Water, Food Security and the Challenges of the Fashion Industry

The link between clothing, consumerism and sustainability

Cotton farmers in South India. Photo by jankie via Flickr.

Cotton farmers in South India. Photo by jankie via Flickr.

Will fashion cause food scarcity? This is one of the many questions that The Guardian has been trying to answer in its highly popular sustainable business blog.

As climate change increases variability in agricultural production, food crops are competing more and more for water and space against more valuable crops. Cotton, for example, which is produced in great quantities for the textile industry, occupies more than 20 million hectares globally in comparison with the 16 million hectares destined to grow food. Cotton is not only displacing food crops, it is driving price spikes in places where people are already struggling to afford food. Thus, it is very likely that the cotton t-shirt we are wearing today has been produced out of unsustainably grown cotton, and has caused the displacement of food crops – and perhaps hunger – to someone in the world.

Apart from the challenges associated with unequal land distribution and food crop displacement, there are numerous other factors that need to be taken into account, such as the main engine of agriculture: water. It takes approximately 2,000 litres of water to produce one t-shirt. To those two thousand litres, we need to add the amount that will be used to wash that t-shirt during its lifetime, the energy utilised to dry it, and the social and environmental impacts associated with its manufacturing and commercialisation, such as child labour and the use of toxic chemicals to dye fabrics. All of these factors need to be multiplied by the number of t-shirts we own. It is then that the plot thickens.

So how can we produce all those fashion items that we love so much in a socially and environmentally responsible way? Until recently, the link between supply chains, the final product, and consumers has been alarmingly under-analysed, especially in the fashion industry, which generates one trillion dollars per year, millions of jobs, and is one of the most relevant industries in terms of economic growth. Yet the fashion industry is also the third most water-intensive; it is poorly regulated, and is generally ignored by academia, politicians, science, and consumers themselves. On the other hand, if changed, the fashion industry is one of the few that could quickly and effectively improve natural resources management. Fashion’s big players can help assert pressure over governments and the financial sector, and motivate consumers to adopt more responsible social and environmental practices.

The social and environmental challenges faced by the fashion industry are enormous. A report published by Greenpeace in 2012 highlighted the lack of regulation regarding the discharge of toxic chemicals into the rivers of the Chinese province of Zhejiang. The province is base to more than 9,000 textile manufacturers whose main clients are big fashion brands like Levi Strauss & Co, Zara, H&M, Limited, Express, Nike, Adidas and Esprit. In 2013, the tragic news of the death of 96 workers due to a collapse in one of Primark’s factories brought even more attention to the lack of sector regulation. This year, GAP was also targeted by Greenpeace, which blamed the brand for polluting the Indonesian river Citarum with chemicals that cause hormonal disruption and bioaccumulation in a great number of species. The GAP scandal motivated Greenpeace to launch “Detox”, an international campaign that challenges big fashion brands to adopt more stringent environmental commitments, such as reducing to zero the use of toxic chemicals in textile production by 2020.

Probably one of the most effective ways to reduce the social and environmental impacts associated with the fashion industry is through voluntary certification. But compared to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – the schemes created to regulate the forestry or palm oil industries – there are very few voluntary certification schemes available for the fashion industry.

One of the few available schemes is the Better Cotton Initiative, created to reduce the social and environmental impacts associated with cotton production. The initiative is supported by important brands such as H&M and Adidas, and seeks to guarantee that all supply chain actors comply with strict social and environmental standards. This includes making sure that producers are not violating human rights, and using the right amount of water to grow cotton, as well as regulating the companies that sell t-shirts in New York, Paris or London, and elsewhere.

There are other interesting ventures seeking to spark further debate around the challenges faced by the fashion industry. “Visioning Fashion in 2025”, an initiative supported by Levi Strauss & Co and Forum for the Future and implemented in coordination with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, is working on identifying global scenarios to achieve a more sustainable fashion industry. Although these initiatives have really helped improve our understanding of the key challenges and achieved successful buy-in from major sector players, in reality, most of the substantial changes have been triggered by civil society action and consumers themselves demanding for more transparency and accountability.

So, what can we do as consumers to guarantee that the t-shirts we wear have a lower environmental and social impact? First, we must understand that the price of a product containing certified materials will inevitably be higher than that of a garment that is produced out of forced labour and the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. Second, we need to demand sustainability commitments from brands like Zara, that go beyond packing our purchases in a recycled paper bag. If Zara set itself more ambitious sustainability targets, it could actually position itself as a change-maker in the sector. Third, we need to modify our consumption patterns. Buying high-quality products that are usually sold at a higher price is usually the way to go. “Fast fashion” or the current tendency to shop low-quality and almost disposable items (e.g. buy a cheap t-shirt and go back to the same store to buy another one in a month or so), is not sustainable and is driving major social and environmental risks. Recycling and re-using is a much more responsible practice, and (thank goodness) is already a trend in some of the biggest fashion capitals in the world like New York and London.

Let’s ask ourselves constantly if the person that sewed the button on our pants was paid a fair price to do so, or if that person died in the collapse of an unregulated factory somewhere in Bangladesh. Let’s ask ourselves if the cotton utilised to produce our t-shirt comes from a Better Cotton Initiative certified producer, or if it was obtained from a mismanaged plantation that is likely to be promoting food insecurity somewhere in India. Let’s ask ourselves what is actually cheaper: buying the same t-shirt over and over again, or investing a bit more in a higher-quality product that will last longer. Let’s ask ourselves if our red t-shirt is also dying a river in the Chinese province of Zhejiang.

Paulina Villalpando holds an MSc in Environmental Change and Management from Oxford University. She is  Executive Director of the accessories brand PAAR.