Water. Our lives depend on it. It’s so plentiful that the Earth is sometimes called the blue planet – but freshwater is a remarkably finite resource that is not evenly distributed everywhere or to everyone. The number of people on our planet is growing fast, and our water use is growing even faster. About 1 billion people lack access to potable water, and about 5 million people die each year from poor drinking water, or poor sanitation often resulting from water shortage – that’s 10 times the number of people killed in wars around the globe. And the blues singers got it right: you don’t miss your water till the well runs dry.
I just discovered that the word “rival” comes from the Latin (rivalis) meaning those who share a common stream. The original meaning, apparently, was closer to our present word for companion, but as words have a way of doing, the meaning became skewed to mean competition between those seeking a common goal.
This concept – competition between those seeking a common goal – will soon turn again to water, since water, as they say, is becoming the “next oil”; there’s also talk of “water futures” and “water footprints” – and both governments and big business are looking at water (to either control it or profit from it). Our global water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and it’s still growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase. The pressure is on.
Note: There are many websites and books which talk about the current water situation in the world, please see our bibliography which is at the bottom of this post.
What does all this have to do with fabrics you buy?
The textile industry uses vast amounts of water throughout all processing operations. Almost all dyes, specialty chemicals and finishing chemicals are applied to textiles in water baths. Most fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, bleaching and mercerizing, use water. And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used in that step before moving on to the next step. The water used is usually returned to our ecosystem without treatment – meaning that the wastewater which is returned to our streams contains all of the process chemicals used during milling. This pollutes the groundwater. As the pollution increases, the first thing that happens is that the amount of useable water declines. But the health of people depending on that water is also at risk, as is the health of the entire ecosystem.
When we say the textile industry uses a lot of water, just how much is a lot? One example we found: the Indian textile industry uses 425,000,000 gallons of water every day  to process the fabrics it produces. Put another way, it takes about 20 gallons of water to produce one yard of upholstery weight fabric. If we assume one sofa uses about 25 yards of fabric, then the water necessary to produce the fabric to cover that one sofa is 500 gallons. Those figures vary widely, however, and often the water footprint is deemed higher. The graphic here is from the Wall Street Journal, which assigns 505 gallons to one pair of Levi’s 501 jeans :
The actual amount of water used is not really the point, in my opinion. What matters is that the water used by the textile industry is not “cleaned up” before they return it to our ecosystem. The textile industry’s chemically infused effluent – filled with PBDEs, phthalates, organochlorines, lead and a host of other chemicals that have been proven to cause a variety of human health issues – is routinely dumped into our waterways untreated. And we are all downstream.
The process chemicals used by the mills are used on organic fibers just as they’re used on polyesters and conventionally produced natural fibers. Unless the manufacturer treats their wastewater – and if they do they will most assuredly let you know it, because it costs them money – then we have to assume the worst. And the worst is plenty bad. So just because you buy something made of “organic X”, there is no assurance that the fibers were processed using chemicals that will NOT hurt you or that the effluent was NOT discharged into our ecosystem, to circulate around our planet.
You might hear from plastic manufacturers that polyester has virtually NO water footprint, because the manufacturing of the polyester polymer uses very little water – compared to the water needed to grow or produce any natural fiber. That is correct. However, we try to remind everyone that the production of a fabric involves two parts:
- The production of the fiber
- The weaving of the fiber into cloth
The weaving portion uses the same types of process chemicals – same dyestuffs, solubalisers and dispersents, leveling agents, soaping, and dyeing agents, the same finishing chemicals, cationic and nonionic softeners, the same FR, soil and stain, anti wrinkling or other finishes – and the same amount of water and energy. And recycled polyesters have specific issues:
- The base color of the recycled polyester chips vary from white to creamy yellow, making color consistency difficult to achieve, particularly for the pale shades. Some dyers find it hard to get a white, so they’re using chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base.
- Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it difficult to get good batch-to-batch color consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, another very high energy process. Re-dyeing contributes to high levels of water, energy and chemical use.
- Unsubstantiated reports claim that some recycled yarns take almost 30% more dye to achieve the same depth of shade as equivalent virgin polyesters.
- Another consideration is the introduction of PVC into the polymer from bottle labels and wrappers.
So water treatment of polyester manufacturing should be in place also. In fact there is a new standard called the Global Recycle Standard, which was issued by Control Union Certifications. The standard has strict environmental processing criteria in place in addition to percentage content of recycled product – it includes wastewater treatment as well as chemical use that is based on the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Oeko-Tex 100.
And to add to all of this, Maude Barlow, in her new book, Blue Covenant (see bibliography below) argues that water is not a commercial good but rather a human right and a public trust. These mills which are polluting our groundwater are using their corporate power to control water they use – and who gives them that right? If we agree that they have the right to use the water, shouldn’t they also have an obligation to return the water in its unpolluted state? Ms. Barlow and others around the world are calling for a UN covenant to set the framework for water a a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity, and the legal groundwork for a just system of distribution.
Ground water and drinking water: http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw000/faq/faq.html
New York Times series, Toxic Waters: http://projects.nytimes.com/toxic-waters
Barlow, Maude, “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water”, The New Press, 2008
Water Footprint Network: http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/home
Tackling the Big Three (air and water pollution, and sanitation), David J. Tenenbaum, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 106, Number 5, May 1998.
 Kirby, Alex, “Water Scarcity: A Looming Crisis?”, BBC News Online
 CSE study on pollution of Bandi river by textile industries in Pali town, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, May 2006 and “Socio-Economic, Environmental and Clean Technology Aspects of Textile Industries in Tiruppur, South India”, Prakash Nelliyat, Madras School of Economics.
 Alter, Alexandra, “Yet Another Footprint to worry about: Water”, Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2009
 “Reduce, re-use,re-dye?”, Phil Patterson, Ecotextile News, August/September 2008