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Out Of Fashion – The Hidden Cost Of Clothing Is A Water Pollution Crisis

Water is an increasingly important issue for the fashion industry, but the sector is largely blind to the risks of water pollution and is failing to tap into water-related business opportunities, a new report claims.

Water pollution is an ‘invisible crisis’, the World Bank says, and through its excessive water usage, the apparel and textile industry is a major contributor. In 2015 alone, the sector used 79 billion cubic metres of water. Meanwhile UN estimates suggest that globally, 80-90% of wastewater is returned to the environment untreated.

The fashion & textiles industry is a major polluter of water at all stages of the value chain, from the agricultural runoff from cottonfields causing algal blooms that choke rivers, to the dying process releasing a cocktail of toxic chemicals and the washing of clothes releasing microplastics.

The study, Interwoven Risks, Untapped Opportunities, published by CDP, a global environmental non-profit, shows that the sector’s level of awareness and transparency is low, even though companies face material risks from water pollution. These include regulatory penalties, losing the social license to operate and damaged brand image.

Fewer than half (62) of the 136 companies CDP asked to provide data did so, and of those that reported, only one in 10 (including Gap, H&M and Kering) were aware that water pollution is a risk across every stage of the apparel value chain.

And even though the data was reported in 2019, when public concern about plastic waste was at an all-time high, H&M was the only reporting company to mention microplastics or microfibers in their disclosure. The washing of synthetic textiles is one of the primary sources of microplastics in the aquatic environment, which can damage aquatic ecosystems and even accumulate in human body tissue, the report points out.

Fewer than a quarter of the companies that responded to CDP’s questionnaire have set targets or goals to cut water pollution, while just 6% monitor and report on their progress. Yet CDP says that companies reported more than $180 million of business opportunities related to cutting their water pollution.

Most of the pollution risks that companies identified were in the manufacturing processes of their supply chains, with end use of their products by consumers barely being mentioned. “Very few substantive risks were reported in other parts of the value chain known to have a high pollution potential,” CDP says. “In fact, only around one in 10 (11%) even acknowledge that product use and disposal can also contribute to water pollution, and not a single company considers pollution at this stage of the value chain to be a substantive financial or strategic risk.”

That amounts to just seven companies – Gap, H&M, Inditex (owner of Zara), Burberry, Kering, Hanesbrands and South Africa’s Woolworths.

“The pressure is mounting for fast fashion to clean up its act when it comes to water pollution. Investors, regulators, customers, and consumers alike are all calling for change,” said Cate Lamb, director of Water Security at CDP. “The industry was hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis this year, and the temptation will be there to prioritize short term gains. But the road to a resilient recovery lies in embracing sustainability and circular economy practices. This is the direction of travel and the companies leading the way will be best prepared for the future.”

Water is a business-critical issue for the apparel industry, across the value chain, said Agata Smeets, director of Supply Chain Sustainability at Gap. “We must focus not only on reducing water consumption in our manufacturing operations, which we started tackling with our water reduction goal, but also in raw material cultivation and customer product water use.”

The company has also committed to improving water access and quality in the regions where it operates, she added. “Water is a context based, localized issue and the industry will need to continue to work with stakeholders in key water basins across our value chain, including the communities that are impacted by our water usage”.

Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer at luxury goods producer Kering, added: “Because of the large amounts of water used by tanneries, special wastewater treatment measures are required: we have been working with our suppliers to improve processes, and implement programs to protect the environment all along our supply chain.”

A McKinsey survey suggested that 66% of U.S. consumers now consider sustainability when making a luxury purchase, with younger generations increasingly willing to pay more for products which have a proven minimized environmental impact.

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