LONDON – A decade ago, nobody thought of plastic fibres as sustainable – so what happened? To answer this question, Veronica Bates Kassatly painstakingly traced the roots of several alarming falsehoods about cotton and natural fibres right back to an obscure blog from the polyester sector in 2009….
It all started in 2009, with a company called Colorep, Inc. headquartered in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. They had developed a new technology for waterless fabric printing. The only problem was – and this is crucial – AirDye only worked on polyester. And in 2009, nobody thought of plastic fibres as sustainable.
But if Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, could promote female smoking by branding cigarettes feminist ‘Torches of Freedom‘, then this was a hitch that could obviously be overcome.
Colorep would simply change the way plastic fabrics were perceived. AirDye would become a torch of sustainability, boldly leading the way into a new “sustainable” plastic future.
Since the new process required no water, this would be AirDye’s focus. To this end, Good for Water blog was launched to “communicate all the ways AirDye placed water preservation first.”
That blog was launched on Earth Day, April 22, 2009:
We know all of this thanks to this September 22, 2009 Fast Company piece: “AirDye’s Ecological Dyeing Process Makes the Future of Textiles Bright. A new water- and energy-saving method for dyeing fabrics is changing the way designers think about sustainable textiles.”
As we can see from that title, barely six months after launch, BoltGroup/AirDye were already having success in reframing the conversation. And that was just the beginning of a “viral, buzzworthy campaign that echoed the sustainability message… to communicate all the ways AirDye placed water preservation first.”
As 2009 progressed, the AirDye sustainability messages came thick and fast. On April 27 (screenshot 4, below), consumers were warned of the vast amounts of water and pesticides consumed in cotton – never mind that the water footprint they linked to was primarily rainwater, with no harmful environmental impact – and no matter that, “Twenty-five percent of the world’s insecticides are used on conventional cotton” was a complete fabulation, for which no source was ever given.
Absolutely nobody seems to have noticed.
On September 30, 2009, AirDye sowed perhaps the most tenacious and infamous myth of all: “The World Bank estimates 17 to 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.” (screenshot 1 above)
It is interesting to note that the blog does not actually state that it is referring to global industrial water pollution, nor to where “our water” refers. Clearly not to US, or UK water, as the local textile manufacturing sector is very small.
I surmise that AirDye found a World Bank report that made that claim for one or more Chinese river basins at the beginning of the millennium. In a moment of inspiration they decided to refer to it in their blog, without source link – leaving it to others to conclude that this was a global statistic, and to report it as such.
AirDye carried on blogging, proffering ever more horrifying “data” on global cotton/textiles water consumption, and everyone, including former President Bill Clinton, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), and Matt Damon got a mention. A subliminal suggestion no doubt, that all these luminaries were calling on the apparel sector to dump water-wasting natural fibers, particularly cotton, in favour of eco-friendly synthetics.
By 2012, the message had been picked up by the sustainable apparel sector itself:
In May 2012, Guardian readers were informed: “An estimated 17 to 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.” And the article hyperlinked to a blog post by “AirDye® a revolutionary technology that enables water-free printing and dyeing on textiles [solving] the modern day problem of excessive water consumption.”
AirDye is not an impartial and unbiased source on competing dye systems’ water impact, nor is it an academic, research, or international financial institution, likely to have access to the data and calculations required to make an authoritative assessment of global industrial water impacts. So it’s a very odd choice to use as a source in a professional analysis.
Whatever, by Fall 2013, the AirDye campaign was over. In October 2013 AirDye Solutions was formed from the purchase of the assets of Transprint USA/Colorep Inc. by Fuller Smith Capital Management LLC, and the blog appears to have been deleted (AirDye currently belongs to Deb Corp Japan).
No matter. By June 2013, another PR agency promoting the use of synthetics in the apparel sector – The Institute For Sustainable Communications (ISC) – had already seized on the narrative and were using it in their eco360 water pollution blog: http://www.sustainablecommunication.org/eco360/what-is-eco360s-causes/water-pollution
The Myth Takes Hold
The aim of the Eco360 blog was to promote the sustainability of e360t shirts whose primary merit was that they used no cotton, and so purportedly saved,“8 gallons of fresh water per shirt from being polluted with dyes, pesticides and herbicides.”
To illustrate e360t’s merits the ISC borrowed right from the AirDye playbook, and created a one page composite of all the most salient features of the AirDye 2009-2013 blog (Screenshot 6, above). Claims included:
- The textile industry is one of the largest polluters in the world. The World Bank estimates that almost 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles…
- Cotton production accounts for 2.6% of annual global water usage. A single T-shirt made from conventional cotton requires 2700 liters of water, and a third of a pound of chemicals to produce…
- Cotton pesticides and herbicides account for 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of all pesticides used worldwide each year…
Not a single source was provided for any of these claims. But as we shall see, absolutely nobody cared. Storytelling, not data, is the currency of the sustainability sector. And, in any case, by the end of 2017, the ISC post had also been deleted, covering everybody’s tracks.
I tried to follow up, and reached out to the Institute for Sustainable Communication last November. On December 13, 2020, I was told:
I have contacted them twice since. To no avail.
