How is fast fashion polluting the waters?

Sometimes we find ourselves not resisting buying that piece of clothing that smiles at us from the shop window, however, the entire route necessary to produce it and the damage it causes to the environment does not cross our minds. Also, with the creation of numerous collections a year, at low prices, these pieces are only used for a short period of time. They become more disposable and this behaviour is what stimulates the fast-fashion culture. The more it consumes the more is produced, and this rampant production has very serious environmental impacts associated with it. As fresh water is a scarce and indispensable resource for living beings, it must be looked at more carefully, and unfortunately, the fashion industry is one of the ones that most contributes to its pollution. That is why it is important to understand how this all happens in order to make conscious decisions as consumers.

How does the fashion industry pollute our waters?

The textile and fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, second to the oil industry. It moves trillions of dollars and employs 50 million people worldwide. In an attempt to maximize profits, these industries move to developing countries, where labour is cheap, and where environmental inspection and management is almost non-existent.

In this industry, it is imperative to use numerous chemicals in the processing and finishing of textiles, which end up being diluted in the water that is needed for this process. Many of these companies are positioned on the riverside because of the favorable place for industrial discharges, which in many cases are not treated and end up contaminating the entire river. In addition to the irresponsible consumption of fresh water in the production processes, we also have a major impact on the production of natural fibres. Cotton is one of the most widely used natural fibres and by itself is one of the most water-dependent agricultural crops. It’s hard to imagen, but behind a simple cotton t-shirt, 2,700L may have been spent producing it!

Water Contamination

Our wardrobe is made from more than a thousand colours and we don’t even consider the amount of water and chemicals used for this purpose. For each kilo of textiles, an average of 30-50 litres of water can be used. After this process, with a mixture of heavy metals and dyes, contaminated water is produced, which in most cases is not treated. It is through rivers that industrial discharges eventually reach the seas, thus affecting aquatic ecosystems. They also easily enter the food chain, either through what is caught or through agriculture. Some species have a greater capacity to absorb certain types of chemicals and compromise the health of those who later consume them. From cancer to genetic malformations, these are some of the diseases caused by the consumption and accumulation of these chemicals and heavy metals.

Now we give the example of the production of Jeans, which also has their role when we talk about environmental impact. The pair of jeans go through a complex production process, involving dyeing and washing with the use of various chemicals. Among these chemicals are heavy metals such as Chromium, Cadmium, Lead, Copper and Mercury. This is quite alarming, as these metals, in addition to being toxic, also have the ability to accumulate along the food chain and reach our plate.

China is responsible for 75% of the global production of textiles and an initiative promoted by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs with the NGO Natural Resources Defense Council (China), found that in the Southeast of China it has 70% of its waters polluted by factories textiles.

The exploitation of water in the production of cotton

Not only does the textile industry pollute the water but also has a rampant consumption of it. An example of this problem is the production of cotton. This fibre is one of the most used in the fashion industry, corresponding to 40% of the textile fibres produced worldwide. This crop is extremely dependent on water, being the third most water-consuming, after rice and wheat. In addition, they are highly dependent on chemicals, insecticides and pesticides that turn out to be also a source of water contamination. These chemicals have the ability to pass through the soil and contaminate groundwater.

A clear example of this exploration was the disappearance of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, between 1960 and 2000.

We also talk a lot about organic cotton, which corresponds to less than 1% of the total global production. This practice uses less water than intensive practice, however, it has increased the use of chemicals for its treatment, in order to obtain a texture similar to that of conventional cotton.

The problem of Microplastics

Microplastics are a hot topic when it comes to current scientific research, but much remains to be discovered, namely what impacts these microscopic synthetic particles can have on us. With the growth of the synthetic industry in the 20th century, the first experiments to replace natural fibres appeared. Synthetic fibres emerged to revolutionize the fashion industry, expanding production capacity and reducing costs. But what we know today is that synthetic fibres end up generating microfibers that contribute to water pollution, especially in the washing processes. In addition to their microscopic size, they also have the ability to adsorb other chemicals and heavy metals, which is even more worrying. As they are not biodegradable, they end up remaining in ecosystems, serving as food for aquatic species and end up reaching the food on our plate. These microparticles are even found in the water we consume. A recent study shared by WWF suggests that we are able to ingest the equivalent of a plastic credit card (5g) weekly, in the form of microplastics.

After these alarming statements, it is up to us to reduce our impact. We, as informed consumers, have the power to make the right choices when it comes to sustainability. It is in small actions that we can be contributing and here are some tips:

How can we avoid this?

• Start by buying fewer clothes: with the recent movements in favour of sustainability, there are more and more events for old clothes and even encourage exchanges between friends;

• With the clothes we already have, it’s important to take good care of them! Washing is one of the processes that contribute to the ageing of clothes, so washing with less frequency is one of the things we can do. Furthermore, it also reduces our environmental impact by saving drinking water. Sometimes, there is nothing like leaving a piece of clothing drying outside not only to help the environment but also to help eliminate any remaining bad odours. Also, to reduce the release of microplastics, it is advisable to wash at low temperatures;

• Secondhand shopping: because these days there is no excuse for not going to an app and buying very cute clothes at an attractive price! You can find secondhand shopping apps which give our old clothes new use and doesn’t feed into the fast-fashion industry.

•Buying with awareness: More and more brands are focusing on environmental concerns and with materials that are made to last. In addition, the appearance of natural textiles from sustainable crops such as h emp and bamboo, as well as pieces dyed with technologies that do not use water or use natural dyes, are increasing trends in sustainable fashion! So, we can see these brands as a long-term investment, where we buy a piece that can last us for many years and with less environmental impact!

Written by: Patrícia dos Reis


Brenot, A., Chuffart, C., Coste-Manière, I., Deroche, M., Godat, E., Lemoine, L., Ramchandani, M., Sette, E., Tornaire, C., 2019. Water footprint in fashion and luxury industry. Water Text. Fash. 95–113.

Kant, R., 2012. Textile dyeing industry an environmental hazard. Nat. Sci. 04, 22–26.