Textile and ready-made garment production is one of the most water-intensive industries in the word, as access to this vital resource is essential for cotton cultivation, textile dyeing, and finishing. The water footprint of fashion is estimated at around 20% of all industrial water worldwide. How the fashion and garments industry approaches water sustainability in the face of a changing climate and increasing competition over resources is therefore crucial on both fronts of water use and water pollution.
According to WWF, it can take up to 2,700 litres to produce the cotton needed to make a single T-shirt.
Toxic chemicals can be discharged into water bodies from the textile dying process when appropriate effluent treatment measures are not taken. This not only affects the water bodies, but also has long-term implications on public health, food production, and the environment.
The textile industry has been key to economic development in many countries, and is tied to job creation and economic empowerment. With water use predicted to increase by 50% between 2007 and 2025 in developing countries, and 18% in developed ones, governments and communities have a growing interest in environmental and water sustainability, as well as in understanding how the industry manages the resource.
The textile and ready-made garments industry is a major driver of the Bangladesh economy, yet water pollution in the industry causes severe environmental damage across the country. Even though a regulatory framework for wastewater management exists, it is inadequately enforced due to the country’s weak institutional system and presence of high-level of corruption.
A recent study published by the Water Integrity Network and Transparency International Bangladesh suggests that, ‘a plethora of policies and laws have been enacted and institutional frameworks have been put into place to govern and guide water governance and management […] Lack of supervision from any advisory and regulatory watchdog in this sector means that there is no organization overseeing activities from planning to operation, making critical comments and suggestions for improvements through systematic investigations, undertaking advocacy campaigns, and enforcing action against violations’.
Most companies operating in the garment and textiles sector of Bangladesh are suppliers of multinationals that are legally obligated to provide oversight on their suppliers. However, the existing laws and regulations are not adequately enforced, and the water sources in the vicinity of the factories are highly polluted.
Supply chain accountability has become a growing concern for brands. And despite important initiatives taken by the apparel industry, notably after the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy that claimed an estimated 1,135 lives, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Effective wastewater management is one area where sustainable solutions already exist, and can be implemented. There are frameworks and guidelines in place; dialogues must be opened and capacity supported, for actors to achieve compliance.
Water use and water pollution in the garment industry both severely impact on the public, private, and civil sectors. Although there are many initiatives that bring together buyers, factories, and experts to improve technical processes – Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT) in Bangladesh – or chemical management – Better Mill Initiative in China – there is a need to bring the debate beyond the water sector and open it to the public, and engage the garment companies for a deeper understanding of public value.
WIN and partner Your Public Value are advocating for building a dialogue with various stakeholders, including Global Brands, to jointly design an approach to tackle the problem of wastewater pollution in Bangladesh.