The textile industry urgently needs to develop less polluting technologies for dyeing cotton, since the process is having a devastating effect on China's waterways, according to the president and CEO of environmental group Sea Research Foundation.

The cotton dyeing industry consumes large quantities of water and toxic chemicals that are often returned to rivers in such a highly polluted state that they make waterways unsafe, said Dr Stephen Coan, president and CEO of Sea Research Foundation.

The amount of water needed to dye each year's supply of cotton is the equivalent of the drinking water for every person on the planet for 141 days.

Citing a new study called Cleaning Up the Fashion Industry, which was prepared by five environmental groups, Coan said the textile industry in China discharged 2.5m metric tons of sewage in 2010, making it the nation's third-largest water polluter.

"In the long run, all of us are harmed," Coan said, "because many of the chemicals used in the dyeing process either make the land that absorbs them permanently infertile or they run into rivers, lakes, reservoirs and, ultimately, the oceans, poisoning the waters on which the world's population depends for life."

Coan is calling for the textile industry to introduce different methods for dyeing cotton. "That's a serious challenge, in large part because the damage that the dyeing process inflicts on the environment is not widely known," he said.

"But the ultimate issue here is protecting the world's waterways and oceans as well as making a life-or-death difference for hundreds of millions of people."