Valuing Water + How the Fashion Industry Doesn’t

Valuing Water and how the Fashion Industry Doesn't title image

Written by Katie Elizabeth Robinson

Happy World Water Day!

Why, you may ask, is there an international awareness day entirely for water? In our everyday access to it we perhaps forget to value it for the beautiful and vital resource that it is. For those of us with this unimpeded access, we only tend to realise it’s essential worth when a local pipe bursts or our housemate starts washing their dishes when we’re in the shower. It’s also tricky to contemplate water shortages when we live on a blue planet. Here are a few statistics from @queerbrownvegan and @nebiainc to help put it into context:

  • 71% of the Earth’s surface is water.
  • Around 97% of that is contained in our oceans which, as we all know, is too salty.
  • That leaves 3% of all of earth’s water safe for human consumption.
  • 2% of this is trapped in glaciers, ice caps and snowy mountain ranges (which is a brilliant thing as we need these guys to reflect sunlight back out of the earth’s atmosphere and keep global temperatures in check!)

So whilst the surface of our planet is more water than land, only 1% of it is available freshwater and it is in crisis:

  • Climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather conditions such as droughts and flooding. Droughts pose an obvious threat to new water supplies whilst flooding can completely destroy or contaminate existing ones, posing greater threats of disease such as cholera and typhoid.
  • Devastatingly, 2.2 billion people are without access to safe water today and growing populations now compete for these scarce resources which can also lead to conflict.
  • If declining resources wasn’t enough, our global industrial practices abuse what water we have left and it is in areas already experiencing the most severe water-stress that industrial production often takes place, further polluting their declining freshwater resources.

Number 6 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, Clean Water and Sanitation, is committed to tackling this and ensuring safe water for all by 2030. There is much to be done to get there, such as reducing global pollution, protecting and reviving ecosystems and working with communities to improve local water management. Our role in this may seem a little daunting but our small actions, when multiplied by millions can have a huge positive impact on freshwater resources, like taking shorter showers and fixing leaking taps in our house. Perhaps one of the biggest things you can reconsider today though is in your wardrobe (or floordrobe, no judgements here). 

As Vogue themselves say, ‘Fashion is undoubtedly a thirsty industry’, devouring 93 billion cubic meters of water annually. This is enough to meet the water consumption needs of 5 million people! 

The production of anything new is inherently resource intensive. For example, the production of one cotton t-shirt consumes 2,720 litres of water but it is in the current linear system of the Fashion Industry specifically that this is so reckless. The global economy is driven by mass-production, regardless of the market demand for such items and so we produce more than we consume, throwing an estimated 336,000 tonnes of clothing in the bin, in the UK alone, every year. If you were thinking of buying some new t-shirts before you read this, one easy step you can take is to look out for Fairtrade and organic labels as according to Hubbub, organic cotton consumes an incredible 91% less water than conventional cotton in the growing process.

Beyond ingesting unfathomably large quantities of water (and many other raw materials), textile production also discharges hazardous chemicals into our water systems. Thanks to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s proposal for a New Textiles Economy, we now know that 20% of all global industrial water pollution stems from the dyeing and treatment of textiles. They also estimate that during the washing of plastic-based textiles such as polyester, the Fashion Industry sheds around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres a year, making it a major contributor to the growing plastic content in our oceans.

Currently, the Fashion Industry, like many others, neither values nor safeguards water and this is what United Nations Water (UN-Water), the interagency network coordinating international efforts to tackle the water and sanitation crisis, brings attention to today.

The very first World Water Day dates back to 1993 and it only takes a quick glance at their archive of past themes to see how water is interconnected with all aspects of environmental and social justice. Water performs many roles in our lives from serving everyday physical needs to watering all the houseplants we impulse bought over lockdown. It can embody cultural and spiritual value contributing to our sense of community, belonging and mental wellbeing and without it, we wouldn’t even exist.

However you engage with it, UN-Water asks that we consider and share our thoughts today on what water means to us.

"By recording - and celebrating - all the different ways water benefits our lives, we can value water properly and safeguard it effectively for everyone." 

UN-Water

They’re not the only ones elevating the value of water either. In 2017, the Whanganui River in New Zealand was granted legal personhood, recognising it as a living being: a thing to be respected and protected. Any abuse now inflicted upon the river is seen as a threat to the communities it sustains and the river can legally sue the perpetrator. Many other countries have followed suit and in 2019, all rivers in Bangladesh were granted these same legal rights. Progressive legal cases such as this shift the dominant paradigm that humans are somehow separable from nature, and instead highlight how we must care for our environments so they can continue to nurture us.

You may not have a body of water you want to declare legal rights for (yet), but UN-Water wants to hear from you. Listen to how others have responded and use #Water2me on your socials to share your own story. These will be collated in the United Nations World Water Development Report 2021 which will go on to form policy recommendations for global decision-makers.

If you’re feeling motivated by World Water Day, check out our previous blog post on Going Green in 2021 for 5 easy ways you can make sustainable fashion choices, such as opting for secondhand. We said it then and we’ll say it again, we understand if you can’t break up with Fast Fashion just yet though so try buying only what you need and really value it by holding on to it for as long as possible. 

As you’ve come this far, how about joining the Rental Revolution? By renting, you’re not buying new so can sidestep all of that water-guilt! Where our responsibility does lie as renters, is in the washing of the garments between wearers. One Wear Freedom has partnered with 1StopWash Laundry + Dry Cleaning to ensure all our clothes are washed with the most eco-friendly and environmentally safe cleaning practices in the industry, using biodegradable, health-friendly, non-toxic detergents: we’d hardly call The Thames fresh, but at least we’re not adding to the pollution in London! They also use 20% less water and 50% less energy than traditional dry cleaning. Check out our Circular Economy to find out more ways we are dedicated to restoring Mother Nature and have a lovely World Water Day.


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