The Issues: Water

Water is the foundation of all life, and yet global supplies of fresh water are being used up at an alarming rate. The fashion industry relies heavily on water for its own survival. From the irrigation of cotton crops at one end of the supply chain to the domestic washing of clothes at the other, fashion is a thirsty business.  

Water usage in the fashion industry

The fashion industry is the third largest user of water globally (after oil and paper). In a world in which around 2 billion people are already living in water-stressed1 areas, there’s an important role for fashion, fibre and textile manufacturing to play in minimising water use in the production of their garments.

It’s estimated that the fashion industry currently uses around 79 billion cubic metres of water per year2, which is 2 per cent of all freshwater extraction globally, and represents more than one tenth of the water used by all types of industry3. On current trends, this amount is set to double by 2030.

Fashion uses one tenth of all water used industrially

The fashion industry relies on water throughout the production process for textiles and garments. It takes on average 10,000 litres of water to cultivate just one kilogram of raw cotton4, the material used in a third of textiles produced globally (and which represents 90 per cent of all natural fibres used).

Conventional textile dyeing and finishing of the raw fibre is both a thirsty and polluting business. It’s estimated that processing (including spinning, dyeing, finishing) a kilogram of fibre (not just cotton, but also polyester and other materials) requires 100 to 150 litres of water.

Not all cotton is grown in rain-fed areas. Around half of production requires additional irrigation, and this can add to stresses on local water supply.

  • The fashion industry currently uses enough water to quench the thirst of 110 million people for an entire year5.
  • To produce just one cotton shirt requires approximately three thousand litres of water6.  
  • The Aral Sea in Central Asia has shrunk to just 10 per cent of its former volume, largely due to irrigation for cotton farming.
  • The water pollution impact of organic cotton has been shown to be 98 per cent less than non-organic cotton production6.  

Sourcing cotton from certified sustainable farming can make a major difference to fashion’s water footprint. In Pakistan, local farmers working with the Better Cotton Initiative were able to reduce water and pesticide usage by 32 per cent, also increasing their profitability.  

Reducing or removing water from the dyeing process would also reduce or eliminate the levels of toxic effluents, which end up as pollutants in local water systems. That’s why industry interest is growing in new water-less technologies for dyeing and processing textiles for fashion and footwear.

Take Action

Companies can reduce their water footprint by:

  • Sourcing sustainably produced cotton via international standards and farming programmes – for example, organic or Fairtrade certification, or the Better Cotton Initiative.
  • Working with production sites that recycle or re-use effluent water from processing.
  • Working with industry partners to reduce and remove water use from dyeing, stone-washing and finishing processes.
  • Providing clear instructions to consumers to reduce the amount of water and energy use.

For more information:

Textile Exchange resources on water footprinting

WWF Environmental Impacts of Cotton 

Water footprinting resources 


1. ‘“Water stress” refers to the ability, or lack thereof, to meet human and ecological demand for water. Compared to scarcity, “water stress” is a more inclusive and broader concept. It considers several physical aspects related to water resources, including water scarcity, but also water quality, environmental flows, and the accessibility of water.’ Source: Schulte, Peter (2014) Defining Water Scarcity, Water Stress, and Water Risk: It’s Not Just Semantics, 4 February, Pacific Institute

2. Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group (2017) Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report

3. The world uses 3,985.7 billion cubic metres of freshwater per year; 19% of freshwater is extracted for industrial (as opposed to domestic or agricultural) use. Source: World Bank (2014) World Development Indicators Annual freshwater withdrawals, total (billion cubic metres)

4. Source: various, including Bioregional/Stockholm Environmental Institute, UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, Water Footprint Network

5. Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group (2017) Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report

6. Water Footprint Network

7. Torres, E, Z., Zeng, Z., Hoekstra, A, Y. (2011) Grey water footprint as an indicator of levels of water pollution in the production of organic vs conventional cotton in India. A study in collaboration with C&A, Water Footprint Network and Cotton Connect. 

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