Why the fashion industry has a water problem

30 September 2020

The fashion industry has been warned not to “prioritise short-term gains” to recover from Covid-19 because only one in 10 firms show awareness of water pollution across their value chain, according to a report.

The report, by CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), said firms were “blind to the risks of water pollution”. 

According to the report, 136 fashion firms had been requested to disclose their water impacts by investors and customers in 2019, but less than half (46%) did so. 

Of the brands that did disclose data, only seven – Burberry, Gap, H&M, Hanesbrands, Inditex, Kering and Woolworths – acknowledged the impact of water pollution across the entire value chain. 

The fashion industry’s pollution of water spans all stages of the value chain “from the agricultural runoff from cotton fields causing algal blooms that choke rivers, to the dying process releasing a cocktail of toxic chemicals and the washing of clothes releasing microplastics”, the report said. 

CDP found that a fifth (21%) of disclosing companies reported water pollution risks that “have the potential to pose a substantive financial or strategic risk to their business”. The majority of these reported risks were identified in the manufacturing stages of the value chain. 

Only 11% of firms noted that product use and disposal contributes to water pollution, but no firms considered pollution at this stage to be a “substantive financial or strategic risk”.

Just one firm, H&M, mentioned the impact of microplastics. The washing of synthetic materials during the production process and throughout their use accounts for 35% of all microplastics released globally. 

Agata Smeets, director of supply chain sustainability at Gap, said: “Water is a business-critical issue for the apparel industry, and we recognise its importance across our value chain. 

“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. 

“Water is a context based, localised 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.”

The report found fashion firms had reported over $180m in business opportunities that addressed water pollution, such as investment in sustainable materials.

Cate Lamb, director of water security at CDP, said: “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. 

“The industry was hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis this year, and the temptation will be there to prioritise 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.”

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