Let’s Make Sure there’s Water to Quench our Thirst for Fashion

Master of Sustainability Candidate Maria Nasta Bittar discuses the direct impacts that the fashion industry has on water scarcity, and suggests how fashion lovers could become more sustainable.

Dye entering a river. Image by RiverBlue

Have you ever wondered how much water it took to make the cotton t-shirt you might be wearing at the moment? Well, it took about three years’ worth of drinking water or 2.700 litres to be exact!

This fact addresses the issue of water scarcity around the world and the direct impact that the fashion industry has on it.

Water is a scarce resource (Initiative, 2012). As a fact, the freshwater available to drink, wash with or irrigate fields, makes up to only 3% of the available water on the planet while 2/3 of it is inaccessible. Furthermore, nearly 4 billion people around the world have critical access to safe water. In other words, 40% of the global population is affected by water scarcity. Other issues that influence this reality include the fact that populations are increasing and with increasing populations and wealth, consumption patterns and demand for more water change, thus resulting in more wasteful behaviour; the volatile climate also influences water scarcity. The fashion industry, contributing to globalisation and highly competitive markets, has been placing a significant impact on water resources with higher production that increases its use, wastewater and competition for water (Claudio, 2007; Joung, 2014). According to research, the urgency towards the water scarcity issue is much greater of that one of climate change, with consequences being seen within the next decade.

The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter industry to the environment, after big oil companies (Stilinovic, 2016). However, we, individuals, love fashion and spend money on it while don’t necessarily wonder how our garments have been produced or how our consumption behaviours are affecting our environment. In fact, Australia is proven to be the biggest spending country on fashion (Frank, 2015). The trend that contributes to the fashion industry having such an impact on water resources include the rise in the strategy of ‘fast fashion’, where companies have the goal of getting apparel into stores within the shortest time possible (Joung, 2014). The problem with fast fashion is that with more production comes more resources used and depleted, more consumption and more waste (Claudio, 2007). For the fashion industry, water is essential for cotton cultivation, textile dying and finishing . For instance, more than half a trillion gallons of fresh water is used in the dyeing of textiles each year. Furthermore, cotton accounts for 40% of clothing  and it is the thirstiest (Claudio, 2007), and one of the most chemically dependent crops in the world.

There is an urgency for fashion companies to reduce their impact on water resources. Similarly, there is an urgency in empowering consumers into forcing change on big companies by demanding more sustainably-produced garments and choosing more carefully at the time of purchase . Stilinovic (2016) explains that some companies have started developing ‘eco-fashion’ collections to create awareness. For instance, Levi’s and H&Mhave taken a step forward and changed their production processes to reduce wastewater, and Nudie Jeans, encouragesconsumers not to wash their pair of jeans for six months.

Although companies generate changes in behaviour towards a more sustainable production in fashion, consumers are key to generate change since most water use occurs after purchase (Grönwall & Jonsson, 2017).There is a rise in sustainable consumption  with celebrities such as Emma Watson, Leonardo Di Caprio and others, encouraging more sustainable behaviour to fashion consumers.

If you are moved by the reality of water scarcity in relation to the fashion industry, encouragement is warranted to change your mindset and acknowledge that every effort counts. The United Nations (2017) believes that every person, with little steps, can make a huge difference and suggests some steps for all of us to follow for a more sustainable lifestyle.

Finally, before you start taking action, I leave you here with the following:

Something to add to your readings and get involved more deeply in the issues raised in this blog:

  • The book Cribb’s (2016) ‘Surviving the 21st Century’ explores the ten main risks facing humanity: resource depletion, climate change, population and urban overexpansion, dangerous new technologies and self-delusion, among others, and what can and should be done to limit them.
  • The book ‘Your Water Footprint’ by Leahy (2014) can help you to better understand and be more conscious about water resources.


Claudio, L. (2007). Waste Couture: Environmental impact of the clothing industry. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(9), 449.

Cribb, J. (2016). Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them. Springer.

Frank, J. (2015). Australians spend more money on clothes than anyone else in the world. Vogue Australia.

Grönwall, J., & Jonsson, A. C. (2017). The impact of zero coming into fashion: Zero liquid discharge uptake and socio-technical transitions in Tirupur. Water Alternatives, 10(2), 602.

Initiative, W. E. F. W. (2012). Water Security: The Water-Food-Energy-Climate Nexus. Island Press.

Joung, H.-M. (2014). Fast-fashion Consumers’ Post-purchase Behaviours. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, 42(8), 688-697.

Leahy, S. (2014). Your Water Footprint: the shocking facts about how much water we use to make everyday products.

Stilinovic, M. (2016). Four Eco-Friendly Fashion Brands That Are Making Sustainability Look Chic. Forbes.

Maria Nasta Bittar is Paraguayan. She is a Master of Sustainability Candidate at The University of Sydney. She holds a Bachelor of Communications from Bond University and has work experience in Advertising, Corporate Social Responsibility and as a Fashion Entrepreneur. She is interested in Waste Management. Yoga lover.

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