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Written by Helen Willard - Thursday, 25 June 2009

Water and fashion often strike images of breezy vacations at the beach, swimsuits, delicate sandals, and airy dresses. Water, though, takes on a very different meaning for those who grow the cotton that clothe our summers.

The fashion industry has a huge, tangible impact on the world’s water supply.  Growing cotton accounts for 2.6% of the world’s yearly water usage. One t-shirt made from conventional cotton represents 2700 liters of water, and a third of a pound of chemicals, which often contaminate water supplies.  The famous look and feel of cotton can come at a high price for regions that grow it, but can the fashion industry be its own savior?

Various companies support efforts to improve the water supply, both for drinking water and as a habitat.  British company Rapanui, makers of casual clothing and founded by ocean-loving surfers, has a particular focus on keeping waters clean. Rapanui hooked up with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and sponsored a beach sweep on the Isle of Wight , hauling in an amazing amount of waste, recycling what could be usable and giving the rest to a waste to power plant.  That is a real, hands-on effort that connects the company back to its aqua inspiration, bringing along locals and positive press for the ride. Today, the label continues to work with MCS, helping to raise awareness for the creation of marine reserves, which work similarly to land reserves as areas free of fishing or commercial activity, in order for critically damaged ecosystems to heal in the United Kingdom.  

Conventional cotton is chemically dependant, hooked on pesticides and fertilizers to grow, accounting for 10% of all agricultural chemicals, and 25% of all pesticides used worldwide every year. Currently, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) methods are being introduced to cotton growing regions to end the trail of drinking water contamination and other ill effects, including damaging entire ecosystems. 

The Pesticide Action Network of the United Kingdom (PAN-UK) offers a compendium of organic retailers and more information on the issue.  When purchasing, look for certified organic labels with high organic cotton content, and catch up with organic standards at the Organic Clothing blog from Lotus Organics

Organic cotton is already a star in the ethical products world, ubiquitous in ethical fashion brands, and its appeal has extended beyond – brands like Patagonia use only organic cotton, and trendy organic cotton tees have graced stores from Wal-mart to Saks Fifth Avenue.  Target showcases organic cotton yearly – this year with the power brand Loomstate. The organics industry has boomed recently and the sales of organic non-food items grew by 39.4% in 2008, much of that from organic cotton.

There is one hiccup, though.  Keeping pesticides out is, of course, great, but there are some drawbacks. Currently, organic cotton seems even thirstier than conventional cotton.  And the goal is to use less resources, not more. However, there is evidence that once fields are transitioned to organic, the need for water is lessened, and organic cotton could become a rain-fed crop in some areas.  

Alternative crops like soy, bamboo, and hemp generally require less irrigation, but the processing of each fiber varies.  Bamboo, for example, is often processed chemically, leaving the potential for pollutants to reach the water supply. It’s clear that there is a bigger picture that should be looked at, and cotton may be king yet. 

An additional part of that bigger picture is the colors and prints used.  The dyes that make the perfect pair of dark jeans can also seep into waterways.  To circumvent this, eco-brands have developed the manufacture of un-dyed clothing, or used clay, natural vegetal, or low-impact fiber-reactive dyes. A previous article from EFW documents these beautiful options.

But here’s the really good news: this is the area of fashion where you, the consumer, can make the biggest difference! Individuals can have a huge impact on the water consumption impact of clothes even after the purchase. Once you buy your clothes, you will wear them and eventually clean them many times. A whopping 75 to 80 percent of your garment’s lifecycle impact [the sum of environmental impacts caused by a product’s existence] comes from washing and drying. Greening your laundry habits can enormously multiply the effects of your smart shopping.  

Clean and Green tips include:

1. Wear it again.

Duh – wash less and you will use less.  Wearing clothes a few times before washing saves energy and water.  To remove the smoky club smell, try freezing jeans over night.  But don’t try the wear it again method with your organic cotton socks or unmentionables, please!

2. Use a smart machine.

It may be time to trade up.  The average household washes 400 loads a year using 13,500 gallons of water.  Switching to an Energy-Star rated washer can save as much as 7,000 gallons a year, or a lifetime of drinking water for six people.

