Water & Fashion | Making an Impact on SDG 6

Welcome back to our series delving into the links between the Sustainable Development Goals and Australia’s textile, clothing and footwear (TCF) industry. If you missed Part 1, have a read HERE. This time round, we explore the role the TCF industry can play in achieving SDG 6; clean water and sanitation for all. 

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WORDS | Julie Boulton & Aleasha McCallion, Monash Sustainable Development Institute

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Global Facts, Figures and SDG6

For most of us in Australia, thinking about whether we have clean and available water when we turn on our kitchen tap or have a shower isn’t really done because it is, for the most part, not necessary.[1] Australia has 98% clean water and sanitation levels[2] and the water in our cities is considered to be among the best in the world (Wannon Water from the Hamilton Water Treatment Plant in Victoria was awarded the title of best tap water in Australia in 2018 and ended up being declared the second-best water in the world)[3]. We swim in clean ocean pools, we dip in clean rivers and we shower, take a bath, flush the toilet, cook and clean using water that comes straight from our taps.

However, we’re lucky. Not everyone in the world, and not everyone in our country[4][5]- has access to clean water and sanitation. According to water.org, today:

  • 844 million people – 1 in 9 – lack access to safe water;

  • 2.3 billion people – 1 in 3 – lack access to a toilet;

  • Nearly 1 million people die each year from water, sanitation and hygiene-related diseases which could be reduced with access to safe water or sanitation; and

  • Every 2 minutes a child dies from a water-related disease (the third leading cause of child death is diarrhoea).

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, one of the 17 SDGs that were universally agreed to in 2015, calls for clean water and sanitation for all. As with all of the SDGs, SDG 6 has specific targets (8) to be met and indicators (11) to be followed.

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Some of the SDG 6 targets are:

  • By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all (Target 6.1)

  • By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations (Target 6.2)

  • By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimising release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally (Target 6.3)

  • By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity (Target 6.4)

  • By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes (Target 6.6)

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What’s the World’s Progress on SDG 6?

Last year, as part of its annual review on progress against the SDGs, the UN Statistical Commission, (the UN body responsible for reviewing the data against all SDGs), considered SDG 6 in detail (SDG 6 was one of four SDGs that were reviewed in depth by the UN in 2018. To assist with the review, UN-Water produced the SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation” One of the key messages of the Report is that:  

The time to act on SDG 6 is now. The world is not on track to achieve the global SDG 6 targets by 2030 at the current rate of progress.”[6]

This view was confirmed in the UN’s review of progress this year, The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019. The Report says:

“The demand for water has outpaced population growth, and half the world’s population is already experiencing severe water scarcity at least one month a year. Most rivers in Africa, Asia and Latin America are more polluted now than they were in the 1990s. An estimated 50 to 70 per cent of the world’s natural wetland area has been lost over the last 100 years. While substantial progress has been made in increasing access to clean drinking water and sanitation, billions of people—mostly in rural areas—still lack these basic services.” 

Clearly, there is much work to be done if we are to make progress in meeting all of the SDG 6 targets, and the urgency with which action is required should not be under-estimated.  

*For information on how Australia is progressing on SDG 6, we recommend looking at sdgdata.gov.au and the Transforming Australia website. References below. 

What Role Could the Australian Fashion Industry Play to Assist in Making Global Progress on SDG 6?

Australia’s Textile, Clothing and Footwear (TCF) Industry could positively impact progress against SDG 6 targets. Two suggestions are:

  1. focusing on water usage in the supply chain; and

  2. considering water impacts during the use phase.

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1. Water Usage in the Supply Chain

 The manner and amount of water that is used throughout the supply chain for irrigation, for processing at the raw fibre stage and during production could be examined to identify if any improvements can be made. Many TCF brands and businesses are activating transparency practices along their supply chain to source more sustainable materials. This can also include information on water consumption, water management practices and water regulation in the region of production. Levi’s commitment of up to 96% less water used in their Water<Less™ range and Outland Denim’s commitment to using organic cotton because it “is proven to use 91% less blue water (fresh surface or groundwater sources) than conventional cotton”[7] are examples of brands making informed choices so as to improve water management and use across their supply chain.

