How global trade fuels water insecurity in the Global South

France’s proposed bill to slow down fast fashion and set higher standards for environmental supply chain transparency is an important first step in addressing the hidden water crisis in global trade.

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France’s new bill targeting the environmental impact of fast fashion, which won unanimous parliamentary approval, would add a surcharge of €5 on any fast fashion item and ban advertising by certain companies. While this sounds high for a tax, cheap clothes carry heavy hidden costs, with negative impacts on health, climate and conflict.

The global trade and production of textiles contributes 6-8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and creates 92 million tonnes of waste. Like other major export sectors, such as food and mining, fashion is also having an outsized impact on water – largely in water-scarce and climate-vulnerable regions of the world. 

Unfair water footprints

To produce a single pair of jeans can use up to 8,000 litres of water, a leather bag over 17,000 litres. If this water was drawn from plentiful renewable supply sources, properly treated and recirculated, their footprint – for water at least – may be sustainable. But to minimize costs and increase profits, production tends to gravitate to regions where labour is cheap and environmental regulations are lacking. The result is systemic pollution and over-abstraction of water.

These damages are not reflected in the price tag – but someone pays the price. While water-intensive trade has driven economic growth, there is a hefty clean-up cost. China spends billions of US dollars each year to clean up its rivers and lakes, 70 per cent of which were estimated to be unsuitable for human use in the early 2000s. 

In Bangladesh, which sends around 70 per cent of its garment production to the EU and UK, river pollution is severely impacting public health and the ability to grow food in surrounding farms. It is also depleting groundwater – the Bangladeshi textile sector is estimated to pump up roughly 1,500 million m3 (400 Olympic swimming pools’ worth) each year. 

A cause for conflict

One study found that over half of the EU’s water footprint from all its external trade originates in regions facing moderate to severe water scarcity. In the context of climate change, competition between domestic and trade demands for water in those regions will increasingly be a political issue. 

From Iraq to Panama, public protests over allocations of water in areas of export industry have become rallying points for political change and civil unrest. And yet, to date there are no trade rules or regulations that constrain abstraction, pollution or injustice in the treatment of water.

Moving beyond voluntary measures 

While water is notably absent from the G7 Fashion Pact, several industry-focused initiatives on improving water stewardship in textiles have emerged. These include the Open Apparel Registry, Sustainable Apparel Coalition and a voluntary agreement from WRAP in the UK which has set a target of 30 per cent water reduction for the industry by 2030. Such initiatives encourage reporting on water impact and action to reduce it, but engagement is voluntary. However, the trend is towards due diligence relating to environmental and climate risks becoming a legal requirement. 

From 2025, the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) requires large companies to report on impacts of foreign operations and supply chains on local water resources in food, fertilizer, textiles and green hydrogen production. The accompanying Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, likely to pass into law from 2027, is designed to compel companies to act on negative impacts.

Morocco offers one example of how a mix of national regulation and assistance from importing markets can improve industrial water use. It has some of the highest valued textile exports on the African continent (80 per cent are exported to Europe, primarily France and Spain) and many major brands source from Morocco.

After suffering major textile and leather-related pollution, the Moroccan government in 2017 adopted standards for water quality and implemented limits on liquid discharges for industries, including textiles. This forced companies to reduce pollution and, in at least one case, led to a factory installing its own wastewater treatment plant, with support from the European Investment Bank through its Ligne Bleue programme

Despite these positive steps, Morocco has faced six consecutive years of drought and its high exposure to climate risks will require water use in export-oriented activities to be carefully monitored and balanced with domestic needs. 

Holding back greater policy coherence over trade and climate is the EU’s decision to shelve its Water Resilience Initiative. The initiative would have advanced water resilience at the international level, as well as encouraging member state policies on how to better manage severe dry spells and flooding. 

It was a key pillar of the European Green Deal, but the deal’s agricultural policies have faced growing opposition from farmers across Europe, leading governments to stall on related policy. But European civil society continues to push for an EU Blue Deal as a standalone strategy to scale up efforts towards sustainable water practices. 

Towards more equitable trade

France’s proposed measures are a step in the right direction in addressing wasteful consumption. They also draw attention to the hidden costs of consumption that conflict with country commitments to mitigate climate change and help less developed countries cope with its effects. 

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However, sensitivities abound over measures that might disadvantage suppliers, from the effects on foreign exchange revenues to the gendered impact if trade falls (most garment workers are women). There are also signs of a backlash from countries in the Global South against growing environmental standards that could impact their exports to the Global North on the grounds of unfair protectionism. 

Without some kind of redress, the growing drain on water in trade – epitomized by fast fashion – will have damaging implications not only for local health and climate vulnerability but also political stability and business. 

More comprehensive action is needed between suppliers and buyers to change the way water is valued and regulated at source. The Glasgow Declaration for Fair Water Footprints, designed to enable dialogue and information sharing between trading partners around these sensitive issues, could play an important role here. 

Without some kind of redress, the growing drain on water in trade – epitomized by fast fashion – will have damaging implications not only for local health and climate vulnerability but also political stability and business.