• Anna Hudson

Buying new gear? Don't contribute to water pollution!

Updated: Aug 21

Learn how the textile industry affects the health of millions of people worldwide.

Water pollution might only cross your mind when you pump your filter on a backpacking trip, but it has a profound impact on aquatic organisms and the lives of millions around the world. In the US, the majority of rivers and streams are too polluted to support healthy aquatic life, and thirty percent of wastewater isn’t treated. Polluted water can be contaminated with pesticides, dangerous bacteria, and chemicals from manufacturing in many industries.

More than 80 percent of the world’s wastewater isn’t treated or reused before being released back into the environment. Treating water removes pathogens and pollutants like nitrogen, phosphorus, heavy metals, and chemicals from industrial processes. Drinking or cooking with untreated water can lead to Legionnaires’ Disease, cholera, infections by E. coli or Giardia, and more. In the United States, many residents of lower-income communities, particularly BIPOC, lack infrastructure to provide clean water and are forced to depend on contaminated water from unsuitable water systems.

Let’s take a look at the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The Flint River has been used as a disposal site for untreated refuse and wastewater from nearby industries, such as meatpacking plants, car factories, and paper mills. Raw sewage, runoff from agricultural land, and toxic chemicals from landfills have also been polluting the Flint River for years.

When the city decided to switch to using the Flint River as a municipal water source in 2013, lead-tainted water was pumped into the households of more than 9,000 children and Flint endured the 3rd largest outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in US history. Improper treatment of wastewater by local industries in combination with irresponsible management caused preventable deaths and health issues throughout Flint.

Polluted Water in Bangladesh - Source: NYTimes

In Bangladesh, canals polluted by factory waste cause schoolchildren to become lightheaded, nauseous, and even faint. These toxic waters kill fish, harm rice paddies, and collect garbage. Although pharmaceutical plants and tanneries also contribute to the problem, the textile and fashion industry pollutes the most. Worldwide, 93 billion cubic meters of water are used for clothing production annually and 20% of the world’s wastewater comes from treating and dyeing fabric. You can take steps as a consumer, hiker, and citizen of the world to reduce the pollution of Earth’s water.

What can you do?

Be a Conscious Consumer

Producing one cotton T-Shirt can take 2,700 Liters of water, so imagine how much more is needed to produce ski parkas, sports gear, and all of the athletic clothes you might have. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution: buy used clothing and taking care of it well. By extending the life of old clothes, you’re eliminating the use of more water to produce even more clothing when perfectly useful clothing already exists. But when you must buy clothes, be aware of the companies you support.

Before buying, research the company’s core values and look for comprehensive wastewater treatment, ethical employment, and donations to sustainability initiatives. At Switchbackr, we donate 1% of revenue to environmental causes through 1% for the planet. Check out our recent blog post rating the environmental impact and sustainability of some common outdoor gear brands.

It’s extremely important to ensure you’re supporting brands that not only provide fair wages and safe working conditions, but also make environmentally responsible decisions. No human lives are worth sacrificing for fashion.

Donate Money

If you can, donate to environmental groups like Sierra Club or the Environmental Defense Fund. Charity Navigator is a useful tool that evaluates the accountability, quality, and transparency of a nonprofit to make sure your money is used effectively.

Take Political Action

Support political candidates that care about environmental issues and are ready to take action to improve policy. Vote in local, state, and federal elections, and support the campaigns of your favorite candidates if you can.

Protect Local Land

Don't forget to take care of the land around you! Don’t litter and arrange trail clean-ups with friends and neighbors to keep your area clean and healthy. When you’re backpacking or hiking, always pack out your trash and follow recommendations for handling your waste to ensure it doesn’t contaminate nearby water sources.