health. Without proper treatment, wastewater discharges render rivers lifeless and unfit for use. Whilst some businesses are taking a responsible approach to wastewater treatment, our case studies also show how untreated effluent from textiles manufacture has contaminated the water needed by many thousands of vulnerable people for domestic use and food production, and how downstream businesses have been forced to close as a result.
Like many such reports, this one is long on discussing the problems inherent in textile production, but when it moves to solutions, falls a bit short as It places the onus for fixing things\mainly on the industry that’s created the problem in the first place, including producers, retailers, and investors, although to be sure, mention is also made of the role consumers and governments in both producing and consuming countries might also play.
The report notes:
Multi-national companies and the investors behind them have phenomenal power to shape how water is used, and they respond to market forces, consumer demand, stakeholder, and shareholder pressure.
This statement is certainly true, but will these companies and investors use that power to force change? I don’t think so – at least not at the moment. These entities profit handsomely from the current situation.
To elaborate on what Water Waste International thinks must be done:
Our analysis shows that everyone has a role to play in ensuring that global fashion, and the cotton, textile and apparel production behind it, has a fair water footprint – so that the sector’s socio-economic benefits in Africa and elsewhere do not come at the cost of polluted rivers or the denial of human rights to workers and communities. In the following table we set outwhat producers and suppliers, brands, retailers, buyers, investors, governments in producer and consumer countries, the media, citizens and consumers can do. Water Witness and our trusted partners stand ready to help all these stakeholders to learn from our findings, and to collaborate to forge the fairer water footprints, and the fairer water future we all need.
As for specifics:
To avoid perpetual and catastrophic water crises we must ensure that our water footprint is based on sustainable and equitable water use. The production of everything we consume – must be based on good water stewardship, which means:
taking water from rivers, lakes and aquifers in step with natural replenishment to avoid resource depletion.
pollution control and treating chemicals, sewage and industrial wastewater properly to avoid resource degradation.
looking after water ecosystems and preparing for floods and drought.
realizing the human right to water, so that everyone has access to clean water, toilets and handwashing facilities.
Most of us now take access to free-flowing unlimited supplies of potable water for granted – an assumption that will soon change. In fact, the day of reckoning has already arrived in he western U.S., where drought has stressed water supplies. So reports such as these, which spotlight how we’re fouling our waters are important – as a starting point for showing what must now change.