How Much Water Did It Take To Grow Your Closet?

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Written By Aly Reinert, Edited by esa Staff

Water is everywhere. We are surrounded by bodies of it. It is the one thing we’re not surprised to see fall out of the sky. We use it every day to clean ourselves, to cook, and even flush our waste with fresh water. Water makes up 60% of our bodies, and we will die if we don’t drink it. So maybe this is why we can sometimes overlook the importance of it. It seems like water is endless and we don’t need to worry about using too much or polluting what we do have, but this is far from true. The fashion industry happens to be guilty of both.

In 2015, the fashion industry used about 79 billion cubic meters of water, aka 32 million olympic sized swimming pools. Holy Hannah!! I know. A lot of that is because of the the way we grow and manufacture cotton. It takes 20,000 liters of water to create one kg of cotton. So to make just one cotton t-shirt, it takes the same amount of water an average person would drink in 3 years. The production of cotton is also taking place in areas with high levels of water stress, making this an even larger problem. While cotton is a thirsty crop, it’s plus side is that it is a natural fiber so it will decompose faster than synthetics. Synthetic fibers have tiny pieces of plastic in them called microfibers, making them last on this earth longer. These fibers also escape into the water when we wash our clothing because washing machines lack proper filters to stop this. The fashion industry is responsible for putting the equivalent of 50 billion water bottles into the ocean per year in the form of microfibers, which are said to be almost impossible to clean up. Adding on to that, the plastic microfibers that end up in our oceans from washing our clothes are also ending up in food chains for animals and humans.

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This brings me to my next point, that water usage is only part of the problem. The other part is water pollution. The fashion industry uses harmful chemicals to dye textiles. Factories in other countries have been spotted leaking these chemicals into water streams and polluting local drinking water. Many health problems, birth defects, and even deaths have been reported due to this contamination.

Another issue we face when it comes to water is climate change. Droughts are happening all over the world because of the increasing level of greenhouse gas emissions like CO2. Sadly enough, the fashion industry causes about 5% of global emissions. This may sound small, but it is equal to that of the aviation sector. That means all planes flying in the entire world, so it is pretty significant. Climate change is a severe issue causing freshwater shortages in the US and in several other countries. People are losing access to running faucets and worrying about when their next drink of water might be. Imagine that! As a result, people are literally fighting each other for water, as it has been referred to as “blue gold”. When freshwater access is low, agricultural production decreases, which means incomes drop, food becomes more scarce, and prices in the area rise. Riots have already happened in the last 5 years in countries like Tanzania, Kenya, and Nigeria, killing over 1,000 people. Life has turned into a devastating game of survival of the fittest.

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Companies aren’t just going to stop dyeing their textiles, and we also aren’t going to stop using cotton anytime soon. So what needs to change? Quality and quantity. The amount of cheap clothing being produced annually is the real problem here, and it’s up to us to stop fueling the fast fashion monster with our money. The lifespan of each article of clothing also contributes to this problem. The ever-changing trends that companies are convincing people they need lead to the average person purchasing a new piece of crap clothing every 3-4 days. We are also keeping clothing for half the time we would have 20 years ago due to the lack of quality and loss of trend. Cheaply made clothing is bound to fall apart faster, causing people to view the clothing they buy as disposable. If we don’t change the way we view our clothing and stop our impulsive shopping habits, the water usage is bound to increase by 50% by 2030. Next time you want to buy something new, take a deep breath, think about the impact of that new piece of clothing, the lives it affects and the lives it has ended, and ask yourself if you really need it or if the beauty is honestly worth the true cost.