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Saving Water Is on Trend in the Apparel Industry

A few powerhouses are leading efforts in the fashion industry to be more water smart in every part of their supply chains. The rest of the industry needs to catch up, writes Ceres’ Kirsten James.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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New Fashion Products’ Los Angeles facility is home to some of the leaders in the fashion world who are working to be more water smart, including EILEEN FISHER, Levi Strauss & Co. and Patagonia.Kirsten James

It takes about three years’ worth of drinking water to make your favorite cotton T-shirt using conventional manufacturing practices. That’s roughly 713 gallons (2,700 liters).

The fashion industry’s dependence on water is nothing new: From growing cotton to manufacturing textiles, water is an essential component throughout the fashion supply chain.

In recent years, however, the fashion industry has been making huge strides on water stewardship. From conducting life-cycle assessments on key products to innovating water-less dye processes to pledging to use organic cotton, many notable apparel juggernauts have begun implementing best practices throughout their waterlogged supply chains.

And with every season, more and more fashion houses are diving into the challenge.

Last month, I visited New Fashion Products’ Los Angeles facility and saw firsthand how some of the leaders in the fashion world are rising to the challenge of making their clothing more water smart. New Fashion Products is an apparel manufacturer for some of the most influential names in the denim industry, including EILEEN FISHER, Levi Strauss & Co. and Patagonia.

My hosts for the visit – Shona Quinn, sustainability leader at EILEEN FISHER and Bobby Ahn, president and CEO at New Fashion Products – literally walked me through the process to make your favorite pair of jeans. From the design room to the textile warehouse, to the washing process, they described how water use comes into play at each step. We even hiked up to the roof to see the 0.6-MV solar array that produces 80 percent of their energy use. It never occurred to me just how much effort – and how much potential water – goes into crafting each pair of jeans.

Working with denim, a material that typically needs to be washed up to six times to get the right feel and coloring, the New Fashion Products team has explored – with the urging of clients like EILEEN FISHER – several ways to reduce water use. The facility has experimented with enzymes that can decrease the number of washing cycles over time as well as using ozone machines that bleach garments without water entirely. More recently, New Fashion Products has moved to machines with formaldehyde-free resins to limit water pollution.

Eileen Fisher is one of several companies at New Fashion Products’ Los Angeles facility that is increasing the water sustainability of its products and operations. (Kirsten James)

EILEEN FISHER is one of several companies at New Fashion Products’ Los Angeles facility that is increasing the water sustainability of its products and operations. (Kirsten James)

New Fashion Products and its environmental values are part of a bigger fashion movement toward water stewardship. For EEILEEN FISHER, Levi’s and Patagonia, being clients of the facility is only one facet of their action-driven work toward better water management across their supply chains, both through company strategies and industry collaborations.

From the field, to the factory, to the policy table, EILEEN FISHER has become one of the industry leaders in sustainability. The label is renowned for its long-standing commitments to the environment and has advocated for progressive policies at the local, state and federal level for years.

In 2015, EILEEN FISHER introduced Vision2020, a campaign that aims to scrutinize and improve the brand’s practices. As part of Vision2020, EILEEN FISHER committed to using water in an environmentally responsible manner throughout its operations and supply chain. The brand has already been using 20 percent less water in their Bluesign-certified dyehouse in China and plans for all its cotton and linen to be organic by 2020.

One of EILEEN FISHER’s biggest goals, however, is to inspire others in the fashion industry to reconsider how they do business.

Another pioneer, Levi Strauss & Co., led the industry’s first comprehensive life-cycle assessment for one of their core products, 501 jeans. Using that original assessment as its guide, Levi’s sourced 12 percent of their total cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative in 2015 and has since launched a goal to use 100 percent sustainable cotton in its products by 2020. The denim giant also began its Water<Less campaign in 2011, which uses finishing techniques that can save up to 96 percent of water used in the denim finishing process. They introduced New Fashion Products to this technique in addition to other vendors. The company is also open sourcing these technologies in the spirit of collaboration and the sustainability of the industry as a whole.

Patagonia has also turned the tides on its water stewardship journey. The clothing company has set out to reduce the environmental impact of its supply chain through initiatives such as its Chemical and Environmental Impacts Program (CEIP), which covers areas such as chemicals management and water use in its global supply chain. In 2007, Patagonia became the first brand to join the network of Bluesign system partners and as of spring 2015, 56 percent of the company’s fabrics are Bluesign approved. This rigorous certification eliminates hazardous chemicals in manufacturing, ensuring that the products sold are safe for people and the environment.

In addition to their individual work on water stewardship, EILEEN FISHER and Levi’s are partners of Ceres through Connect the Drops, a campaign elevating the voice of California businesses in favor of resilient water solutions at both the local and state levels. All three companies are members of Businesses for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP), a coalition that works directly with key allies in the business community to pass meaningful energy and climate change legislation, which is very intertwined with water issues.

Even companies like EILEEN FISHER, Levi’s and Patagonia still have work to do to become 100 percent sustainable in their water practices and beyond, but their progress cannot be denied. In an industry that is parched, leaders have emerged that have the opportunity to not only change their company practices, but inform and transform the fashion world as a whole.

And back in Los Angeles, New Fashion Products’ clients make sure to keep the facility honest about its water stewardship. All companies perform audits of the manufacturing facility’s best practices, including energy and water. Ahn says this process makes him more aware of how to do business and drive progress forward, “As a collective, it makes us better.”

Looking good and doing good are no longer mutually exclusive. The apparel industry needs to continue on a path toward sustainable water stewardship or risk being left high and dry.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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