Toxic Waste-Water


Over the last 25 years clothing production has gone up by 400% more than what it used to be. This means that fashion producers are operating at an increased rate which produces pollution, waste and environmental degradation. These are the effects of fast fashion, a persistent issue that can be rectified through education and lifestyle changes. In this instance, however, we will look at how natural sources of water are affected by the fashion industry’s practices.

Toxic wastewater

Water pollution is a serious issue, considering the fact that water is already a scarce resource in many parts of the world. In most of the developing countries where garments are produced, textile waste water is dumped directly into the rivers. Toxic wastewater is a result of garment treatment and dyeing; leading substances such as lead, mercury and arsenic into the rivers. This water is harmful to aquatic life and the health of the humans who live by the river banks. This contaminated water stretches as far as the ocean and eventually spreads globally.

Another issue associated with contaminated water in the rivers is the release of microfibres from the production phase. When released into the rivers through wastewater dumping, together with the harmful substances contained in the toxic water, aquatic life suffers. Individual microfibres released into the water, through synthetic fibres, are ingested by small aquatic organisms which are ingested by small fish and later the small fish is eaten by bigger fish. The fishing industry feeds millions of people in the developing world, which means that our fast fashion practices directly introduce plastic and harmful substances directly into our food chain. The ingestion of contaminated fish cause diseases such as typhoid, arsenicosis and cholera in human beings.

Cotton Production

The Aral Sea. Before and after desertification.
Photograph: Atlas Photo Archive/NASA

The use of fertilisers for cotton production heavily pollutes runoff and evaporation waters while using too much clean water as well. Cotton requires a lot of water and heat to grow, but it is harvested in warm and dry climates meaning that most of the pressure is on the water. It takes about 20,000 litres to produce 1kg of cotton, putting an enormous amount of pressure on the already scarce resource. The ecological issues generated from this include the desertification of water sources such as the Aral Sea, where cotton production completely dried the source. The pollution of runoff sources also puts pressure on the people who rely on these sources for drinking and cooking.

The water situation, mostly seen as an environmental issue also affects the social issues experienced by people from developing countries. The water shortage in Asia, particularly in India, would not exist if less water was used for cotton production. People in developing countries are suffering due to the developed world’s constant need to remain up to date with fashion trends. Water pollution creates more of a ripple effect than other fashion related issues. This situation requires direct involvement of governments and the owners of the means of fashion production, to be rectified. However, as consumers we still need to educate ourselves about the solutions we can be a part of right now.


Every problem has a solution because all we need is awareness and education towards rectification. The toxic wastewater in the fashion industry can also be rectified but it will require all the parties involved to work together. We can learn from the countries with strict environmental policies for factories. Strict environmental policies ensure that natural resources are used sparingly and that they will benefit everyone equally. Consumers can also choose organic and natural fibres in the place of cotton and synthetic fibres whose chemicals contaminate aquatic life. We can also look at purchasing low water consumption materials such as linen. Most importantly, however, it is our responsibility as fashion consumers to force the fashion industry bosses to make their policies transparent. This order will require that each government get more involved with producers and allow consumers to make decisions based on what they can see and identify with, instead of buying in the dark.

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