SUBLIME: Drying Out Fashion

It takes 2700 litres of water to produce one cotton t-shirt from ‘crop to shop’. Just imagine how many full swimming pools it took to manufacture the contents of your wardrobe. In the meantime, 5000 children die each day due to lack of clean water.

All of us need to remember that stark equation: designers, retailers, manufacturers and shoppers. We all contribute to the plunder of the world’s most precious resource.

Globally, the clothing industry is worth over $1 trillion and ranked the second biggest global economic activity for intensity of trade. It contributes to seven per cent of world exports and employs about 26 million people, supporting a significant number of economies and individual incomes around the world.


Lara Torres. MA Fashion Artefact

Fashion is a super consumer of water as it is a key component at every stage of the highly complex supply chain. From the growing of the raw material, to the dying and processing of the fabric, the manufacture and transportation of products to market and then the life of the product once in the home through washing and pressing. The impact is also huge in terms of carbon: the British clothing and textiles sector currently produces around 3.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, two million tonnes of waste and 70 million tonnes of waste water per year – with 1.5 million tonnes of unwanted clothing ultimately ending up in landfill. Dwindling cotton yields and increased water scarcity mean the fashion industry must re-think the way it does business.

In the developed world we have become addicted to shopping. The advent of fast fashion – lines that update on a weekly basis and garments that sell for less than their real social, environmental and economic value – have made clothes seem disposable. As their monetary value has been eroded so have our attitudes as consumers towards them. For many it no longer seems strange to wear something once and throw it away or leave it at the bottom of the wardrobe because it’s cheaper and easier to buy something new than to take care of what we already own. However, as with all fashion trends, the tide is turning. Ten years after fast fashion bounced into our consciousness, people in the industry are looking at ideas which will allow it to turn its back on its chronic dependency on water.

It is the next generation that will have to pioneer a completely different approach to fashion.

Mel Bagshaw. MA Fashion Photography

Here at the London College of Fashion, we have set up the Centre for Sustainable Fashionto encourage new ideas and radical thinking. The Director, Dilys Williams, says:

‘The fashion business is heavily dependent on water. Cotton is the most commonly used fibre in clothing and there is currently no alternative fibre with the same versatility and potential. However, cotton is one of the most water intensive crops on the planet.’

With the launch of the Centre, came the Fashioning the Future awards – the only international competition to celebrate the work of students and recent graduates engaging with sustainable design. The competition was pioneered through my work as a London Leader – a group of individuals across London who are pioneering sustainability with their sector, organisation or community, by equipping people with the knowledge and skills to work collaboratively to achieve a more sustainable future. Underlining the growing need to tackle fashion’s dependency on water we made water the theme of this year’s awards. Young designer Emma Rigby won the category “Water: The Right for All Citizens of this Planet” for her ideas in incorporating design trends into garments that encourage the wearer to wash the garments less often. Her research led her to seven factors that reduce the need for laundering, such as fibre type and colour.

Entrants to the award were asked to visualise a fashion industry where the water cost was put at the centre of the design and development process. They had to use ingenuity to create fashion that is not water heavy and which allows the industry to break the boundaries of current structures, while achieving a doable, scalable and desirable future for fashion.

Competitions like Fashioning the Future enable educators to help young designers consider the scarcity of water and enable the next generation of fashion industry professionals to enter the market with the skills to edit out the bad choices for us, before they hit the shop floor. They have the power to eradicate 70 per cent of a product’s impact on the design table. The challenge that reducing water usage creates is seen as an opportunity for innovation.

Grass roots projects are characteristic of the sustainability movement and have an impact on the mainstream. Free Radicals, a group of over 30 academics and individuals from Universities and organisations across the UK and Europe show how collaboration can lead to unexpected and transforming solutions. One of their campaigns is Water Amnesty. Professor Tony Ryan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Science at the University of Sheffield said:

“Why are they looking for water on Mars? Because without water life couldn’t exist – it’s our most precious resource and everyday we waste it. Water Amnesty aims to make people think differently about the water they use and why, making them better custodians of our aqueous legacy.”

Free Radicals bring their knowledge and expertise from disparate backgrounds such as fashion and science. They are currently working on clothing that has the ability to purify air and washing powder that could help purify water systems. The ideas are in embryonic stages but progress is rapid as the problems demand.

Of course we need more leadership. Governments have a key role to play in helping regulate the industry and gently push it in the right direction. Britain has started this progress with the DEFRA clothing roadmap and – but we need a step change which means legislation and compulsory industry benchmarks. Our students today are the key players of tomorrow, together we hope to help government help the fashion industry to change.

London College of Fashion and Free Radicals