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From Cotton Seed to Blue Jeans…How the Apparel Industry is Conserving Water

According to the United Nations, in just 15 years we will have a 40% deficit of global fresh water. Industrial demand for water is expected to increase 400% by 2050.  And with our world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, agricultural resource needs will increase by 60% globally. 

This means that all industries need to be focused on how they can conserve water resources.  The textile/apparel industry is one that has significant water needs if it is to produce the 400 billion square meters of fabric used annually for clothing.

Cotton production is huge consumer of water, taking 3% of all the water used in agriculture. This is important because 50% of all textiles are made of cotton. Textile processes like dying and finishing also consume massive amounts of water. Consider this: it takes 2700 liters of water to make one t-shirt; that’s enough drinking water for one person for two and a half years! That’s one shirt, and over 2 billion are sold globally every year.

There are many initiatives under way that are helping conserve the use of fresh water.  The textile/apparel industry is taking note and making changes.

Sustainable Cotton Reduces Water Use

There are many companies that are using cotton grown using more sustainable methods. There are a number of organizations that work with both farmers and industry to make sustainable cotton a mainstream commodity:

  • Cotton Today (under the umbrella of Cotton Incorporated) is developing new ways to grow, process, and manufacture cotton using less water. They are working with researchers to develop new growing and irrigation methods.
  • Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) works holistically on sustainability by developing environmental, social, and economic standards. They work to improve both the lives of cotton farmers as well as cotton production. The average water savings from growing cotton using BCI standards is 20%. Many companies including Nike, Adidas and Levi Strauss & Co. use BCI standards.
  • Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA) focuses on improving living conditions for African smallholder farmers.  CMiA educates farmers on environmentally friendly cultivation methods.  These methods increase cotton yields and quality while minimizing the environmental and health impacts. This creates more income for farmers and their families. Cotton cultivated using CMiA methods saves approximately 18,000 liters of water per kg of cotton lint.
  • Cotton Connect is helping increase the use of sustainable cotton by connecting farmers, manufacturers, and retailers through its sustainable supply chain.

These organizations are helping reduce water use while at the same time tackling many other sustainability issues.

Reducing Textile Manufacturing Process Water

Another area where new technologies are helping conserve water is in the textile processing.  It takes approximately 100-150 liters of water to process one kg of fabric.  New dying technologies have been developed to reduce water usage.

DyeCoo is a dying technology that uses zero water and no process chemicals.  They use reclaimed CO2 as the dying medium. No process chemicals mean no wastewater is created and 95% of the CO2 is recycled.  Nike, Adidas, and Peak Performance are using DyeCoo for product lines.

AirDye, a technology created by Colorep, Inc., is a synthetic fabric dying and printing technology that doesn’t use water.  The technology injects dye into heated fabrics in the form of a gas.  Using AirDye saves up to 95% percent of the water, 86% of the energy, and 84% of the greenhouse gases used or created in convention dying and printing methods.

ColorZen, a cationic technology for cotton fiber, saves 90% of water and uses no chemicals.  With this technology, cotton fibers are treated before being made into yarn and fabric. They can be dyed using half the amount of dyestuff and no salt or alkali.

Other methods are also being pursued to save water.  Levi Strauss & Co. has created its Water<Lessfinishing technique which saves 96% of the water used in the denim finishing process.  They have made this innovation publicly available to encourage other companies to use this technology.  They also saved 30 million liters of fresh water through their Water Recycling and Reuse Standard.

There are also many facilities using rainwater harvesting systems and effluent treatment plants to recycle water in manufacturing.  Gupta Exim, an Indian fabric manufacturer, recycles and reuses more than 75% of their wastewater through their in-house effluent treatment plant.

We, as consumers, also have to take part in conserving water.  Levi’s CEO Charles V. Bergh brought awareness to the issue by encouraging consumers to wash their jeans once every 10 wears.  Their Care Tag for the Planet, which is sewn into every pair of jeans, encourages consumers to adopt care methods that use less energy and water.

Our purchasing choices can also make a difference.  We could all actively use our buying power to support companies that are pursuing the methods mentioned here.  Purchasing one water-saving t-shirt instead of three with unknown impacts is one small thing you can do for the planet!

If you are in the textile/apparel industry, check out our online sustainability management platform. We have lots of industry-specific education, project ideas, and action plans for managing a great sustainability program.  Get started with a free demo today.