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Processing, Dyeing & Finishing
  Reducing water footprint in textile industry

The dyeing process isn't the only major water consumer, but growing crops and many other industrial processes consume significant quantities of water, assert Pratibha Thapa and Preeti Sodhi Thakur.

Scarcity usually encourages better management of resources. Water resources are getting scarcer due to intensifying demand. Water is not only used in the domestic perspective, but also in agriculture and industry in the production of commercial goods, from food to fabric. Water security is one of the most substantial and fastest-growing social, political and economic challenges faced today. It is also a fast-unfolding environmental crisis. According to a recent research of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 47 per cent of the world's population will face severe water shortages by 2030. This supply-demand imbalance is mainly caused by population growth, urbanisation, climate change and unsustainable use. Beside the apparent implications on the environment and the community directly affected, water scarcity will also generate problems for countries' economies if nothing is done.

Water footprint

Water is a precious natural resource that needs to be conserved. Water footprint is the amount of water used by individuals and manufacturers either directly or indirectly.

  • Direct water usage indicates using water directly for drinking, taking a shower or washing.
  • Indirect use is the water needed to grow or produce the various consumer items. For example, the water footprint of a cotton t-shirt is 2,600 litres and covers the water used from cotton plantation until the t-shirt is put on the stores' shelves, passing through all processes of carding, spinning, weaving, dying, printing and transport.

The water footprint concept was coined in 2002 by Arjen Hoekstra, a professor of water management at University of Twente in the Netherlands. He stated that "The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of freshwater used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business. Water use is measured in terms of water volumes consumed (evaporated or incorporated into a product) and/or polluted per unit of time. A water footprint can be calculated for a particular product, for any well-defined group of consumers (for example, an individual, family, village, city, province, state or nation) or producers (for example, a public organisation, private enterprise or economic sector). The water footprint is a geographically explicit indicator, showing not only volumes of water use and pollution, but also the locations." The water footprint includes green water, blue water and grey water footprints.

  • Green water footprint: Volume of rainwater consumed during the production process.
  • Blue water footprint: Volume of surface and groundwater consumed as a result of the production of a good or service.
  • The grey water footprint refers to pollution and is defined as the volume of freshwater that is required to assimilate the load of pollutants given natural background concentrations and existing ambient water quality standards.

Water footprint of the textile industry

The textile industry is the third largest consumer of water in the world. It uses huge amount of water throughout all processing operations like dyeing, finishing, fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, bleaching and mercerising, etc. The following diagrams show that water use varies between different textile operations.

Source: EnviroWise (1997), 'Water and Chemical Use in the Textile Dyeing and Finishing Industry', Environmental Best Practice Program, GG62, P37.

The dyeing process isn't the only major water consumer, but growing crops and many other industrial processes consume significant quantities of water. The following statistics shows the water consumption in other textiles processes:

  • According to the Water Footprint Network, cotton consumption is responsible for almost 2.6 per cent of the global water use.
  • It is estimated that dyeing of textiles consumes 2.4 trillion gallons of water every year.
  • The ratio of water to textile production is 200 tons to 1 ton in most fabric manufacturing facilities.
  • 500 gallons (1,893 litre) of water is required to produce enough fabric to cover a couch.

In addition to water use, the impact of textile wastewater on water quality must be considered. After all textile processes water generally returned to our ecosystem without treatment - meaning that the wastewater contains chemicals such as formaldehyde (HCHO), chlorine and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. These chemicals cause both environmental damage and human disease. The World Bank estimates that 17-20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment. They've also identified 72 toxic chemicals in our water solely from textile dyeing, 30 of which are cannot be removed. This represents a horrendous environmental problem for the clothing designers and other textile manufacturers. Though many efforts has been made to reduce or recycle water use through zero discharge systems. But, adoption has been slow due to the inability to consistently reproduce precise colour, and the high cost of treatment to meet water quality standards for the dyeing processes.

Strategies for reducing water footprint

Water consumption in textile industries can be reduced by implementing various changes ranging from simple procedures to more multifaceted such as:

Technical improvement measures

Generally applicable :

  • Pipes, valves, pumps and fuses in good order and not leaking;
  • Cooling water switched-off when not necessary;
  • Overflow protection for vessels.

More advanced

  • Counter-current washing in-between processing stages, saves up to 75 per cent rinsing water;
  • Automated water flow dosing systems for fully controlled water use;

Best practices

  • Water reuse systems
  • Specific low water use technology like low liquor ratio dyeing

Management initiatives:

CEO Water Mandate: It is a public-private initiative projected to connect companies in the development of sustainable public water policies and implementation and revelation practices. Signatories to the CEO Water Mandate include H&M, Levi Strauss & Co and Nike.

The Sustainable Water Group: In this working group of the CSR (Corporate social responsibility) several textile brands (Gap, Levi's, Nike, Nordstrom and Timberland) work together on standards for waste water quality including the efficient use of water.

  • Credible certificate: There are certain textile standards that include requirements relevant to a responsible water use.

Oeko-Tex Standard 1000 and 100plus: The Oeko-Tex Standard 1000 focuses on environmental-friendly textile processing. On water use the standard requires a thrifty as possible use without posing specific requirements yet. Oeko-Tex 100plus is a product label combining the 100 and 1000 standard throughout the whole production chain.

GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard): The GOTS standard requires documentation of staff training in the conservation of water in the processing plant and record keeping of water consumption by wet processing units.

Bluesign: This deal with the water use issue through the resource efficiency pillar of the standard, no specific water use requirements are set. Bluesign requires eliminating problematic chemicals in production and operating an adequate wastewater treatment system.

  • AirDye Technology: Colorep, a California company, has developed their AirDye technology which helps to bind color to textiles without the use of toxic fixatives and with no water at all. Rather than water, the AirDye technique uses heat to transfer dyes from paper to the surface of textiles, which means the color is transferred at the molecular level. In this eco-friendly dye technique, all paper is recycled, and since the dyes are inert, any waste dyes can be reused in their original state.


"No water = no business." This fact challenges different industries in different ways. The textile industry is reliant upon water intensive processes to generate fiber and fabrics for garment creation, thus it is important to measure all the dimensions of their water footprint and looking beyond the direct consumption of their own operations to the water dependency and impact of their supply chains, as well as those of the users of their products. In a water-constrained world, managing water related risks becomes an imperative. Knowing the water footprint of the business is a first step toward identifying and quantifying those risks.


  1. "H2O", Sustain, World Business Council For Sustainable Development, Issue 29, December 2007
  2. "Water use from fiber to fashion" CSR Planet Factsheet, October 2010.
  3. "Water footprint - the next challenge" By Ana María Peña, CBI external expert. September 16, 2010
  4. http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/home
  5. http://www.savewater.com.au/how-to-save-water/in-business/textiles
  6. http://www.indiantextilejournal.com/articles/FAdetails.asp?id=1431%20
  7. http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/textiles-and-water-use/
  8. http://www.innovateus.net/innopedia/what-water-footprint


Pratibha Thapa is an assistant professor in the Clothing & Textiles Dept., Government Home Science College, Chandigarh; and Preeti Sodhi Thakur is a senior instructor in the Clothing & Textiles Dept., Government Home Science College, Chandigarh.

published April , 2014
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