Fashion Gets Creative About the Global Water Shortage

Despite fears of losing money on new investments, water conservation has become a major industry focus.

Irrigation of a cotton crop. (Photo: Fairfax Media/Getty Images)

Jul 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Amy DuFault is a sustainable fashion writer, consultant as well as Digital Content & Communications Director at the Brooklyn Fashion+Design Accelerator

For the fashion industry, access to water is essential.

As drought conditions worsen, and as water use is predicted to increase by 50 percent between 2007 and 2025 in developing countries and by 18 percent in developed ones, “there is a growing awareness of the potential challenges that come from increasing competition for this finite resource,” Reuters reports.

Despite fears of losing money on new investments, water conservation has become a major industry focus, forcing companies to think outside the box and hire creatives who might once have been considered “risky.”

Floating farms that use desalinized ocean water to grow crops or dye houses attempting to reuse their dye water might sound futuristic, but these forward-thinking initiatives are taking place right now worldwide.

So, Why Should You Care? Almost 60 percent of 500 global companies have already experienced the detrimental impacts of water, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project’s Global Water Report for 2013. In 2011, for example, the Gap was forced to cut its profit forecast by 22 percent after drought cut into cotton crops in Texas. Fashion mega-houses Primark and New Look, fearing looming water regulations, have embraced China’s water-conserving Better Mill Initiative.

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute in San Francisco is currently working on a fashion-focused branch of certification called Fashion Positive that would help companies look not just at the products they’re designing but also material reutilization and water management.

“In happy times, we don’t necessarily have a pain source that forces us to be innovative, but people get most real when they have limitations,” says Lewis Perkins, senior vice president of Cradle to Cradle.

Using the Cradle to Cradle framework, developed by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, and the requirements of the Institute’s Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program, Fashion Positive brands and supply chain partners can develop revolutionary products and materials to transform the fashion industry and the world.

With groundwater basins that supply 2 billion people facing rapid depletion, many tech-focused and nature-loving companies are anxious to be part of the fashion sea change.

Consider Javier F. Ponce of Forward Thinking Architecture, who created Smart Floating Farms inspired by Chinese floating fish farms. Ponce says he hasn’t done the research for hydroponically growing cotton or hemp but that it would be a “very interesting subject to explore.”

“Currently, the SFF project introduces water-saving growing systems, different desalination techniques, passive and active, and we aim to reduce water use and recycle it during the production cycle,” Ponce says.

The project will be one to watch to see if it can transcend food and move on to apparel, a likely crossover when considering organic cotton or hemp plant farming.

Rachel Atwell has her own fashion-related farming study in progress. A graduate student in the crop science department at North Carolina State University, Atwell and her adviser, Chris Reberg-Horton, along with Keith Edmisten, North Carolina state cotton specialist, began a project investigating cover crop mulches for weed suppression in both conventional and organic cotton production. The project is focused on evaluating the ability of a cover crop mulch to aid farmers in weed management.

“Cover crops also have the potential to conserve soil moisture throughout the growing season by reducing water losses through runoff and evapotranspiration,” Atwell says.

She says farmers can obtain a multitude of benefits from using cover crops in their production systems. “If high levels of cover crop biomass are achieved and farmers can effectively terminate their cover crop, this strategy can aid conventional farmers in combating herbicide resistant weeds and help organic farmers reduce tillage.”

Let’s hope the fashion industry continues to spearhead creativity.