Award Theme 2015

Each year, in consultation with GLASA’s global network, an important topic or theme is identified which frames the GLASA process for the coming year. The theme chosen for 2015 is Water. The latest research indicates that in certain regions access to water and water quality will be a major problem for both people and the apparel industry during the next twenty years if nothing is done to ensure sustainable water management.

In order to increase the attention given to the current water situation, and to identify what leadership and actions are needed to address the water crisis, GLASA 1) produced a state of the apparel sector report focused on water; 2) identified the most promising leadership and practices in this area; and 3) and hosted a global symposium and award ceremony on the topic.

Why Water

Water is necessary for life. Humans depend on water for sustenance, hygiene and sanitation. Clean and reliable water supplies are also crucial for industry, agriculture and energy production. Despite this, more than a billion people currently live in water-scarce regions, and by 2025 an additional 3.5 billion people may be affected. Increasing pollution degrades freshwater and coastal aquatic ecosystems. At the same time, climate change results in changes in precipitation patterns and glacial melting, which alters water supplies and intensifies floods and drought. (Reig, Luo and Proctor, 2014)

The increasing globalisation of trade results in a dramatic increase in the interdependence of the world’s population on the limited freshwater resources that support the production of food, goods and services. It is estimated that 1,000 m3 (1 million liters) to 1,300 m3 per person/year is required to meet minimum standards in food production, giving a more realistic picture of each individual’s minimum water ‘footprint’. A significant part our water footprints are in the form of embedded water in products that are bought and sold by multinational and domestic private sector firms. A recent report estimates that the daily requirement for a UK citizen is over 4,600 liters per person per day when embedded amounts are considered (Ref: WWF, 2009).

As has been dramatically demonstrated through the financial crisis, interdependence can create systemic vulnerabilities to shocks and instability across the world. Companies and consumers in one part of the world are dependent upon and vulnerable to water availability, management and use in another part of the world. Already the world’s freshwater resources (surface and ground water) are stressed by over-abstraction, pollution and environmental degradation of the upstream watershed (WWF, 2009)

Water and the Apparel Sector

Nearly every person on the planet uses cotton, an essential global commodity and one of the largest sources of fiber for the global textile and apparel industry. For millions of people in some of the world’s poorest countries, cotton is also a vital link to the global economy. At the same time, over 53% of cotton fields in the world require irrigation, and a majority of these fields are in regions where water is scarce. The impacts of this are most visible in places such as the Aral Sea where during the period between 1960-2000, the Aral Sea lost approximately 70% of its volume as a result of diverting water to grow cotton in the desert (Ref: China Water Risk).

The textile industry is not only one of the largest polluters but is also one of the largest consumers of water and energy. The industry has high levels of wastewater discharge, about 600 liters of wastewater per kg of textile on average. It is estimated that around 25% of the chemical compounds produced world wide are used in the textile industry and it also takes up to 40,000 liters to irrigate the cotton to maturity and provide finishing for 1 kg textile (Asano and Visvanathan, 2001).

Prices for clothing has fallen 25% in real terms since 1995, partly due to the pressure from discount retail chains that has led to low pricing for textiles. The constant need to cut margins has led some factories to dump wastewater directly into rivers instead of treating it. Treating contaminated water costs around 0.13 US dollars/metric ton and factories can increase margins substantially by sending wastewater directly to rivers. Substances often found in high concentrations near textile plants include heavy metals, known carcinogens, fibers and may organic materials. The oxygen required to breakdown organic compounds can lead to a reduction in fish population and stagnant water (Carmody, 2010).

An estimated 65% of the world’s clothing is now manufactured in China. However, China is also one of the worlds most water stressed countries. Despite the 2008 Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law aiming at limiting pollution and discharge, 70% of China’s rivers and lakes were significantly contaminated in 2010. 50% of China’s cities have polluted groundwater and over 30% of China is affected by acid rain (Ref: China Water Risk).

Aware of the fact that China must support 20% of the world’s population with just 7% of the world’s water sources, and that it holds a reputation for being one of the least water-efficient countries compared to its fellow G20 countries, the Chinese government has made water efficiency and conservation a top priority, and agriculture is firmly part of this agenda (Ref: China water risk). Further, China’s pursuit of water security poses an “existential threat” to the fashion industry as policy makers increasingly target textiles – one of the country’s most polluting, water intensive sectors that emits “lots of wastewater for not a lot of money.” (Ref: Textile Exchange)

On a national level are the several water shortage and droughts weakening China’s economic development. Water shortages are responsible for direct economic losses of 35 billion US dollars every year, about 2.5 times the average annual losses due to floods. For example the 2009 drought left nearly 5 million people and 4.1 million livestock short of drinking water and damaging 8.7 million hectares of cropland (Ref: China Water Risk).

In 2011, drought struck Texas, forcing farmers to abandon millions of acres of cotton and corn, the price tag – $5.2 billion in losses. China’s 2010 drought resulted in knock-on price increases of cotton of 150%. H&M was one of the many companies affected, announcing a 30% drop in profits, after deciding to internalize the inflation (Ref: China Water Risk)