Picture of bobine & cotton

Why does it take so much water to make a cloth?

The production of a single T-shirt requires 2,700 litres of water, the equivalent of 70 showers. How do we actually achieve such volumes?

Some figures on textiles and water

2,700 litres for a t-shirt, 8,000 litres for a pair of leather shoes, 11,000 litres for a pair of jeans...

The volumes of fresh water needed to manufacture our clothes are a little daunting. Especially when compared to the number of items sold each year around the world: over 100 billion.

The result is a rather staggering global consumption of water for the textile industry: according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it gulps down 93 billion cubic metres of water per year. That is about 4% of the planet's drinking water resources. Hard to visualise? We understand... Roughly speaking, remember that this is the equivalent of 37 million Olympic swimming pools every year!

This puts textiles among the sectors that consume the most "blue gold", this natural (and limited) resource that is so precious to life on earth: it comes third, just behind wheat and rice cultivation.

Picture of cotton

From cotton field to dye: water at every level

One of the reasons why clothes require so much water to come into being is that water is used at almost every stage of their life cycle.
Let's start at the beginning: the raw material.

Here we are talking mainly about natural materials, i.e. fibres of plant origin (cotton, linen, hemp, latex, etc.). The recipe here is the same as it has been since the dawn of time... To make a plant grow, you need three elements: soil, sun and water.

One of the stars of the contemporary textile industry is a plant that loves water: cotton. Cotton now accounts for a quarter of the world's textile fibre production. And it takes a lot of water to grow it and make it bloom. One kilo of cotton requires almost 10,000 litres of fresh water. This is so much water that the rain that falls on the fields is not enough. Water for the crops has to be taken from rivers, lakes, and groundwater.

The question of water footprint

It should be noted that the next few decades will complicate the equation considerably: available fresh water is becoming scarcer all over the planet, while the climate is warming up. In other words, cotton fields, subject to rising temperatures, will require more water (+50% by 2030)... even though it will be increasingly scarce. Some major producers, such as China and India, are already facing a shortage of fresh water for their crops.

To give you an idea, it is estimated that, in the case of a pair of jeans, the raw material represents one third of its 'water footprint' (the total volume of water needed to produce a good or service). In this case, this means about 3,000 litres out of a total of 11,000.

Picture of fabrics samples

The second major water-consuming phase is garment manufacturing.

This refers to the water used in factories throughout the industrial process of making clothes.

 One stage of this process, in particular, consumes huge amounts of water: bleaching and dyeing clothes. And yes... it takes a lot of water to bleach the textile and then to apply the dyes and the chemicals that fix them. On average, each kilo of dyed textile requires 100 to 150 litres of water.

Another formidable process in terms of water consumption is washing. This technique is widely used for denim, especially jeans (2.3 billion sold each year), and requires litres and litres of fresh water, in addition to other resources such as sand.

For the sake of completeness, a third phase of water consumption should be added here, which no longer concerns the manufacture but the use of the garment. We are talking about that annoying but necessary domestic task: washing clothes (although some materials, such as jeans, do not need to be washed as frequently as we are used to).

The care of our clothes also adds significantly to their "water footprint". In France, it is estimated that each household spends around 14,000 litres of water per year to wash its T-shirts, socks and other underwear... That is 12% of domestic water consumption.

Water consumed... and used

Beyond the quantitative aspect, our clothes have a second major impact on water: they pollute it.

According to the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), the textile industry is responsible for 20% of water pollution worldwide. And, once again, the impact is distributed throughout the life cycle of the garment.

During the extraction of the raw material, the pollution is mainly linked to the chemicals used by the growers. Cotton, for example, is traditionally heavily treated with pesticides and heavily fertilised. These products penetrate the water cycle, contaminating groundwater and rivers.

During the manufacturing process, most of the pollution comes from a key stage already mentioned: dyeing. The clothes are first bleached, usually with bleach. Discharged into wastewater, the chlorine it contains is not biodegradable and travels in water, poisoning living beings (plants, animals, humans). As for the dyes themselves, they contain heavy metals, which are also harmful to the environment.

Finally, in terms of use, pollution is mainly generated by the cleaning of clothing made of synthetic materials (68% of world production): nylon, polyester, acrylic or elastane release plastic microparticles with each wash. Too small to be intercepted by wastewater treatment plants, they end up... in nature. It is estimated that 240,000 tonnes of plastic microparticles from synthetic textiles are dumped into the oceans every year.

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