The Apparel Industry Has Grossly Underestimated the World’s Water Crisis and What it Could Mean for Sourcing

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Water may just easily come out of the tap in the Western world, but the places the apparel industry is sourcing from and the water resources it’s drawing on are at times in much scarcer supply.

That’s the message Mina Guli, founder of ThirstForWater.org, an organization dedicated to tackling the world’s water shortage crisis, delivered during a keynote at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference earlier this month.

To put the crisis into greater perspective, Guli said, “The water that went into what you just used and put on today took more water than you have used in your entire lifetimes.”

Making one cotton suit, according to Guli, uses as much as 14,763 liters of water. A cotton shirt uses 3,690 liters. The water that went into making your mobile phone was as much as 912 liters.

[Read more about recent sustainability efforts: What the Industry’s Sustainability Leaders are Actually Doing With Their Supply Chains]

This may not be water people see or feel or think about on a daily basis, but it’s being used. And it’s being depleted, according to Guli.

“Ninety-five percent of the water we use every day is invisible,” Guli said. The combined invisible daily water footprint is 28,429 liters. “More water than you’ve drunk in your entire lifetime…What we are doing to our environment without paying attention to it is horrifying.”

Last year, the World Economic Forum ranked the water crisis as the highest concern for the next decade.

In an effort to bring greater attention to the world’s water crisis, Guli has run across the seven continents, across each continent’s major desert (Antarctica is also considered a desert since it gets less rain than the Sahara) in seven weeks, talking to people about issues they’re facing with water. From there, she ran 40 marathons in 40 days down six of the world’s great rivers to do the same thing.

What she found in South Africa was that just the production of table grapes drained six meters out of the Richtersveld river in six years. What she found in Brazil was that water forms on tree leaves in the Amazon, in what’s called flying rivers, and what collects forms into clouds that get pushed down into cities around the country and produces rain. But deforestation is causing those flying rivers to dry up, which means places like Sao Paolo are getting less rain. What she found in the Atacama desert was people catching fog for water and using it for farming, but even that has become scarce, and a shortage of water to farm the cotton that goes into fibers to make apparel, could have drastic ripple effects all along the supply chain. In Central Asia, the Aral Sea has been shrinking drastically for the last 50 years since the two rivers that sustain it started being drawn from to grow cotton in the desert.

“We are indeed a planet in crisis,” Guli said. “By 2030, experts predict that there’ll be a 40 percent greater demand for water than what’s available.”

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), cotton accounts for roughly 33 percent of all the fibers found in textiles, and it can take as much as 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton T-shirt—the same amount of water one person drinks in two and a half years. That’s why cotton farming stands to further damage areas already facing water stress, which are often precisely the areas brands and retailers are sourcing from for better costs.

Beyond just cultivating the cotton, a substantial sum of water goes into actual clothing production.

Roughly 20 percent of industrial water pollution is owed to garment manufacturing, according to WRI, and the world uses as much as 5 trillion liters (1.3 trillion gallons) of water each year just for fabric dyeing, which could fill two million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

“We’re going to figure out how to manage water in supply chains,” Guli said. “I want to show people what it means to overuse water for the production of cotton.”

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