March 03, 2017
World Water Day, on 22 March every year, is about taking action to tackle the water crisis. Fresh water, the most important resource for humankind, cross-cuts all social, economic and environmental activities. It is a condition for all life on our planet, an enabling or limiting factor for any social and technological development, a possible source of welfare or misery, cooperation or conflict. World Water Day is celebrating water as well as highlighting water related challenges. Today, there are over 663 million people living without a safe water supply close to home, spending countless hours queuing or trekking to distant sources, and coping with the health impacts of using contaminated water. Please take time to learn more and take action. On Sunday, I learned about a notable effort based here in Milwaukee that is also worth examining: Global Partners: Running Waters.
The Human Right to Water, formally recognized by the United Nations in 2010, clarifies that it is the responsibility of companies to ensure their operations do not infringe upon the right of individuals to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water. This right is further buttressed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6, which calls for global water quality to be improved by reducing pollution and minimizing the release of hazardous chemicals.
Given its scale, the garment industry has a massive impact on global water quality. Our clothing requires enormous amounts of water. A simple t-shirt needs 700 gallons of water to make, and a pair of jeans require 1,000 gallons. Our leather products– those comfortable shoes next to your bed, that favorite purse or coat– have polluted India’s rivers with emissions of chromium and animal feces. Today, I am wearing a shirt manufactured in Indonesia, a land wear 200 textile mills and garment factories contribute to the “Death of the Citarum River.”
As the garment industry went off shore, it went to countries less equipped and less regulated in the proper handling and disposal of the chemicals and by-products of the garment industry. In some places the effects have been devastating. The documentary “The True Cost” vividly depicts the health effects from the cotton industry (in Texas and India) as well as the impact of the dyes and chemicals in the apparel and footwear factories.
Finally, each time we wash our clothes, our synthetic materials put out roughly 700,000 microplastic fibers that eventually make their way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to a study from the International Union for Conservation of Nature released in February. While much remains unknown at this point, consumer products, including synthetic clothing, could contribute up to 30 percent of global ocean pollution and, in many developing countries, are destroying marine life habitats.
While the total environmental effects of the garment industry are difficult to quantify as it has not been subjected to sufficient research, it is patently clear that tackle global water problems undoubtedly also means tackling our fashion problem. Our clothes, as currently made, harm global water supplies. Real engagement in these issues from the fashion industry could make a significant contribution to global water quality. Our health, our future, demands that we try.