I'm talking about water, of course. Here in jolly old England we think of water as a highly sustainable resource. It falls from the sky at a depressingly regular rate. We're so used to it, we even grumble and wish it would perhaps rain a little less.
That's not the case for a large percentage of the world's population. Water is precious, and the terrible fact is that an awful lot of it goes, not towards irrigation or wells, but straight into clothing factories.
Dhaka in Bangladesh is the place where many of the excesses and woes of the fashion industry are close enough to the surface to be easily examined. Here, the general population have learned to be careful with their water usage. This is not something that can be said for the hundreds of clothes factories dotted around the city. There are 1,700 washing, dyeing and finishing units in Bangladesh. Between them, they consume 1,500bn litres of water a year, much of which is then returned to the supply as chemical-heavy waste. This is a frankly unsustainable waste of a very precious resource.
Help is coming, from an unexpected source. H&M, who have become increasingly vocal in their claims to embrace sustainability with varied results, are teaming up with WWF to roll out a massive root-and-branch change in the way they use water. From their own 92,000 employees to manufacturers on the ground, all the way to the halls of government, H&M are seeking to raise awareness of water issues, and do more to save water at every step in the chain. They've already had some success. Eliminating un-necessary washing at their main denim manufacturer saved 300 million litres, cutting water use by a third. That's a heck of a start. But as heads at both H&M and WWF will happily admit, there's a heck of a lot more to do.
For their ambitious plan to work, H&M need to engage suppliers, manufacturers and even farmers, as well as policy-makers. There needs to be a fast ramp-up in technological innovation and significant changes to national water management policy (for example, there's no such thing as mandatory waste-water treatment in Bangladesh) in order to get things rolling at the pace they'd like. They're even looking at the way that the end consumers of their products use water. Are there ways in which they could wash clothes less often, or save water through half-load washes? It's a complicated mix of strategies that intertwines through every aspect of the supply chain. If it works, then we could see a sea change in the way water is used and consumed, not just in Bangladesh but in other areas of concern in China and Asia where H&M have interests.
Stuart Orr, WWF's fresh water manager, understands the challenges ahead. He says:
"Looking at water is a pretty daunting prospect for any company. You don't solve these issues in five minutes. They take a lot of time, a lot of dialogue, a lot of repetitive action."H&M and WWF are setting targets for a three-year plan to implement everything that they feel is necessary. That's a lot of work in a comparatively short space of time. Here at The Pier, we really hope they succeed. Effective water management is only going to become more important as the twenty-first century moves on, and they can't afford to fail.