Reduce Your Wardrobe’s Water Footprint


The fashion industry is facing many challenges, but one of the most pressing issues is water usage.  The textile industry is the third largest consumer and polluter of the world’s water. Water consumption is a huge problem for growing fibers such as the ever-thirsty cotton plant, with nearly 400 gallons of water required to produce just one cotton t-shirt.

Waste water is conceivably an even bigger issue than consumption. Toxic chemicals produced from dyeing textiles, along with other chemicals such as those used to produce synthetics, are contributing to a major crisis in pollution of fresh water, affecting the health of a number of species, including humans.  (Read The Consequences of Chemicals, Future Fashion White Papers).

Heavy metals such as chromium and cadmium, which are used to make bright and vibrant dyes, pose a threat wherever they appear in a product lifestyle, particularly the use of the dye in dye wastewater. Air Dye is a revolutionary technology that dyes textiles without using any water. Not only are they reducing the overall amount of water required to produce a garment, but this technology also prevents toxic chemicals from entering our ecosystems.

Some manufacturers work in closed-loop production, which means that the waste or effluent produced is treated and re-used, reducing the amount of toxic waste normally disposed of into the ecosystem.  The company Lenzing is a great example, with their fabrics modal and  tencel, made from a wood pulp much like bamboo (which has yet to be manufactured in a closed-loop environment).

But so much attention has been given to the energy, chemicals and water that go into making a garment that what many people don’t realize is the majority of the environmental damage comes once a garment has been purchased. The energy and water required to wash a garment has far more devastating effects than the growing of the raw materials and the manufacturing of the textiles. Surprising? Not really when you consider that the average piece of clothing lasts three years, and is laundered hundreds of times in its lifetime.

The average North American household washes 400 loads of laundry per year. This accumulated number of washes requires 13,500 gallons of water to complete, and is equivalent to how much water it takes to fill a standard above-ground pool!

The first steps towards recovering from our water addiction begin with wearing our clothes several times before washing. But once we get to a full laundry basket that is truly in need of a wash, there are a few basic tips to help you get started on eco-friendly and budget-smart laundering habits.

1) Wash your clothes in cold water: An interesting fact – using only hot water for washing your clothes uses more electricity in a year than leaving the refrigerator door open 24 hours a day for an entire year. Cold water is the best alternative, as it not only reduces fabric shrinkage, but it allows colors to remain vibrant. So your clothes will fit and last longer AND you’ll reduce your carbon emissions by 500 pounds a year!

2) Wash full loads: Washing machines are most efficient when operating at capacity. Take advantage of your washing machine’s full potential and load it up. Your budget will thank you for it.

3) Use the right amount and type of detergent: When doing a load of laundry do you use the cap size as an indicator of the amount of detergent you should use? If so, odds are you are using way too much laundry detergent than what is actually needed. The amount you use should reflect the guiding lines on the inside of the cap. Here’s a great article on Treehugger with more information.

Another helpful hint is to look for phosphate-free detergents. Phosphates are the leading chemical agent in algal blooms and a major cause of aquatic ecosystem depletion. Also, instead of fabric softeners, try using white vinegar in the rinse cycle. The acid vinegar will neutralize the basic detergents and as a result will help keep your clothes looking clean.

4) Consider an Energy-Star rated washer: Gone are the days of scrubbing our laundry by hand down at the lake. If you’re in the market to replace your washing machine, consider a more cost effective one. An Energy-Star or front-loading washing machine can save thousands of liters of water a year and be 30 – 85% more energy efficient.

Image above from Costello Tagilapietra’s 2009 show at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week featuring Air Dye technology.

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