Apparel companies are contributors to the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources. The Aral Sea in Central Asia was once the fourth largest body of inland water. However, following its diversion into the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers for agricultural irrigation, the Aral Sea has shrunk to a fraction of its former size. More cotton farms should use recycled water for crops, and apparel companies should reduce or remove water from their dyeing processes to reduce water wastage and eliminate pollutants from local water systems. In addition, the lifespan of a single item of clothing should be maximised by charitable donations to charities or resale. According to Clothes Aid, 30% of the UK’s textile apparel garments end up in a landfill.

Consumers are buying more clothing than ever before

The fashion industry heavily relies on water in textile apparel garment production, from watering crops to dyeing raw fibres. According to the WWF, 73% of the world’s cotton is grown on plantations that use natural irrigation, which will reduce the available water supply in the long term. While natural fibres, including cotton and linen, are more sustainable than man-made fibres such as polyester and nylon, there is a large-scale issue around water consumption.

Cotton accounts for 33% of all fibres found in textiles. The cotton crop requires approximately 2,700 litres of water to make a single cotton shirt. The increasing popularity of fast fashion is responsible for a large share of the environmental impact of the textile clothing industry, as trends change on an almost weekly basis. Fast fashion has a short lifespan and, therefore, wastes precious water and fills landfills rapidly. According to the World Resources Institute, today’s consumers purchase 60% more items of clothing compared to 20 years ago and are keeping these textile apparel garments for half as long.

What can be done to improve apparel companies’ carbon footprint and reduce water wastage?

The environmental impacts of bio cotton are much less than conventional cotton. The fashion industry is currently testing less-frequently used fibres such as hemp, linen, nettle, and flax, as they require less water, fertilisers, and pesticides. To tackle the water crisis, cotton plantations should also work on improving their carbon footprint by using recycled water to water crops.

Apparel companies can measure their environmental impact using the Sustainable Apparel Coalition Higg Index. This provides companies with measurements of their products and services’ environmental, social, and labor impacts. In June 2021, H&M incorporated the Higg Index ranking on their clothing using a traffic light system. Currently, six items on their website have been given a score from baseline to 3. The baseline score indicates that the product is made from materials that are not biodegradable. Scores of 1, 2, and 3 are given to items made from biodegradable materials, with 3 being the most sustainable. This traffic light system will provide consumers with an insight into the products’ water use and pollution. While the traffic light system is in its infancy, it is a refreshingly transparent approach many sustainability-conscious consumers will appreciate.

An alternative solution would be to increase the lifespan of a single item of clothing through reselling and renting. Apparel companies must adapt their propositions to support sustainability, particularly by tapping into the growing second-hand and rental markets, to maintain appeal among increasing eco-conscious consumers. Luxury department store Selfridges is making strides in sustainability. In October 2019, Selfridges teamed up with luxury fashion second-hand marketplace Vestiaire Collective, which sells second-hand items on Selfridge’s website and in its London store. In August 2020, Selfridges launched Resellfridges in-store and online, allowing consumers to buy and sell luxury second-hand items. As of May 2021, Selfridges also partnered with rental platform Hurr to launch Selfridges Rental, which enables customers to rent in-season stock. Other resale marketplaces include ASOS Marketplace, Vinted, Depop (which is being acquired by Etsy), Levi’s Secondhand, and COS Resell.