The Future of Water and Circular Economies: A look at the textile industry

In the face of complex climate crises, we must find creative solutions. Climate change has the ability to alter the innate processes of our planet, and threaten the vital resources that make Earth habitable. Water is especially vulnerable and especially crucial. 

As climate change alters the natural processes that support life, the water cycle is most threatened. A report from UN-water, a sub mechanism of the United Nations which focuses specifically on water related issues, reported in 2015 that “a majority of climate change effects will be felt through the water cycle.” This is already being proven true — both on the individual and global levels. Roughly 2.3 billion people in the world live in water scarce areas which, without serious change, is only expected to worsen with continued population increases. On a global level, climate change will continue to cause more natural disasters that threaten a number of other rights such as food security, housing, and education. 

Unfortunately, the problems of individual water scarcity and water-related natural disasters do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, water issues manifest into a dangerous, self fulfilling cycle. Increases in global temperature result in increased evaporation, which is a driving factor in droughts and dry soils — leaving millions without access to water or agricultural resources. As global temperatures rise, this warmer air also has the ability to hold more water vapor for longer periods of time which intensifies the magnitude of water related natural disasters and threatens coastal cities with mass flooding. As seen in figure 1, the increased water vapor held in warmer air can increase the intensity of rainstorms, and with little infrastructure to adapt to these needs, clean water supplies are threatened by runoff. Roughly 90% of natural disasters are water related, and climate change’s impact on the water cycle is set to magnify the intensity of these natural disasters. 

Figure 1 – The Climate Reality Project

In my last article, I discussed how Chile is designing their COVID-19 economy recovery plan with their priority on achieving the country’s Nationally Determined Climate Targets. Chile seeks to put climate at the forefront of its development through the implementation of the circular economy model. This economic model has the potential to be extremely useful in safeguarding the future of water.

Siraj Tahir is a senior engineer for ARUP, an architectural consulting firm that is deeply committed to the current and generational well being of the climate. Tahir has worked extensively examining innovative design and economic approaches to meet future water demands and mitigate future water related shortages and disasters. He became interested in how the principles of the circular economy model, which seeks to continually re-use resources, could be used to safeguard water resources in the future. Changing current business models to prioritize limited water usage can drastically lessen the intensity of water scarcity challenges. 

To illustrate the relationship between the economy and water usage, let’s look at the textile industry in India, which uses nearly 580 million cubic metres of water on dying clothing. Freeing up water usage from this industry has the potential to meet the daily water needs of over 32 million people. Fortunately, the technology to re-use this water already exists. Let’s look at two examples.

Pangaia is a material sciences company which pushes the limit of sustainable clothing with a mission to save the environment. Their clothing uses botanical dyes – made from food waste and natural resources with zero water waste, resulting in an almost non-existent e environmental impact. At the end of a garment’s life, primarily through the use of natural seaweed fiber, garments biodegrade seamlessly back into the Earth. 

While water-saving garment design is useful at the level of individual companies, true change must also be seen at levels of governance. This is already being done. The Eco-Innovation Action Plan of the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, has begun a partnership with DyeCoo. Based in Amsterdam, DyeCoo is a “leader in water-free and chemical-free textile dyeing.” 

Countries can play an important role in aiding the development of a water-free textile industry by applying supportive import duties on sustainable textile production. This would manifest into legislation that would apply conducive tax breaks for sustainably made clothing, and import penalties on textile products made with high water waste. Governments have an incentive to pursue the circular economy model because investing in the future of the planet doubles as an investment in the economic well being. The circular economy model is a more efficient, less costly model that can outshine competitors by finding innovative ways to generate revenue. For example, if the European Union were to adopt a large scale commitment to a zero water waste textile industry, they would access the potential of economic growth through the creation of jobs for over 1.6 million people. Globally, larger initiatives into water sustainability within the textile industry have the potential to seriously curb the water crisis. 

Climate change is already altering the ability for human and non-human life to survive on this planet by diminishing the planet’s most valuable resources. In order to curb climate change, we must change the fundamental ways in which we use the planet’s resources and begin investing in our planet as much as we invest in our economies.

In doing so, we can begin to support the health of our present day economy and the health of the planet on a generational scale. There is a role for everyone in changing the future of climate change, so long as we don’t forget our responsibility to each other and this planet in our consumption practices.

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