Although water is so plentiful that the Earth is sometimes called the blue planet, freshwater is a remarkably finite resource that is not evenly distributed. About 1 billion people – or roughly 20% of the Earth’s population - lack access to safe drinking water, and about 5 million people die each year from poor drinking water, or poor sanitation often resulting from water shortages1 – that’s 10 times the number of people killed in wars around the globe.2 A third of the Earth’s population lives in “water stressed” countries - and that number is expected to rise dramatically over the next two decades.3
The textile industry uses vast amounts of water throughout all processing operations – almost all dyes, specialty chemicals and finishing chemicals are applied to textiles in water baths. Most fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, bleaching and mercerizing, use water. And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used in that step before moving on to the next step. The textile industry is, in fact, the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet (agriculture has pride of place).4 For every 27 yards of upholstery fabric produced, more than 600 gallons of chemically infused effluent – about the size of a California hot tub - containing from 2 to 22 lbs. of toxic chemicals - is returned to our groundwater.5
Today, water used in textile processing is almost universally returned to our ecosystem without treatment – meaning that the wastewater returned to our streams contains all of the process chemicals used during production. This process water is also often hot and has increased pH values, meaning that it is more acidic than the eco-system from which it was taken and to which it is being returned. Even if the only process chemical used during processing is salt, returning water with extremely high salt levels to the local eco-system will eventually change and eventually destroy the local flora and fauna.6
Water treatment is just as important when using organic fibers as when using conventionally grown or synthetic fibers. Buying a fabric made of “organic fiber” is not an assurance that the fibers were processed using chemicals that will NOT hurt you or that the effluent was NOT discharged into our ecosystem, to circulate around our planet. Look to GOTS for that assurance.
Water pollution contributes disproportionately to dead zones in oceans, desertification and reduction of species diversity, to name but a few problems.
As Gene Lisa has said, “There is not a 'no peeing' part of the swimming pool.” We’re all downstream – and pollution knows no borders.
And to add to all of this, Maude Barlow, in her new book, Blue Covenant (The New Press, 2008) argues that water is not a commercial good but rather a human right and a public trust. These mills which are polluting our groundwater are using their corporate power to control water they use - and who gives them that right? If we agree that they have the right to use the water, shouldn't they also have an obligation to return the water in its unpolluted state? Ms. Barlow and others around the world are calling for a United Nations covenant to set the framework for water as a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity, and the legal groundwork for a just system of distribution
1Tenenbaum, David J., “Tackling the Big Three (air and water pollution, and sanitation)”, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 106, Number 5, May 1998.
2 Kirby, Alex, “Water Scarcity: A Looming Crisis?”, BBC News Online
3 Just the Facts, Our World In Crisis; https://www.pciglobal.org/download/walk_for_water_resources/w4w_waterfacts_2013.pdf
4 Cooper, Peter, “Clearer Communication”, Ecotextile News, May 2007. Please note that some sources say it is number 2. Number 1 or number 2, it’s a gigantic polluter of water.
5 Based on a VPI study for the Department of Environmental Quality for the State of Virginia
6 The Aral Sea crisis is one example: http://www.columbia.edu/~tmt2120/introduction.htm