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Fashion and textile industries need greater focus on water pollution, report warns

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The CDP report found that cotton production alone is responsible for 16% of all insecticide use, “a significant proportion of which are washed out of soils, polluting rivers and groundwater bodies,” the report warns. Photo credit: Casa da Photo/Adobe Stock.

A new report warns that the apparel and textiles sector has a vital role to play in reducing water pollution, but less than half of major players in the industry are willing to disclose the impact their supply chain has on the environment.

In 2019, some 136 significant fashion and textile companies were approached by CDP Global — a non-profit with aims to make economies environmentally sustainable — to share crucial water-related information. But, just 46% of companies responded, as highlighted in CDP’s latest report Interwoven Risks, Untapped Opportunities.

“Water pollution is prevalent across the whole global apparel and textile sector value chain, from the production of raw materials, through to the ultimate disposal of clothes, shoes and household textiles,” the CDP report warns.

Of the largest 100 companies approached by CDP, only 21% shared water data.

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Overall, the data and findings in the new report are based on the 62 companies who disclosed through CDP’s water security questionnaire in 2019 and have activities within the apparel, footwear and household textiles sector. Of those 62 companies, just 21% identified water pollution as a substantive financial or strategic risk to their business, be it a regulatory, reputational or physical risk.

CDP researchers said their findings led them to believe that many companies are underreporting and underestimating their risk exposure.

Two facts are worth considering alongside the industries’ impact on water and the environment. Firstly, there has been a twofold increase in the amount of clothing produced over the last two decades, despite a global population increase of only 28%, according to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Second, the apparel and textile sector contributes to global water scarcity through excessive freshwater consumption, which in 2015 alone reached 79 billion m3 of water, the new report states.

Additionally, the CDP report found that cotton production alone is responsible for 16% of all insecticide use, “a significant proportion of which are washed out of soils, polluting rivers and groundwater bodies,” the report warns.

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Infographic courtesy of CDP Global.

In Bangladesh, the report notes that textile production discharges an estimated 217 million m3 of polluted wastewater into the environment each year. This water is often used for crop irrigation and been found to contain arsenic, chromium, mercury and textile dyes.

Two other primary concerns from the apparel and textiles sector are micro and nanofiber pollution, as well as landfill waste volumes. The washing of one kilogram of synthetic garments can release more than a million microfibers, according to a 2019 report connected to the Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials, National Research Council of Italy.

“The majority of substantive water pollution risks reported by companies were identified in the wet processing and manufacturing stages of the value chain such as spinning, dyeing and washing,” the report states.

In terms of landfill, more than 92 million tonnes of textiles are disposed of each year, many of which have dyes and other toxic substances that may seep into and pollute local groundwater and surface water sources, according to a 2001 study.

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