Swimming Against the Mainstream Fashion Current

Fact: It takes over 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make 1 pair of jeans, and over 400 gallons of water to make one t-shirt.

The water crisis conversation is growing exponentially. Fears of losing access to potable water face a growing number of people across the globe. In fact, it’s expected that two-thirds of the world’s people will run short of fresh drinking H20 by 2025. So, in just over a decade, it’s possible that 75% of the globe’s population might not have access to clean drinking water. What does fashion have to do with this? A lot.

As a $450 billion global industry, only half of 1% of those garments are created in a way that attempts to respect people and the environment. When the majority of the garment industry production happening in an “unsustainable” way, their unfortunate use of dirty chemicals is leading to toxic runoff that flows into rivers, lakes, and streams and diminishes the world’s fresh water.

In textile production, the dyeing and finishing stages typically require high water and chemical use. According to Global Action Through Fashion, the majority of compounds used for applying color are highly carcinogenic or otherwise toxic, and those chemicals generally are discharged into nearby waterways. Brooklyn, New York was a hub for textile manufacturing and dying back in the 1920s and 30s. Josh Verlean, Staff Attorney and Chief Investigator for Riverkeeper tells EcoSalon that before the Clean Water Act amendments of 1977, the colors of the Hudson River were often stained by automobile dyes or textile dyeing; the water would reflect the colors that specific dye houses were processing that day. Much of the dyeing process for larger companies has now moved overseas, but that doesn’t mean it has disappeared.

Outsourcing expands into cotton production as well. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, about 44 per cent of the world’s water use for cotton growth and processing is not serving the domestic market but instead, is being soaked up for export. And cotton – the fabric of our lives – is responsible for a large dent of the garment industry’s water waste. It takes over 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make 1 pair of jeans, and it takes over 400 gallons of water to make one t-shirt.

Fashion is interrupting the natural current of the world’s most vital resource. So, what’s it going to take to ensure that the fashion industry stops contributing to this daunting reality, and who are the superstars in the fashion industry that are working to conserve, protect, and keep the fresh water flowing?

Costello Tagliapietra Spring/Summer 2012

AirDye Solutions has tackled the issue in a tech-savvy and action-based way. AirDye technology allows for the application of color to fabric without the use of water. It ends up using about 90% less water and 85% less energy than conventional dyeing processes. Standout designers like Costello Tagliapietra have been using this innovative and water conserving technology for the past several seasons. When asked if they notice a difference between using AirDye and conventional dying techniques, Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra say “Absolutely.”

“We have the amazing opportunity to have the backside of the fabric look just as beautiful as the front, something that is not possible with traditional dyeing; we are even doing prints on both sides in some pieces.”

With luxe collections packed with color and mesmerizing prints, Costello Tagliapietra is definitely not sacrificing style for ethics, which has interested more designers to jumping onboard the AirDye train thanks to their lead.

Another brand, BluDemocracy, has tackled the agua quandary head-on by replacing cotton with bamboo in the production of all of their everyday basics. The LA-based company claims that to make a cotton t-shirt, it takes 11,500 cups of water, whereas to produce a bamboo tee, it only takes 3,840 cups. By producing and processing their bamboo collection sustainably, Blu Democracy hopes to make a dent in this overwhelming statistic: 1 billion people worldwide don’t have access to clean water…right now.

Blu Democracy’s representative Walka Quiroa tells EcoSalon there are ways to instigate change by sharing “in your face knowledge about the extreme lack of clean drinking water around the world, along with spreading simple ways individuals and companies can make positive change to these frightening statistics.”

Massive transformations in our daily lifestyles are not required, according to Quiroa, but rather, creating awareness around products that are good for the earth is the first tread. As Quiroa tells EcoSalon, “Knowledge inspires change.”

BluDemocracy bamboo tees

How important is water? We humans are comprised of 65% of it, and 75% of the earth’s surface is covered with the stuff. We need it, plants need it, animals need it – where did the disconnect evolve away from such a crucial resource?

In a recent visit to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, an exhibition titled: “Upon Native Waters: The Photographs of Edward Curtis,” sparked reminders of the basic foundation that water’s worth was built upon. Edward Curtis’ photographs of Native Americans in the early 1900s showcased vividly the ways that water was integral to the everyday lives of people. In these times and through these cultures, a clear connectivity could be observed between water and humanity.

Photograph from “Upon Native Waters: The Photographs of Edward Curtis,” currently at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum

Water didn’t used to flow out of faucets and it never grew on trees. It might be time to take a tip from our elders and remember that water is a valued resource necessary for survival – one to be respected and appreciated.

Image: Nadia Moro


Kestrel Jenkins

Kestrel Lee Jenkins currently resides in New York City where she writes a weekly column covering the sustainable fashion world.