Unsustainable industrial water consumption has become a massive environmental sustainability challenge. Discharge of untreated wastewater, lack of water-efficient technologies, and absence of recycling and reuse techniques are significant contributors to industrial water pollution. All industrial manufacturing operations and raw material production consume water extensively. Textile dyeing is considered the second largest water polluter globally, with 20% of the world’s wastewater generated by the fashion industry alone. This is majorly due to large amounts of water used for textile manufacturing that is later discarded as wastewater without efficient treatment.
Pakistan’s textile industry contributes 8.5% to the GDP, more than 60% to the country’s exports, and employs about 45% of the country’s labour force. However, the adoption of sustainable business practises, and not just the mounting export figures can make the sector highly competitive in the global export market. Simply put, firms that are incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) components of sustainability in their business models are the only successful future businesses, as they devise stringent policies to reduce pollution and protect ecosystems.
Pathways of influence
Currently, the country’s textile sector is snowed under by extrinsic challenges including the government’s withdrawal of RCETs, as well as intrinsic issues of environmental and social sustainability. Major environmental concerns including rising GHG emissions, unsustainable water consumption, and discharge of hazardous chemical effluents, that require the right financial allocations and technological advancements for control, are connected to the industry’s functioning. However, despite massive financial burdens resulting from the current government policies and climate change, environmental consciousness is not an overlooked philosophy anymore by the sector due to multiple factors of influence.
International conventions on environment and climate change are among the foremost influencers, that have shaped the sector’s policies towards decarbonisation and water footprint reduction. Water stewardship, in particular, has emerged as a leading sustainability best practise, encouraged by these global treaties. These protocols, also mandated by the EU’s GSP+, have positively integrated the CSR concept into the industry’s manufacturing, whereby companies have willingly committed to ensuring sustainable water consumption and wastewater treatment on their sites. The international market and green preferences of the buyers are other known drivers of water stewardship, as they help gain competitive status and credibility in the export market. Textile firms are complying with these preferences through acquiring certification schemes, the absence of which triggers the boycott of products, ultimately harming the competitive status compared to other regional export leaders such as Bangladesh.
Growing awareness among industry stakeholders regarding the benefits of water conservation has also scaled up the progress on water stewardship. Research shows that water conservation measures in the industry not only reduce production costs but also energy consumption, wastewater treatment cost, and pollutant load. It also ensures water availability for future use. Furthermore, the thoughtfulness to the fact that climate change as well as continuous unsustainable water withdrawal are exhausting the country’s natural water resources thus causing water insecurity, has also been central to up-scaling water management in the sector.
Our textile industry is actively engaged in meeting the highest standards of environmental performance for water stewardship.
Interloop, for instance, has adopted nano-bubble technology to reduce water consumption by 95%, chemicals usage by 71%, and energy consumption by 50%. It is promoting sustainable textile bleaching through the fill and drain systems for multiple processing cycles. The company has partnered with WWF for Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) certification to ensure behavioural shift and community-level impact towards water stewardship. Major activities include water catchment study, water audit for quality, quantity, and sanitation practises, stakeholder engagement, and community investment for water conservation. Interloop has planned to scale up 60% water recycling capacity and has dedicated wastewater treatment and recycling plants to make textile wet processes less environmentally harmful.
Similarly, responsible water usage is a foundation of Sarena Textile’s commitment to sustainable textile manufacturing. The company has installed a biological wastewater treatment plant with a capacity to treat 3840 m3/day and meets ZDHC, PEQS, and IPE requirements. The water-saving initiatives taken include a condensate recovery system, shark washing on washing machines, and water reuse at all major steps. Sarena’s average daily water saving is around 35% of its total water consumption, which is 1880 cubic metres.
Water management is one of the critical sustainability challenges mapped by US Apparel and Textiles. It has pledged to conserve 50% of water via reduce, reuse, and recycle techniques by deploying water-efficient technologies. Water treatment plants are to be employed to recycle 15% of hazardous wastewater. The firm aims to reduce water withdrawal stress from freshwater sources by harvesting rainwater for its functions. 117 finishes have been converted to waterless recipes saving 1,40,000 m3 of water in one year. Figure 1 presents the firm’s progress on sustainable water management. Likewise, the sustainability framework of Yunus Textiles is based on the triple-bottom-line strategy to serve people, the planet, and profit. The company has installed one of Pakistan’s largest effluent treatment plants to recycle and reuse water and recycle efficiency is maintained at up to 90% with an extensive vision towards Zero Liquid Discharge.
Our leading textile industries offer many other similar examples of water stewardship to make sure their exports give smooth business figures while also complying with global sustainability requirements. These practices must be adopted far widely to have a sustainable and meaningful impact. The prevailing challenge, however, is to integrate the rest of the small and medium enterprises in the collective efforts to achieve sustainable water management.
ILO’s International Labour and Environmental Standards (ILES) programme aims to promote sustainable and inclusive growth by supporting the economic integration of Pakistan’s SMEs into the regional and global economy. Under this project, WWF aims to implement Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) standards in the leather and textile sector SMEs. This inclusive capacity building will enrich the export functions and compliance of the SME sector to become eligible also to join ILO’s Better Work Programme that supports the textile sector to boost its competitiveness via the fulfilment of labour rights for workers.
Although international programmes on environment and social sustainability are integrating textile SMEs into their agenda, these enterprises have been confronting several issues hindering their adherence to national and international regulations on environmental sustainability. Lack of financial resources and government incentives, technology constraints, and non-existent capacity building of the workers are some of the critical challenges. The current regulations demand water conservation at each step of manufacturing which is unaffordable for the SMEs thus making their functioning environmentally harmful.
Further, there is a lack of stringent monitoring of industrial water consumption and effluent pollution by the relevant government authorities. According to UNCTAD, land, and marine ecotoxicities are major environmental concerns associated with Pakistan’s textile industry. Also, research shows that the industry consumes more water than required. This indicates that the already installed effluent treatment plants are not effectively functional, thus causing land and water pollution downstream. Besides, the above-mentioned best practices of water stewardship are not being widely adopted by the industry. As growing water scarcity due to glacial retreat resulting from climate change, unsustainable water management and withdrawal, and lack of infrastructure for water storage, is an emerging existential threat for Pakistan, the unmonitored and unregulated industrial water consumption and pollution can worsen the current scenario.
In order to tackle the enduring challenges, the emerging water stewards of the textile industry must come forward to support the SME sector build its capacity to comply with the mounting global environmental standards. This can be in the form of knowledge and technology transfer as well as incentives. While aiming to extend their export market, there is a need for the SME sector to establish sustainability departments to monitor their sustainability progress but also to participate and take full advantage of the national and international funding and capacity-building programmes. Moreover, the unsustainable water withdrawal patterns and hazardous effluent discharge from the industry must be monitored in order to make sure the export-oriented sectors are sustainable in a true manner. The reduce, recycle, and reuse techniques must be made obligatory to cut down the industry’s cost and waste thus minimising the burden on the country’s natural resources.
Industrial water withdrawal and effluent discharge must be regulated and monitored by a regulatory agency, that is formulated inclusively with appropriate representatives from all sectors of the economy. In order for this agency to be effective, it must be given fine lines of power to impose penalties for any non-compliance with pollution directives by the industry.
Keeping in view the abysmal state of water bodies in the country, the regulatory agency must have the authority to impose pollution taxes on polluters to enhance the quality of water channels. This appears to be the only viable way forward to improve the quality of our water bodies, reduce unsustainable patterns of industrial water consumption and meet the increasingly stringent compliance requirements of our textile imports into the western economies.
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