To Dye For: How Water Waste in the Fashion Industry Today is Polluting the Future

When someone offers you a glass of water, what’s your response? If you’re thirsty and it’s a hot day, satisfying your thirst, at least in the U.S., is a pleasure you don’t have to think much about.

Where we work in India, a glass of water is potentially dangerous. Simply put, water pollution occurs when unprocessed sewage or industrial waste ends up in the public water supply.

For us, in Delhi, where our production center is located, the issue is endemic. Delhi has been crowned the world’s 5th most polluted city. We’re a stone’s throw away from the Yamuna River, which according to a Google Maps review has “very poor water condition.” That’s an understatement. When WORK+SHELTER was founded over a decade ago, people would still bathe in the river. Now, the smell of sewage and industrial water is so pervasive it’s hard to even pass by in a moving vehicle. The river is technically “dead,” a painful term used when a river cannot sustain life.

A man looks for recyclable items on the banks of the Yamuna, on the outskirts of New Delhi. Photograph: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

To add insult to injury, this situation is especially tough for the many folks in India who are already struggling to meet basic food needs. Baseline, to get clean water one has to either purchase it for a premium from local water vendors or invest in a water filtration system that in and of itself can cost more than what low-income folks earn in a month. Even then, these systems are not effective if the water is too dirty.

What’s the Deal with Water Pollution in the Fashion Industry?

Water is a key player in the supply chain. Water pollution can actually be the result of many different stages throughout the production process. Take a cotton t-shirt: a large part of the production process surrounds the harvesting of the cotton. However, if that cotton isn’t being sourced organically, there is a high probability it’s getting treated with harmful chemicals and pesticides that the rain ends up washing away, into the groundwater.

A textile manufacturing plant in Tianjin, China. Credit: Lu Guang/Greenpeace

Fast forward, and that cotton has been spun into yarns that will later become your new favorite t-shirt.  But first they need to be dyed. Workers have to mix a variety of different chemicals together to get that color just right, and as a result these dyes could contain toxins such as AZO dyes, which are so bad they have actually been banned in countries including China, Japan, India, Vietnam, and the European Union. Not only can these chemicals harm workers, but if they are not disposed of properly these toxins then go and wreak havoc in the environment. The garment dyeing process is no simple process, and sometimes means dyeing that yarn/fabric/t-shirt several times to get it just right.

Water pollution is the most notable impact of clothing production, with around 20 percent of global industrial water pollution traceable directly back to the textiles industry.

When you look at that finished garment, it’s impossible to know everything that went into creating it. What were the conditions like during production? How much water was used throughout the process? And most importantly…

How is Water Waste Discarded After Being Used in the Garment Production Process?

Where does it continue or end its lifespan? That water waste or “sludge” can be defined as all of the leftover chemicals and toxins extracted after producing a garment. Unfortunately, oftentimes the answer to that question is that it ends up getting dumped into nearby waterways, where some people see it as “out of sight, out of mind.” I cannot stress how common this is, with  75%-80% of waterways in India polluted.

One process we have observed in dyeing facilities several filtration or separating stages and then finally an evaporation stage where the sun was used to evaporate remaining water, leaving only the waste. The compacted waste then gets picked up by a waste management specialist and taken to a facility to be disposed of properly.

But the issue is complicated. Well-resourced factories have the best chance of accommodating regulations by investing into water waste management systems. Small scale factories can have a harder time investing in these systems. In low-income areas, this becomes more than an environmental problem, it becomes a case of ethics. These factory workers need their jobs in order to make an income to support themselves and their families, however if the factories are not disposing of their water waste properly then all of the employees are at risk, along with those living in nearby communities.

How Does WORK+SHELTER Cut Down on Water Pollution?

One option is to pressure mills to build proper water waste management infrastructure over time. This requires serious relationships in order for them to see that the downside of NOT building this infrastructure will cost them over time. It also requires the willingness to spend more on fabric upfront, since the mills have to cover the costs of this infrastructure somewhere, and accessing capital in developing markets can be especially tough.

Another more direct option is to only purchase certified materials. For us, over 70% of the fabrics we purchase are GOTS certified. GOTS, also known as the Global Organic Textile Standard, aims to define requirements that ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labeling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer. Basically, to be GOTS certified means that the clothing or textiles are made through a sustainable process, using organically grown fibers. 

Organic cotton is grown without toxic chemicals, but unless the clothes are certified under GOTS, bluesign®, or Oeko-Tex certifications, toxic chemicals may be added in the textile production process.

When being considered for a GOTS certification, mills undergo a heavy inspection to ensure that the fabrics are the real deal. Remember those scary AZO dyes we mentioned earlier? A large part of the GOTS certification process involves checking fabric production processes to ensure there are no AZO dyes or other harmful dyes being used.

Swaddles for our client This Feels Nice, made from GOTS-certified organic cotton.


While water pollution is a very serious issue in the broader fashion and promotional products industries, we are excited to be able to provide access to eco-friendly materials for our clients. If you’re curious about our in-stock GOTS-certified fabric offerings, drop us a line at [email protected].