Water: The Real Fashion Victim

The fashion industry’s water usage has a significant impact on environmental justice which will be explored in terms of cotton growing and the discharge of water waste from dyeing. Dr Pamela Ravasio (2012), a consultant specialising in sustainable fashion business, noted that of all Earth’s water, 2.5% is freshwater of which only 3% is readily accessible to human which is equivalent to 0.01% of all water on Earth. 22% of this 0.01% is used by industry with the remaining 70% for irrigation and 8% for domestic use (Ravasio, 2012).

A cotton field

Cotton is used to produce 40% of all clothing globally but this natural fibre demands huge quantities of water. The Environmental Justice Foundation (2011) found that it takes over 2000 litres of water to produce just one cotton t-shirt. Cotton growing negatively impacts freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity due to excessive water withdrawal for irrigation, pesticide application and dam construction (Environmental Justice Foundation, 2011). The resulting salinisation, pollution and loss of soil and biodiversity are depleting the livelihoods of those who rely on the rivers.

More land is used in the US, China and India to grow cotton than for food crops and fuel (Ravasio, 2012). In a world of huge food insecurity, are our priorities misplaced? Ultimately, there are alternatives to cotton but no alternatives to food. As the world’s population continues to grow and climatic conditions become more extreme, the ease of accessing water will become more complicated and the fashion industry’s reliance on cotton will be forced to change (Ravasio, 2012).

The case of the Aral Sea serves as a reminder of the damage caused by excessive cotton production. Once a huge lake located in the desert of Central Asia with a drainage basin covering 7 nations, very little of it remains. In 1960, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest inland water body according to area (Micklin, 2007). However, the Soviet Union diverted the Syr Dar-ya and Amu Dar-ya, which flowed in to the Aral Sea, to the desert in order to irrigate cotton fields (Welsh, 2000). The scale of this diversion was tragic:

  • It is just 15% of its former volume and salinity has risen by almost 600% killing all the water’s native fish leaving thousands of fisherman jobless (Micklin, 2000)
  • The exposed former sea bed, an area the size of six million football pitches, is a crusty white layer of salt preventing growth (Environmental Justice Foundation).
  • Before the diversion, there were 70 mammal species and 319 bird species living in the deltas but today only 32 species of the former and 160 of the latter remain (Micklin, 2000)
  • The local population suffer acute health problems due to the inhalation of salt, poorer diets due to the loss of fish and contaminated drinking water (Welsh, 2000)

The video below demonstrates the huge decline of the Aral Sea:

Cotton needs to be treated and dyed, another environmentally harmful stage of the production process. Jane Spencer (2007), highlighted the impact of a booming textile industry on China’s environment. In one case, villagers living nearby the Fuan Textiles Mill in Southern China noticed their river water had turned red. A visit by Government authorities discovered a pipe underneath the factory which was dumping 20 000 tons of contaminated water from dyeing operations into the river every day (Spencer, 2007).

'Made in China' The familiar words found on labels

It is easy to criticise China but we need to recognise the role that multinational companies play in China’s environmental problems through demanding lower priced products, which in turn is fuelled by consumer demand. We need to ask ourselves why prices are so low and go beyond the sweatshop answer. Costs are so low because China dumps its waste water directly into nearby rivers, avoiding the expensive process of treating contaminated water and therefore when you purchase these products you’re not paying for the costs of pollution (Spencer, 2007).

A heavily polluted river in China

The majority of players in the fashion industry don’t respect the rights of citizens to access safe water. In China, 300 million people lack access to clean drinking water due to toxic runoff from the textile industry, which turns rivers into sludge resembling open sewers (Spencer, 2007). The rivers emit pungent stenches and are littered with plastic bags, shoes, electrical wires and carcasses of dead animals (Spencer, 2007). The once clear waters, which villagers fished from and swam in, are a distant memory. It shouldn’t be the case that Chinese residents can tell what colours are in fashion by looking at the rivers.

It is our responsibility to pressurise retailers to re-evaluate their production processes. We need to use our understanding of environmental justice to show others how our consumption is impacting the lives of others somewhere else on Earth. We are guilty of passively buying what is supplied to us with little regard to the wider implications of our consumerism. Retailers and designers dictate fashion but as geographers we need to be more responsible and realise that nothing is more fashionable than being environmentally friendly…


Environmental Justice Foundation. (2011). Water and Cotton. Available: http://www.ejfoundation.org/page334.html. Last accessed 9th March 2012.

Micklin, P. (2007). The Aral Sea Disaster. Earth and Planetary Sciences. 35, 47-72.

Ravasio, P. (2012). Does fashion fuel food shortages?. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/blog/cotton-farming-fashion-fuel-food-shortages. Last accessed 9th March 2012.

Ravasio, P. (2012). How can we stop water from becoming a fashion victim?. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/water-scarcity-fashion-industry. Last accessed 9th March 2012.

Spencer, J. (2007). China Pays Steep Price As Textile Exports Boom.Available: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118580938555882301.html. Last accessed 9th March 2012.

Welsh, P. (2000). The Aral Sea Tragedy. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/678898.stm. Last accessed 9th March 2012.


One: http://calliecollins.blogspot.com/

Two: http://artistsarahshaw.blogspot.com/

Three: http://forums.vr-zone.com/newsroom/201933-news-pollution-turns-china-river-dark-red.html

Four: http://mrahayes.blogspot.com/2011/01/pick-your-cotton-carefully.html


Unknown. (2010). Shrinking of the Aral Sea. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-1R634vpRQ&feature=related Last accessed 10th March 2012.


China’s Industrial pollution: Is it just to label them environmental deviants?

Chinese industrial pollution

China’s industrialisation has been exceptionally fast, exceptionally productive (for the country’s financial centres), and exceptionally damaging in its contribution to global environmental issue. In this blog I’ll attempt to gauge whether China’s massive pollution is doing an injustice to all … Continue reading