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Water Witness International’s new report suggests the clothing sector is competing with local communities and nature for access to scarce water in Africa and that in some cases, factory needs are prioritised over the human right to water.

It is now urging immediate adoption of good water stewardship across the sector, factory certification against best practice standards, and transparent disclosure of performance on water are urgently needed so that responsible businesses can be differentiated.

According to the report, pre-pandemic, fashion exports generated revenue of US$4.6bn a year, a figure which exceeds the annual flow of aid into Africa from any European donor. Africa now has an important toehold in the global fashion industry that in 2019 was worth US$2.5trn and employed 75m people.

While Africa recognises the clothing industry’s important role in its social and economic progress, concerns are growing around the scarcity of its water resources.

“Realising these socio-economic benefits must be based on judicious resource stewardship, particularly because fashion is one of world’s thirstiest and most polluting sectors and poses significant risks to Africa’s environment. The region’s water resources and water ecosystems are highly vulnerable and already face severe stress because of depletion and degradation, rocketing demand, climate change and deep-seated financial, capacity, and governance challenges.”

The report’s authors say they are not calling for an end to fashion sourcing in Africa, but action and assurance that sourcing and production of goods in Africa are based on sustainable resource use, decent working conditions and basic principles of social justice.

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“Producers, brands, retailers, investors, governments, and high street customers must act now to ensure that the fashion industry has a ‘fair water footprint’ in Africa, so that much-needed job creation and growth are decoupled from the destructive water impacts we observe. We set out what each of these groups must do to guarantee zero pollution, safe water and sanitation, equitable withdrawals, climate resilience and ecosystem protection so that Africa can become a global role model of sustainable production and decent employment in the fashion sector rather than another victim of ‘fast fashion’.”

The report outlines five risks associated with the growth of clothing production, which coincides with water challenges across Africa:

  1. Pollution by untreated industrial effluent and wastes
  2. Inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)
  3. Sustainable, equitable and resilient water use for production
  4. Water risks in the supply chain
  5. Water governance challenges

It calls for the urgent adoption of standards set by the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) which guides and recognises good performance on water through a third-party audit.

“There is a clear opportunity for textile and apparel sector stakeholders to adopt AWS water stewardship as a practical and strategic contribution to sustainable development and Covid recovery in Africa. Promisingly, a number of sector stakeholders such as Tooku in Tanzania, Indochine, H&M, PVH and the Industrial Parks Development Corporation in Ethiopia are committing to good water stewardship through alignment with the AWS Standard.

“Countries and companies that champion water stewardship and which demonstrate and disclose good water performance within textile and apparel production will see considerable benefits. Those that do not, are likely to see water insecurity and reputational issues emerge as an impediment to future growth.”

The report makes the below recommendations.

For brands, retailers, buyers and designers:

  1. Map, track & disclose water risks & stewardship within supply chains & target support for AWS certification.
  2. Establish stewardship as a condition of doing business through supplier codes & due diligence.
  3. Tie C-Suite remuneration to improved water performance.
  4. Talk to customers about water to drive action.
  5. Improve traceability so that water stewardship is recognised and rewarded.
  6. 6. Join & lead local and global forums to drive stewardship performance in the sector.

Textile & apparel producers & suppliers

  1. Assess and understand water risks & opportunities across the business.
  2. Set targets for better water performance & report on progress.
  3. Innovate & collaborate to ensure sustainable water use, pollution control & support for supply chain producers, workers & their communities.
  4. Benefit from programmes of support & training for good water stewardship.
  5. Certify sites against the AWS Standard.

Fashion sector initiatives & standards

  1. Ensure that initiatives to improve social & environmental performance include proper handling of water & WASH related issues, & have credibility through accountability & disclosure.
  2. Avoid piecemeal or partial handling of water issues.
  3. Seek alignment & coherence within standards & avoid fragmentation, ‘initiative overload’, stakeholder fatigue & consumer mistrust.

Governments – Producer countries

  1. Prioritise water governance through financing, oversight & regulation.
  2. Target capacity, financing, & action for wastewater treatment, & reform tariffs to reflect the value of water.
  3. Make water stewardship a condition of business & investment licences.
  4. Scale water stewardship in Industrial Parks to attract & safeguard responsible businesses.
  5. Convene stakeholders to trigger action on shared water challenges.

Governments – consumer countries

  1. Require mandatory disclosure & due diligence by companies & financiers on water performance.
  2. Legislate so that imported goods meet domestic labour, health, safety, & environmental standards.
  3. Understand the water footprint of goods & services, & and take action for sustainability.
  4. Collaborate globally to ensure that global trade and consumer society have a Fair Water Footprint.