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Water in Your Wardrobe: 6 Simple Ways to Cut Back

by Emily DeLong

22 August 2016

One thing that shocked me when I started learning about the environmental impact of the fashion industry is just how much water is involved in the making of clothing, from the water used to grow the cotton in our T-shirts all the way to the water used in our washing machines.

You may have heard the numbers: The textile industry is the second-largest polluting industry in the world. It takes about 2,700 liters of water to make one T-shirt. (That's about a three-year supply of drinking water.) It takes 7,000 liters of water (3,500 soda bottles' worth) to make one pair of jeans. Water being diverted to irrigate cotton crops is causing disasters in areas like the Aral Sea, which has shrunk by three-quarters in the last few decades. The dyeing and processing of textiles alone account for 20 percent of the world's industrial water pollution. Millions of gallons a year of toxic, polluted water is being dumped into waterways around the world in the name of fashion. And after a piece of clothing is produced and in our closets, we're using about 13,500 gallons of water a year per household to wash all of it.

Fashion is a thirsty, dirty industry, but there are a few easy things you can do to cut down on the water you're using without swearing off shopping entirely:

1) Wash your clothes less. While I am not recommending you skip washes on your underwear or socks, you can probably get 2-3 wears out of shirts and 4-10 wears out of jeans, pants, and skirts before needing to wash them, provided your everyday lifestyle isn't overwhelmingly dirty or sweaty. Just think of how much water AND time you'll save if you do your laundry less often. Being lazy has never been so guiltless.

2) Know how to remove stains. While some tricky stains will require a run through the washing machine, many of them can be spot-treated and then worn again, sans washing.

3) Use your freezer in ways you never imagined. Have you jumped on the no-wash denim trend? Honestly, I wish I could, but I am too much of a germaphobe to ever commit to never ever washing my jeans. What I have started doing, however, is stretching out the time between my washes by sticking my jeans in the freezer. The process is supposed to kill the microorganisms lurking in your jeans, thereby reducing any odors that may have been picked up. Even if it doesn't really work, freezing my jeans is water-free and gives me some peace of mind between washes.

4) Choose linen or hemp over cotton if you're in the market for a new T-shirt. Both linen and hemp are natural, breathable fibers that require significantly less water to produce than cotton.

5) Choose silk or Tencel over synthetic if you're shopping for a new dress. Not only does the production of synthetic fibers like polyester release a lot of hazardous byproducts into our water supply, but every time you wash a synthetic item of clothing, you're releasing tiny microplastic particles into the water stream, which harm aquatic life and are becoming more and more prevalent in our food supply. Sad and gross!

6) "Buy less, choose well, make it last," as Vivienne Westwood says. By buying less, you decrease the demand for water-intensive textiles and clothing in the first place. By choosing what you buy well, you're not going to need to buy as much in the first place (no more ill-fitting, goes-with-nothing blouses in the back of your closet!), and you're going to want to hold onto what you have longer — maybe it's just me, but my special, well-thought-out, pricier purchases are often my favorite purchases. Finally, by making it last (through careful care, repair, and mending), you can cut the water footprint of your clothes by a lot — nine extra months of wearing a cotton garment decreases its water footprint by 30 percent.