Water scarcity in China[8] and water pollution in Indonesia[9] impact the quality of textile and fashion supply chains globally, but these are issues which can be tackled strategically and collaboratively. The AWS International Water Stewardship Standard provides an example of collaboration. The Standard is designed to assist brands understand water issues in their supply chain. The Standard is designed to drive better water stewardship, defined as: 

the use of water that is socially and culturally equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial, achieved through a stakeholder-inclusive process that involves site-and catchment-based actions.”[10]

The standard is supported by a number of Australian brands which is encouraging: the more businesses that include a focus on sustainable water management as part of their review of supply chain and, even as strategic targets to meet, the better chance we have of progressing SDG 6.

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2. Water Impacts During the Use Phase  

The May 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, produced by the Global Fashion Agenda, in collaboration with The Boston Consulting Group, drew attention to a 2017 study, which estimated that 15% to 30% of plastics polluting the oceans can be attributed to primary micro-plastics, with 35% of those attributed to laundering of synthetic textiles.[11]

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s followed up in November the same year with its report, ‘A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future’. This report states:

“In recent years, the textiles industry has been identified as a major contributor to the issue of plastic entering the ocean, which is a growing concern because of the associated negative environmental and health implications. It has been estimated that around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres shed during the washing of plastic-based textiles such as polyester, nylon, or acrylic end up in the ocean annually.”[12]

With the use phase in mind, selecting suitable fabrics and fibres that eliminate or decrease the risk of microfibre shedding is a positive step that can be taken to decrease the opportunity of water pollution, (this also directly relates to another SDG – SDG 14 and the health of our oceans). Additionally, educating consumers on appropriate and responsible product care is another positive solution. Providing additional instructions on the method and/or frequency of laundering garments, including considering spot cleaning, washing below 30 degrees, using a Guppyfriend washing bag, and using phosphate free washing detergents could be useful here.


The World’s Water Belongs to Everyone

Making progress on SDG 6, like all of the SDGs, requires engagement from all stakeholders – government, business and individuals. Improving the access to and quality of water for everyone, irrespective of where we live, is, however, challenging therefore forming collaborations and partnerships may be the one of the most effective ways to move forward here (SDG 17 is the partnership SDG) which is fitting as the world’s water belongs to everyone. 

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The SDGs are an Opportunity

Innovation within the fashion/TCF industry can unlock and enable unique solutions and demonstrate an important and significant transition to a more sustainable model of production and consumption. The actions we all choose to take are intricately linked with the progress that the world is making to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

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This article is thanks to Julie Boulton & Aleasha McCallion from Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University. Stay tuned from more from this series as they delve into the SDG’s in detail over the coming months, and join the conversation on Twitter at @MonashMSDI

 To read more about SDGs look here:

To see Australia’s overall progress on SDGs, look here:


Additional resources

[1] Paul Satur, Water management: tapping into a new way of thinking to benefit everyone, 21 March 2019,

 https://lens.monash.edu/@paul-satur/2019/03/21/1373990/water-management-tapping-into-a-new-way

[2] Transforming Australia site

[3] The Water Industry Operators Association of Australia (WIOA) is currently conducting the Ixom 2019 Best Tasting Tap Water competition, with the national title that will be held in Dunkeld on Saturday 19 October at the Twin Peaks Festival

[4] Satur, op. cit

[5] https://theconversation.com/city-water-restrictions-hurt-our-most-vulnerable-especially-women-107002

[6] SDG 6 Synthesis Report https://www.unwater.org/publications/highlights-sdg-6-synthesis-report-2018-on-water-and-sanitation-2/ 

[7] https://www.outlanddenim.com.au/pages/sustainability

[8] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-11-23/china-water-crisis-threatens-growth/10434116

[9] https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/long-reads/article/2180655/indonesia-cleaning-citarum-worlds-dirtiest-river

[10] https://a4ws.org/about/

[11] 1. Boucher, J., & Friot, D. (2017). Primary Micro-plastics in the Oceans: A Global Evaluation of Sources. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN

[12] https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report.pdf