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Will the Apparel Industry Actually be Able to Improve Water Sustainability?

Water is arguably the artery of the apparel sector, but this natural resource remains scarce and polluted, prompting leaders to collectively attempt to address solutions for a more sustainable future.

On Tuesday, industry members held a discussion at Texworld USA in New York, which highlighted the state of water use, conservation and pollution in global apparel production. Along with providing a snapshot of this valuable natural resource, panelists provided ways for brands, designers and retailers to improve water conservation throughout their supply chains.

So what’s happening with water consumption right now?

While consumers keep snapping up garments, water consumption is having an adverse impact on the apparel sector.

According to the United Nation’s 2017 World Water Development Report (WWDR), “Wastewater: The Untapped Resource,” over 80 percent of the world’s wastewater and more than 95 percent in some least developed nations gets released into the environment without treatment.

The report argues that improved wastewater management generates essential economic, environmental and social benefits for a more sustainable apparel sector in upcoming years. What’s more, if brands, designers, retailers, government bodies and organizations collaborate on water sustainability, the industry could minimize its carbon footprint and foster more eco-friendly water use from sourcing to end consumption.

What industry members can do to remedy the great water usage problem

Despite the negative state of water consumption, there is hope for this natural resource in the apparel sector. By focusing on core areas, like availability and cost, water and raw materials use, wastewater management, universal standards and the role of consumers, industry leaders can reduce water consumption issues in apparel production.

[Read about what the denim sector is doing to address issues with water: In Denim, Commitment to Change Requires More Than Water-Saving Measures]

Water is a worldwide natural resource but it isn’t readily available and free for everyone, especially those who live in poverty-stricken countries. Some industry leaders suggest placing a price on water would quell the water consumption problem, but the situation remains quite complicated due to a lack of universal regulation standards.

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Panelist and Textile Exchange ambassador Caterina Conti suggested that industry members assess water shortages in their core sourcing regions to get a better understanding of their water consumption on a small and large scale.

“You have to look at the cost of water as an inevitable cost of goods. There is a 40 percent shortfall in water around the world as we speak, especially where you are sourcing,” Conti said. “The only reason there isn’t a price at this stage is because the regulation of water is so fragmented.”

Michael Kininmonth, panelist and Lenzing AG business development and project manager, also noted that while there are many regulations on water use, legislating bodies should put a small price on water and use profits from this action to support future water sustainability.

“I don’t think that the industry can be relied on to police itself. I do believe that even the government legislations should be in place where we would charge for embedded water,” Kininmonth said. “There should be a charge and that money generated should go back to the industry to find solutions.”

Although universal regulations on water availability, cost and management could be helpful, some leaders argue that the apparel production process could be more eco-friendly.

Panelist and Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator production coordinator Tara St. James spoke about how BF+DA educates designers on sustainable water management and how the New York-based ethical fashion hub enables its venture fellows to create recyclable apparel.

“We are training the designers not only on where materials come from, but what happens after the customer gets it and it is sold,” she said. “We also have to think about what our customers are doing with this product and how it is being used.”

Noorism, a BF+DA venture fellow, uses post-consumer denim waste to create new clothing products, which is beneficial because materials are spared from landfills. Another BF+DA fellow, Fair Harbor, also engages in more eco-friendly practices by designing shorts made from recycled plastic bottles.

“From a design perspective, of course there are a lot of companies doing great things for water in the world, but emerging designers are nimbler,” St. James said. “The future of sustainable fashion lies within the emerging design world, that is where I see the future of change happening.”