Perhaps realising that the 20% pollution claim, the cotton water claims, and the cotton pesticide impact claims, were all unsubstantiated, they had a crise de conscience? But by 2017, it was too late. The narrative had well and truly taken off.
By the end of 2014, the eco360 blog post had already been referenced in two reports. The first, in April 2014, was, bizarrely, a World Bank publication, produced by The Responsible Sourcing Initiative (RSI), a joint initiative between the World Bank, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the International Finance Corporation (IFC).
As you can see from screenshot 9, further down, in the preamble to that report, explaining why investment by brands was urgently needed to address Bangladesh’s water supply and pollution problems, it stated: “Some studies suggest that the treatment and dyeing of textiles is responsible for up to one fifth of industrial water pollution globally.”
And it linked that “suggestion” to the ISC’s eco360 blog post.
But take a closer look at that ISC blog post (screenshot 6). This is what it says (screenshot 8.):
Bafflingly, we can see that all these experts from the IFC, World Bank and NRDC are linking to a secondary source – the ISC – and quoting it as the original source, when it clearly isn’t. The original source is supposedly the World Bank, but no link to any World Bank study is provided! Neither the RSI team, nor the reader, has any idea whether the World Bank said that at all, or whether the original claim actually came from somewhere else entirely.
This is particularly odd when we remember that The RSI report is a World Bank publication. It asserts “some studies suggest…” and then links to a promotional blurb for a synthetic shirt fabric – eco360t – and for which the source of the claim that they are quoting – “the treatment and dyeing of textiles is responsible for up to one fifth of industrial water pollution globally” – is apparently the World Bank itself.
Why are the NRDC/IFC/World Bank not quoting their own original report? Why are they pretending that this is some other organisation’s evaluation of the situation, when the ISC claims that it was the World Bank itself?
To say that this is irregular would be an understatement. But did the World bank make that claim? I reached out to two of the World Bank staff involved in writing the RSI report, but they did not respond to my email.
The second 2014 report was published in June, by the WWF: “THE IMPORTED RISK Germany’s Water Risks in Times of Globalisation”.
The WWF claimed: “The World Bank estimates that textile dyeing and treatment causes 20% of global industrial water pollution.” And as we can see from screenshot 10 below, to ensure that the blame was laid firmly at the door of natural fibres, the WWF added two additional fabulations that are also proffered on the eco360 blog page – cotton’s astronomic water and pesticide consumption. And despite claiming that the World Bank was the source, the WWF linked these claims to the ISC.
The big year for these three fabulations however – the 20% pollution claim; the 2,700 litres of water per cotton tee or 10,000 litres per kilo claim, the inflated cotton insecticide and pesticide consumption claim – was 2017. That year, they made their way into at least five sustainable apparel publications/blogs.
In February 2017, Fashion Revolution (FR), not only repeated the claim – they inflated it (screenshot 11). Now it wasn’t just industrial water pollution; it was all water pollution: “The World Bank sent the alarm: 20% of global water pollution comes from the fashion industry.”
Just like the WWF, FR linked, not to a World Bank report, but to the eco360 study. And this was in an FR publication intended to educate schoolchildren!
And just like the WWF, FR embellished the narrative with the standard fabulations about cotton’s water and pesticide use:
“A single pair of jeans needs 9,500 litres of water to be produced. Water necessary to grow the cotton it is made from and for the finishing steps of its manufacturing process.”
“Cotton, the fibre used to make denim, is chemical thirsty too: only 2% of our planet’s land is allocated to cotton crops and it uses 25% of the world’s pesticides and 11% of the world’s insecticides.”
In March 2017, two eco blogs picked up on all three claims. Ecocult stated: “It’s estimated that around 20% of industrial water pollution in the world comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles, and about 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles.”
The Ecocult piece itself was based on a March 2017 post by Good on You, and both linked not to the eco360 report, but to the 2012 Guardian article which, as already mentioned, linked to blog.airdye.com:
As well as the AirDye 20 per cent of industrial water pollution claim, both of these blog posts also mentioned AirDye’s misleading and unsubstantiated claims about cotton’s water and pesticide use (Ecocult claimed the latter came from the Guardian article where it isn’t actually mentioned):
“Despite only occupying 2.4% of the world’s cropland, cotton accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide use and 11% of pesticides.
“Ever thought about how much water it took to make your cotton t-shirt? How about three years worth of drinking water for one t-shirt! That’s a lot of water; 2,700 litres to be exact.”
In September 2017, these two blog posts were followed by another WWF publication:
This stated: “The World Bank estimates that 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.” And in this case, that claim was linked directly to eco360.
Just like the Fashion Revolution guide, the 2014 WWF report, and the EcoCult and Good on You blog posts, the 2017 WWF report embellished the claim with some made up data about cotton’s water and pesticide consumption: “Conventional cotton accounts for 24 per cent of global sales of insecticides and 11 per cent of all pesticides.” And: “It is estimated that growing one kilogram of cotton needs up to 20,000 litres of water, depending where and how it is grown.”
