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Water – The Achilles Heel of the Industry

If you remember your Greek mythology, Achilles was the hero that was dipped into the water of the river Styx as an infant by his mother Thetis to give him divine protection in battle. Because she held him by his heel, that was the only part of his body that wasn’t protected. Despite his Brad Pitt good lucks, Achilles unfortunately died in battle when an arrow struck him in the heel. It’s the one place that he was vulnerable.

In the decorated apparel industry, we have our own Achilles Heel. Our weakness is our reliance on water.

We just never stop to think how much water factors into our industry. We’re constantly burdened with bigger and louder challenges in our daily operation.

So what’s going on here? Why is water our weakness?

First, let’s look at the obvious. In different areas of the globe, we’re seeing emphasis placed on restricting the amount of water that can be used every day. There just isn’t enough to go around. This can be from a weather related condition, over-usage in the community, or other factors.

Our seemingly modern cities have a crumbling water pipe infrastructure. The pipes have been buried for so long, the amount of leaks in them is virtually uncountable. You continually read news reports of water rate hikes in Los Angeles, Austin, Las Vegas or Atlanta. Not to mention the elephant in the room, with the water pipe poisoning of the citizens in Flint Michigan.

In industrialized nations, freshwater use by industry accounts for about half of the consumption. How industry uses water is critical. In areas with large agricultural or manufacturing sectors, water is often allocated first to these commercial endeavors rather than to people. That’s the choice that is being made. Every day.

Have you been affected by water restrictions?

In developing nations as their industries continue to scale, more water will be allocated to support these endeavors. But will there be a balance with the water support needed for its population? Water security is a big deal.
How these governments handle water for businesses can have a major impact on your company and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Not all of your cotton comes from domestic sources. Mining for the minerals used for the basis for pigments can use water too.

What happens to our supply chain when a country chooses to divert water from industry to the people that may need it?

Which is more important?

There isn’t enough water to go around sometimes. To make this even more difficult, the cost of treating industrial wastewater is increasing. The water needs to be treated so it can be reintroduced back into circulation after it’s been used. Wastewater from industry is loaded with pollutants such as heavy metals, nutrients, pathogens, organic and also inorganic materials.

There is an enormous cost to filter the water to get it back to a usable condition. As this cost continues to rise, so will the cost of the available water.

Water in Our Industry

Let’s take a closer look at a staple in the decorated apparel industry, the basic t-shirt. One term that you need to understand is the phrase “Virtual Water”. This is the amount of water needed to produce something, even if the final product doesn’t resemble water in any way.

It takes 713 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make a single t-shirt. How many cotton t-shirts did your company print today? Multiply that number by 713. That’s how much water was used to grow the cotton for what’s sitting on your shipping dock right now.

It seems like a big number. For comparison, it takes about 2,5000,000 gallons to fill an Olympic size swimming pool. Just for fun, calculate how many shirts you decorate a year versus how many swimming pools you could fill with that water. Are you shocked at the amount?

Water is directly linked to our industry. From cradle to grave, and in multiple aspects.

It takes even more water to dye the shirt or apply rinses. Water is used to cool the power plants that make our energy. In your shop, water is used for reclaiming and rinsing screens after exposure. Let’s not forget that after the shirt is purchased and brought home, it takes up to forty gallons of water every time someone does the laundry.

Shouldn’t we then be more responsible in how we use water? How do you see it?

Savings in Your Shop

Here are some thoughts on how you can conserve or think about water usage in your business.
● Anticipate that your water bill may be getting larger. This includes your wastewater and sewer if you are billed separately. In some areas you may see added fees based on water consumption. Utility companies are struggling with keeping up with the infrastructure changes that are needed. Consumers will be paying for these improvements. That means you.
● Your shop could see more inspections or audits. If you service bigger brands and they require social and safety compliance audits, water may be on the list of things that the auditor inquires about. Be prepared.
● Know the products that you are using and sending down the drain by reviewing the SDS sheets from the manufacturer. Try to find safer and less toxic consumables. If you don’t have one already, consider getting a filtration system for your reclaim area.
● You can also have your effluent privately tested. Just do a simple online search for firms in your area. It’s good to have the documentation available. It’s cheaper than the cost of an OSHA or other governmental fine.
● Waterbased inks are not necessarily drain safe. Make sure you handle any consumables as directed by the SDS sheets, and your local and state regulations. Your drain is not for dumping. Dispose of waste materials properly.
● As the war over water continues, the cost of plant based woven apparel could increase. Recycled content and synthetic fibers will continue to be added to stretch out the composition of garments. This means that you may be decorating on more cotton blends or 100% polyester. Make sure you have mastered printing on these types of garments.

In closing, how your shop uses water has a direct effect on everything in your local community and beyond. From the garment choices you are using for orders, to how you are using water in your process, the decisions that you make add up.

Don’t think you can make a difference or things like this don’t matter? Big brands and other buyers are looking for companies that handle sustainability issues as part of their everyday business plan. Growing your sales by leveraging your sustainability initiatives is smart business.

The choices you make matter.

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