Is water the biggest blind spot of the fashion industry?
The fashion industry has made major strides on sustainability in the past few years, stepping up target setting and collaboration around chemicals, climate, supply chain reporting and materials. The recent announcement of the Fashion Pact at the G7 is another illustration of this progress, with the French government working in collaboration with global fashion companies on a set of ambitions, adding focus and support to existing initiatives. But one major impact still seems to be neglected by the fashion industry — water.
The Fashion Pact commitments do cover some elements of freshwater challenges — for example, aiming to reduce chemical pollution in rivers and oceans under the Oceans commitment. But water is never addressed as a specific challenge. Similarly, industry initiatives such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) have strong content related to water management — for example, ZDHC’s focus on eliminating toxic chemicals from supply chains means that they also enforce a wastewater standard for dyehouses and other high impact sites.
But focus on oceans — or on measuring and reducing water use and wastewater impacts with the 1 st and 2nd tier suppliers of more sustainable brands — only takes us part way to really addressing freshwater risks and impacts in the fashion industry. Some pioneering companies such as PVH Corp and Tommy Hilfiger, H&M Group, HSBC, and Levi Strauss & Co have stepped forward to take decisive action around water as a systemic challenge for the fashion industry. But as yet, there is no clear focus on water as an urgent, stand-alone topic for the whole sector.
WWF analysis shows that approximately 7 out of the top 10 textiles production countries around the world are facing physical water risks that could affect their operations. These high-risk regions represent 58% of global production or 446 billion USD of textiles and clothing export value under threat within the industry. And with water challenges set to intensify through population pressure and climate change impacts — and high dependency on clean, available water suppliers for cotton production, dyeing, tanning and other key industry activities- this represents a critical threat to the future of the industry.
Even more importantly, at least 61% of textiles and clothing export value (representing 472 billion USD) is countries that are subject to significant reputational and governance risks that are out of direct company control. These landscape-level water challenges can further exacerbate existing physical water risks and impacts from other sites and sectors, since the public sector is ultimately the only actor about to appropriately plan and regulate water resources.
Our analysis shows that 7 out of the top 10 textiles producing countries have major water regulation and planning gaps reported to the UN under SDG6, including significant gaps in water policy, enforcement, planning and institutional capacity for water resources, and inadequate finance for water infrastructure investment. For this reason, only activities that go ‘beyond the factory fence’ can fully address water risks to fashion and textiles value chains; particularly if the industry wants to take an active role in supporting delivery of the SDGs.
The textiles industry uses and discharges high volumes of water for processes like cotton growing, fabric dyeing, laundry and leather tanning. These processes often use highly toxic chemicals, which can be discharged untreated or poorly treated into waterways that are then used by local people. In many regions, water withdrawals for textiles and other industries are poorly controlled and in key production hubs like Dhaka city, groundwater levels are dropping as much as a meter per year — potentially making business and community shallow wells unusable in the future.
And textiles sites all across the value chain need continuing access to water in order to continue their operations. The focus on the actions of global brands has also created a two tier system in many places — where sites owned or supplying to major global companies are improving their impacts, but the rest of the market is still continuing unsustainable practices with few incentives to improve.
In order to reach full scale of action on water across complex and opaque global value chains, WWF has been working for some time in an approach we call ‘Water Stewardship’ or ‘Collective Action’. This approach is about bringing together all the water users, regulators and influencers in the region, working to understand root causes of water issues — such as lack of regulatory enforcement, lack of incentives for technical improvements, or conflicting water needs between actors — and collaboratively finding solutions to these challenges. Often this involves strengthening government capacity and water planning mechanisms.
WWF teams in 6 key textiles production regions have worked since 2011 with private and public sector actors to set up these ‘collective action’ water programmes for textiles, with stepwise approaches to addressing landscape water risks — alongside impact reduction with suppliers not currently being supported by others.
Companies such as H&M Group, PVH Corp and Tommy Hilfiger were some of the first in the industry to respond to water risks by joining WWF in ‘beyond the factory fence’ programmes on textiles and water. They are now joined by Levi Strauss & Co, global bank HSBC and many others.
For example in Vietnam, WWF has set up a programme with HSBC, Tommy Hilfiger and a public sector organisation to support the government and industry to create and roll out a national green textiles vision and strategy, to support dialogue around national and trans-boundary water challenges, to address impacts with 100 textiles SME factories in Vietnam,and to create financial tools to help sites across Vietnam to transform.
In China, WWF works collaboratively with H&M Group, HSBC, Tommy Hilfiger and additional partners to make training on water stewardship available to 10,000 textiles sites across China, to roll out a water management standard for industrial parks, to host an annual summit on water stewardship and water governance for the Yangtze river region (attended by 256 people from 120 organizations), and to work with key government departments to support sustainable national level textiles policy and regulations.
These brands working collaboratively with each other and with WWF clearly understand the business imperative of decisive action on water stewardship — beyond impact reduction with immediate suppliers. It can only be a matter of time before the rest of the fashion industry wakes up to the same need to act.
For information on WWF’s work on how biodiversity and water link to business value, visit.