In a country where water is unlimited, clean and affordable, its sometimes easy to take it for granted and not appreciate the value it has let alone acknowledge the necessity it is to our basic survival. It’s also hard to imagine with a world covered in water, that 22 million people on our planet do not have clean water to drink.
Fashion uses a lot of water with an estimated 10,000 litres to make one pair of jeans, and this doesn’t even include the water we use to do our home washing. Water is a problem around the world whether its having too much of it or too little. One issue which keeps me up at night is dirty water - 1.3 trillion gallons of water is used each year to dye clothing and approximately 85% of this isn’t cleaned before being returned back resulting in pollution. Whether it’s chemicals from production or incorrectly disposed of waste, water pollution is a huge and growing global issue with contaminated water causing illness and death across the globe. In poor countries where water purification is rare and expensive, contaminated water can lead to life-threatening diseases and even infant mortality. It’s also important to understand that due to climate and low wages the countries who produce our clothing tend to be developing countries, who suffer from water shortage with little means to clean even the water they do have. Inspiring organisations and charities such as Frank Water provide the means and educate people around the world in poorer communities to clean the water themselves. However, these communities and charities find themselves not only working beside the natural world, but they find themselves fighting against our industry. Poorly managed water from industries such as fashion, which isn’t managed and cleaned correctly after use, contaminates their waters that causes crop damage, endless health issues ending in unhabitable living conditions.
“Are we really prioritising producing clothing over people’s health and fundamental human rights?”
I have seen first-hand polluted water from a denim factory in the north of China polluting the local river. This image of purple dyed water slowing flowing into the local river has stayed with me, that feeling of guilt and blame haunts me; it wasn’t my hands that did this, but my industry had created this damage. The polluted river ran through the local village polluting soil thus preventing crops to grow and contaminating drinking water. This village is now empty, the residents had no choice but to pack up and move to a safer, cleaner home. Because; economically speaking, a profitable factory is better for the economy than a thriving village who had lived there for decades. Are we really prioritising producing clothing over people’s health and fundamental human rights?
“The fashion industry has been stealing from the environment for years, and we are now beginning to pay for IT, through the side effects of climate change.”
We are caught now in a difficult situation, our western demand for consumption has created profitable opportunities for developing countries around the world. However, the competition, the demand for cheaper and faster production had led to corners being cut throughout the supply chain. The fashion industry has been stealing from the environment for years, and we are now beginning to pay for it, through the side effects of climate change.
I believe that each retailer is equally responsible for the impact that the demand they put on their factories has on the environment and the surrounding communities. We (the industry) can make clothes better, we can borrow from our environment with a promise that we can give back. The amount of water the industry uses is a key concern across many products, denim is a well know thirsty fashion garment and one which I have always been driven to try and control. There are a lot of different ways to cut our water consumption when it comes to making denim. Whenever I say this I am asked why if there is a solution, why other brands cannot do it as well. My answer is simply that these ‘less water’ ways of working can make the design and production processes harder. We have to think outside the box on how to achieve certain colours and finishes and in some cases, we cannot achieve the finished look we desire. For a brand like us this is annoying, but we head back to the drawing board to figure it out. For larger brands who demand big numbers and re-making best-sellers from their last collection is key to their bottom line, using processes which could alter the look of their previously winning product is not worth the risk, even if it costs the earth.
“as shoppers, you have the power to decide what is made and what isn’t.”
Everything at TOBEFRANK is made in the best way we can. If we can’t achieve what we want, then we simply don’t make it. I have outlined a few key ‘less water’ areas we work on for you to have a gander at. But I’d like to finish by saying that as shoppers, you have the power to decide what is made and what isn’t. The retailers look at bestselling styles and customer demands when deciding what they produce and how, you have the power to change the world. If we demand sustainably made clothing then the they will have no choice but do change the way they work..
All my love
We have outlined a few of our key areas of focus when it comes to less water solutions below:
Ozone technology harnesses the natural bleaching capabilities of ozone gas to give a range of overall and specialty bleach effects with substantially reduced environmental impact. Ozone does not eliminate water use in jeans finishing. However, it substantially reduces consumption of water as well as energy, chemicals, enzymes and stones. Ozone offers important advantages over traditional wet finishing - oxygen (O2) is converted to ozone gas (O3), jeans are dampened, exposed to the ozone and rinsed, the ozone is reconverted to ordinary oxygen and then released into the environment. While chemical bleaching or stonewashing uses six to seven washes and rinses, ozone finishing requires two to three. Mehmet, our production manager in Turkey, reports that we achieve approximately a 50% reduction in water and chemical consumption by using ozone finishing.
When a denim looks worn this has been done by hand. Rows of workers fold the denim and then scrape it with something very similar to a sanding block. It’s bad for the environment, but mainly it’s bad for people. I have visited denim finishing units all over the world and some of them are harrowing - I coughed up blue after spending one day on the factory floor with the workers. Laser finishing is brilliant. We still need people to run the machines, but they are safe. Computer-driven laser technology can replicate localised wear and whiskers without water, chemicals or stones. Laser is precise - bleaching based on a design from a computer which can be repeated in mass. However, equipment is costly, each garment must be individually positioned for treatment, and only one side can be treated at a time, so lead-times of production are longer.
RESPONSIBLY RECYCLING WATER.
If a factory is approved by an auditing company, it will need to have a functioning water treatment process facility. This is normally an area on site which takes the water somewhere else and holds it until its full. Very rarely (I’m told they do but I’m yet to see it) do the auditors go to the ‘off-site’ water centre to check the water cleaning process.
Normally a lot of chemicals are used, so these need to be cleaned from the water, which then goes through a rigorous cleaning process. The methods used include physical processes such as filtration, sedimentation and distillation; biological processes such as slow sand filters or biologically active carbon; chemical processes such as flocculation and chlorination; and the use of electromagnetic radiation such as ultraviolet light. Every water plantation is different and depends mainly on the type of water they are cleaning and for what purpose, such as drinking or industrial use. One of the main issues with cleaning water is what happens to the dirt that is taken out. On average 60% of the dirt will naturally biodegrade but the 40% left over will stay forever. We don’t use any chemicals in our production, and we re-use our water over 4 times before it’s taken to the treatment centre.
BETTER SOURCED FABRICS.
Looking at water usage at the finishing stage is great, but we at TBF believe it’s also key to focus on the fabric production stage too. Cotton growth uses thousands of litres of water. Organic cotton and Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) cotton still uses water, but the amount is monitored, and water is re-used responsibly. At TBF we never use conventional cotton because there’s no traceability on the water or chemicals used or the soil treatment.
We try to split the brand into recycled fabrics (using no water) and organic or naturally grown fabrics finished with water management systems. We do this split so we can understand how our choices as a manufacturer can impact on the supply chain. Cancelling all new cottons and only using recycled cotton would impact the farmers and using only new cottons would increase the fabric waste going to landfill. Also, the softness we can achieve from organic cotton cannot be achieved from recycled fibres without using extra finishing processes. We hope this split will prevent negative impacts in all areas - we know we are currently small, but we this way of thinking continues to be part of our DNA and we hope others will adopt it.