3. Use a Green laundry detergent

Look for plant-based detergents that are phosphate-free, as phosphates can lead to algal blooms that damage marine eco-systems.  White vinegar in the rinse cycle can sub as a fabric softener.  The acid vinegar also neutralizes the basic detergents, helping to get the soap out of the clothes, leaving fluffy goodness behind. 

4. Or make a DIY laundry soap.

The ingredients can be found in a grocery store, it’s cheap, and after a quick mix on your stovetop, you can have a custom blend of laundry detergent with your own bouquet of beautiful smelling essential oils.  A blogger favorite, there are tons of how-to guides on the web, and a list of recipes can be found at TipNut.  

5. Maximize efficiency.

Wash on the cold cycle—the clothes will still get clean, we promise—and only wash full loads.  If you must wash a partial load now, remember to use all the knobs on the machine, and select a smaller size load.  Consider hanging out at a Laundromat as the machines are generally more energy and resource efficient – and you never know who you might meet.  There’s even a solar powered Laundromat in Chicago. And finally, air dry clothes if possible.


Comments (4)Add Comment
written by Katrina, July 05, 2009
Just wanted to suggest a green laundry detergent called Grab Green. www.GrabGreenHome.com. Works well, convenient, all natural, and uses less packaging and cuts down on waste. It comes in mini pacs that dissolve even in cold water. Super easy!
Non sense ! Organic cotton uses MUCH less water than "conventional" !!
written by Paul Boyer, July 09, 2009
Writing "Currently, organic cotton seems even thirstier than conventional cotton." Is a total nonsense.
Water supply is scarce, and we need to properly understand what we are talking about. The "use" of water is what transform usable water into non-usable water.
Of course, the water poured onto cotton fields, organic or not, is a use of water, but it is not the only one.

* Water polluted by dangerous pesticides are not usable anymore. In areas where a lot of cotton is grown with a very heavy use of pesticides, many water reserves are getting polluted fast, and this will last for long. These huge amounts of polluted water should be accounted for when writing about the use of water by organic or non organic farming.
* Water needed to produce, transport and spread the pesticides and other chemicals used for non-organic cotton farming should be taken into account.
* Water is highly costy to transport. Therefore, is is a common non-sense to compare water in Africa or water in Canada or England. Common sense should make it clear that saving a liter of water in Quebec will not make one liter more of water available in West Africa. Organic farming is using such common sense more than non-organic, and there is no such things as organic farming in irrigated deserts, while there is such things in non-organic.
* Last but not least, organic cotton farming is done using traditional cotton varieties that comply with local climate, and need less water where water supply is scarce. On the other end, non-organic cotton is mostly GMO, and GMO varieties are developed in labs at high costs and are the same varieties worldwide (same for non-GMO non-organic species to a lesser extent), therefore not well adapted to specific local climatic conditions. They are therefore much more prone to higher irrigation needs than varieties used in organic farming.

Nota: I don't use "conventional" to designate non-organic farming, because there is nothing like any convention signed between the pro-chemicals agro-industry and us -the people- that would allow for the massive use of dangerous pesticides. In the lack of such a convention, the tradition should be used as such. As the use of chemicals is very recent compared to cotton farming history, "Conventional" should therefore be for organic farming (which is traditional), while "non-conventional" should be for cultures using modern chemicals, GMO, and other means of farming that have no traditions behind them.
Project GreenBag
written by Manuel, August 13, 2009
I am the founder of Project GreenBag. We create cool eco-friendly shopping bags
We use certified organic cotton from seed to final product. Organic cotton uses a fraction of the water to grow since it is not being sprayed with pesticides etc.

Check us out! www.projectgreenbag.com

More than Cotton, Hemp or Bamboo to Choose From
written by Robin Bertelsen, September 09, 2009
While those of us in the textile and fashion industry know how much water is used to grow cotton or other natural fibers, I think the public is only just starting to hear, much less digest the fact that water scarcity is an issue and agriculture (including cotton) accounts for 70+% of all water use.

I work with a few companies who are extremely concerned about this and are finding ways to provide great, chic, fun, reasonably priced clothing from recycled plastic. Just last week I was able to get one of A Lot To Say's new rPET t-shirts (http://alottosay.com) and I was amazed at how soft it feels. I would suggest to others, learn more about the facts and ask the stores where you shop to provide alternatives to traditional cotton.

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