In November, 2017, the WWF were joined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. In their report, “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future”, they too claimed:
“The World Bank estimates that 20% of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide originates from the textiles industry. 122″
Clearly by this point the eco360 link was no longer working as Footnote 122 offers the following source: “122 Kant, R., Textile dyeing industry: An environmental hazard (2012), p.23”
That is not only not a World Bank publication, but p.23 actually provides no link/reference for the claim.
How could a report produced with McKinsey as “knowledge partner” have published a statement as if it were a fact, without any source whatsoever? And of course, just like all the others, Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) piled it on, adding the usual fabulations about cotton’s water and pesticide consumption:
“Despite accounting for 2.5% of agricultural land globally, the production of cotton accounts for as much as 16% of all pesticides used,”
and, despite being well aware of the existence of the the 2016 Cotton Inc global LCA, as it underpins the Higg MSI, to which the report refers repeatedly, and in glowing terms, the EMF also threw in:
“up to 4,300 litres of water are used to produce 1 kilogram of cotton fibres”
According to that 2016 LCA, the actual average blue water consumption in cotton fibre cultivation was around 1,560 litres/kilo. More recent data from the ICAC Cotton Data Book 2020 suggests it takes on average 1,214 litres of irrigation water to produce one kilogram of lint. This seemingly converts into a requirement of 500 additional litres of water from a local water source to yield enough cotton for one t-shirt – not 2,700 litres!
As for insecticides, they are a subcategory of pesticides. In 2014, cotton consumed about 6 per cent by value of all pesticides sold, including 16 per cent of global insecticides. According to ICAC research, that has now fallen to 4.71 per cent of world pesticides including 10.24 per cent of insecticides. Moreover, 25 per cent of those pesticides are used in just one country – Brazil – all of whose export cotton is certified by WWF subsidiary Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), and so declared preferred and more sustainable by both BCI and the WWF itself. Go figure.
The false numbers, however, are the ones that have taken hold, and from those beginnings on the WWF, Fashion Revolution, Ellen MacArthur, Ecocult and Good on You, some variant of the 20 per cent pollution claim, the 2,700 litres of water claim, the insecticide and pesticides claim, have all spread, like wildfire.
2018-2020 The Myth is Established. Who paid The Price?
These false claims are now to be found on so many different sites that it is difficult to know where to start. The World Economic Forum, Future Fashion Forward,, the United Nations, and the UN Environment Program, and many, many, others, all proclaim some version. Even the World Bank itself (screenshot 17, below) has repeated the bogus 20 per cent pollution statistic that the apparel sector claims came from there in the first place, that the World Bank now insists did not, but that as we have seen, partly did – since they not only failed to contest the claim, they actually cited it, in 2014.
The lack of due diligence is bad enough, but what about the harmful impact all of this has had on the natural fibres sectors?
Since 2009, global per capita fibre production has increased from 10.2 kilos/capita to 13.6 kilos/capita. Has natural fibre production also increased by at least 33 per cent?
No, it has not.
In the early 2000s, global wool production averaged 1.3 million tonnes per annum (p.a). It is currently around 1.1 million tonnes pa. In 2007-2010 global cotton production averaged 25 million tonnes. In 2020, it was 23 million tonnes. Silk is not a tracked commodity but data for Italy shows that by volume, Italian silk exports in 2016 were only 70 per cent of their 2008 value. The International Sericulture Commission claims global annual silk production fell from 202,000 tonnes in 2015, to 109,000 tonnes in 2019.
As for polyester, in 2007-2009, global annual plastic fibre production averaged 41 million tonnes. In 2020 it was 65 million tonnes. That’s an increase of almost 60 per cent, and the vast majority (83 per cent of global plastic fibre production) is polyester.
Moreover we are now told almost universally, that – far from those 2009 beginnings when for polyester, “The perception of “natural” vs. “sustainable” was a big issue to overcome”, polyester is one of the world’s most sustainable fibres.
The Higg MSI, for instance, claims that the impact of one kilo of polyester fabric totals only 36.2/kilo. A kilo of cotton fabric on the other hand, has a total impact of 101. Another example is Global Fashion Agenda, whose seminal, 2017, “Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report” claims that brands replacing 30 per cent of their cotton with polyester by 2030, would yield €18bn pa. in environmental benefits. And that report is one of the cornerstones of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “New Textiles Economy”.
Per kilo of fibre, the prices of cotton and polyester were level pegging in 2008/9, but by the end of 2020, cotton cost double the price of commensurate polyester.
Combining the declining relative cost of polyester with a false narrative around the purported impact of natural fibres, has proved irresistible to all the major apparel brands, and the myths and fabulations created by AirDye in 2009, are now almost universal currency.
That is an astounding achievement for a couple of promotional blog pieces, that weren’t even properly referenced!
We all make mistakes, and only a fool never changes his mind. But wouldn’t it be nice if instead of the usual website scrubbings, this article actually prompted all these sustainability experts to admit the error, and attempt to set the record straight?
It will not give those desperately poor farmers 12 years of lost income back, but perhaps we can make a start?