Fashion and textile firms still blind to water pollution risks, says new report

Few companies showed awareness of water pollution across all stages of their value chain, and only Swedish fast fashion firm H&M acknowledged the issue of microfiber pollution.

Unsplash fashion mannequins
Only seven out of the 62 respondents showed awareness of water pollution across all stages of their value chain, CDP found. Image: Victor Xok/ Unsplash

Many large fashion and textiles companies around the world remain blind to the risks of water pollution, and only one out of 62 companies mentioned microfibers in its response to a water security questionnaire by environmental non-profit CDP.

The industry is known to be a major water polluter, from the agricultural runoff of cotton fields into rivers and the chemicals used in dyeing, to microfibers released in the washing process. It produces 20 per cent of global wastewater.

In its new report, Interwoven Risks, Untapped Opportunities, CDP analysed 2019 data from 62 companies including brands, manufacturers and retailers. The respondents formed less than half of the 136 large companies that were asked by investors and customers to disclose their water impacts.

Only seven out of the 62 respondents showed awareness of water pollution across all stages of their value chain, CDP found. They were Gap Inc, H&M, Zara owner Inditex, Burberry, Kering Group (owner of brands such as Gucci and Saint Laurent), Hanesbrands and Woolworths Holdings.

While more companies are aware of water pollution that can occur during the spinning, dyeing and washing stages, the risk is present throughout the value chain—from the production of cotton and the use of harmful detergents to wash clothes, to when garments are disposed of. Therefore, the seven companies demonstrated a more progressive and transparent understanding of the issue, CDP noted in its report released on Monday 14 September.

Opportunities that companies identified to reduce water pollution included: Less chemical-intensive manufacturing processes, water-free dyeing techniques, wastewater recycling and investment in more sustainable raw materials, such as recycled polyester.

The report noted that innovative water management offers business opportunities. The respondents reported over US$180 million in opportunities a year, for instance, through investing in sustainable materials that help to improve their brand image.

Tackling water pollution can increase business efficiency and resilience to physical, regulatory and reputational risks, CDP said. Companies such as adidas and Gap added that they would also be able to tailor products to the consumers who are more sustainability-minded.

On microfiber pollution, CDP noted that the only company that acknowledged the issue was Swedish fast fashion company H&M. “This statistic is alarming given the fact that the production, use and disposal of textile goods all contribute to the release of micro or nanofibers,” it said.

Research has shown that 640,000 to 1.5 million microfibers can be released when one kilogramme of synthetic fiber clothing is washed. These microfibers can accumulate in humans, although the health implications are not yet known. Natural fibers such as cotton and hemp, however, have also been found to persist in aquatic environments.

“Despite a significant research gap, microfibers represent an urgent global problem which is creating opportunities for value chain engagement and innovative business models. Mitigation in the supply chain is key, reducing the need for costly and time-consuming clean-up initiatives further downstream,” the report added. H&M encourages its consumers to use guppy bags when doing laundry to trap some of the microfibers.

A call to transform

CDP’s report comes in the wake of an open letter released during World Water Week last month by 21 major companies, brands and organisations including the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and World Wide Fund for Nature.

The open letter noted massive disruption to the fashion, apparel and textile sector caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and pushed for a speedier transformation of the sector.

The signatories called on the sector to support governments’ green economic recovery plans, strengthen corporate sustainability commitments and their supplier relationships, enhance traceability and transparency, and recognise the importance of nature and freshwater ecosystems.

“The industry was hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis this year, and the temptation will be there to prioritise short term gains. But the road to a resilient recovery lies in embracing sustainability and circular economy practices. This is the direction of travel and the companies leading the way will be best prepared for the future,” said Cate Lamb, CDP’s director of water security.

To improve their water management, fashion companies should consider the entire value chain (from raw material production to disposal of their products) in their water-related risk assessments and targets, CDP said. They should ensure pollution is designed out at the design stage, and work with suppliers to increase awareness of water pollution risk and measures. They should also implement incentives related to water for their top management.

At the national level, CDP cited actions by the Swedish government that could dis-incentivise environmentally harmful behaviour. The Nordic country is considering a tax on clothes and shoes that contain toxic chemicals, and the proposed tax of 40 Swedish krona (US$4.50) per kilogramme of clothing and footwear could come into force in April next year, applying to all produced or imported clothing. If companies can prove that none of the targeted chemicals were used in a product’s value chain, they could receive deductions of up to 95 per cent.

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