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By Debra Tan

Although we have had our suspicions about this, there wasn’t really a link; until now. An interesting piece of research on “Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade” was just published in Nature on 30 March 2017. The paper warns of alarming rates of worldwide groundwater depletion (GWD) due to irrigation withdrawals. Estimates are that around 11% of non-renewable groundwater is embedded in the International food trade.

What has this got to do with fashion? Well, the title of the Nature paper is somewhat misleading: it should have said “Groundwater depletion embedded in crop trade” not “food trade”. A deeper dive into the results shows that some of this over-abstraction was down to the cotton crop.

Cotton is a Top 5 crop leading to the most groundwater depletion globally

Cotton was amongst the Top 5 crops leading to the most depletion globally – wheat (22% of global GWD), rice (17%), sugar crops (7%), cotton (7%) and maize (5%). That said, the trade in cotton alone accounted for 11% of global GWD transfers, with rice topping the list at 29%, followed by wheat at 12%. Maize and soybean are more water efficient crops, only representing 4% and 3% respectively.

Groundwater Depletion (GWD) is defined as …
“the volume of groundwater that is abstracted for irrigation use in excess of the national recharge rate and irrigation return flow, accounting for environmental flow requirements, and thus corresponds to an unsustainable use of groundwater for crop production”

Groundwater Depletion in Crop Production & Trade (2)

Who’s sucking up whose aquifers?

A glance at chart below indicates that Pakistan, USA and India are exporting GWD through trade. These three are the largest exporters of GWD, accounting for two-thirds of all GWD embedded in the crop trade.

Global GWD Transfers in the Crop Trade

Cotton drives USA’s GWD exports and is a quarter of India’s GWD exports …

Rice leads Pakistan’s GWD exports at 82% – mostly to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Kenya. Cotton, however, drives USA’s GWD exports at 24%, followed by wheat (16%) and maize (10%) to China, Mexico and Japan. Meanwhile, for India (#3 GWD exporter), nearly half of the over-abstraction is caused by rice (25%) and cotton (24%).

… Almost half of China’s GWD imports are from cotton

In short, cotton accounts for a sizeable amount of GWD exports by USA and India. So who’s this cotton going to? It appears that the beneficiary is China; almost half of China’s GWD imports are from cotton, whereas soybean, which China does import a lot of, only accounts for 14% of GWD imports.

From the research, it appears that demand from China along with USA, Mexico and Iran are sucking up other people’s aquifers.  But before we start blaming China, the truth is that China is not the only end user of its cotton imports. Clothing & Textiles form the largest chunk of its industrial virtual exports – see chart below.

But China is not the only end user of its cotton imports…

… Clothing & Textiles form the largest chunk of its industrial virtual exports

China Net Virtual water Export (1)

In fact, China makes so much stuff for the rest of the world that it is a net virtual water exporter despite its agricultural imports. So what is really driving demand for cotton in China?

Zara, H&M and Uniqlo et al ultimately driving China’s cotton appetite?

China only began seriously to import cotton in the early 2000’s. We argue that this increase in appetite for cotton imports is driven by the meteoric rise of its manufacturing prowess for fast fashion.

Cotton appetite in China rises in tandem with store openings of fast fashion brands …

The chart below says it all – cotton appetite in (imports & domestic production) China rising in tandem with store openings of Inditex (which owns Zara), H&M and Fast Retailing (FR – which owns Uniqlo). Of course these three brands are not the only ones to blame; there has also been a similar explosion of stores in Target, Walmart, M&S stores in the same period. And let’s not forget the stellar rise of on-line shopping. However, since it is difficult to pin down which store is just a clothing/ food store, we used store openings of the three clothing brands for illustrative purposes.

1992-2015 china's appetite for cotton driven by fast fashion

The pursuit of the lowest price 

With fast fashion driving the search for the cheapest prices in the supply chain, the price differential between domestic and international cotton drove China to import cotton.

China’s biggest trade partner has traditionally been the USA. But in 2011, cheaper cotton and shorter transportation times from India meant that the country overtook the USA to become China’s biggest trade partner for cotton. Today, the Top 5 cotton nations that China is importing cotton from are: India, USA, Australia, Uzbekistan and Brazil.

Meanwhile, China’s homegrown cotton storage stockpiled to over 12 million tonnes by 2013-2014. Since then, China has reduced incentives to farm cotton in the parched North China Plain. So while China’s own cotton production and imports fell in 2014, global production was still on the rise. As can be seen from the chart below, global production of cotton has been only rising markedly over the last decade.

Global cotton production on the rise

 The last decade has seen global GWD in crop production increase by 22%

An increase in global crop production has an impact on groundwater. Over the last decade, global GWD in crop production has increased by 22%, with the biggest deterioration from China (102%), India (23%) and USA (31%). The paper published in Nature warns USA, Mexico, Iran and China are particularly exposed as they produce as well as import food irrigated from rapidly depleting aquifers, including those in NW India, the North China Plain, central USA & California.

Given that China’s largest trading partners for cotton are India and USA, we can broadly say that the likes of Zara, H&M and Uniqlo, or anyone else in fast fashion selling cotton products are causing groundwater over-extraction in USA India and even in China, which itself grows a quarter of the world’s cotton.

Wasting resources

So more stores = more stock and as four-season fashion moved to 52-week fast fashion, global cotton production also grew. So actually, we are depleting our aquifers globally for something we don’t eat. Also, why are we growing virgin cotton when we can recycle? Worse still, the business model of fast fashion is premised on encouraging us to throw away the garment after one week of use, if we are going by 52-week fashion.

Not only is cotton sucking some areas dry, it also causes groundwater pollution

And if that is not enough, let’s not forget that the cotton crop is also dirty, sucking up significant amounts of global insecticides and pesticides. So not only is cotton sucking some areas dry, it also causes groundwater pollution, which in turn exacerbates scarcity. In China, the over-abstracted North China Plain, where a quarter of China’s cotton is grown, faces severe pollution: >70% groundwater is unfit for human touch.

Most brands are only visibly dealing with the “dirty” part of the crop. Many of the more responsible brands can tell you how much of their cotton is organic or ‘Better Cotton’. However, we are not aware of any major high street fast fashion brand that discloses just how much cotton they have sourced from where. Sucking aquifers dry in countries that are already facing water stress is clearly not a priority for action.

7 of the Top 10 cotton producing countries face medium to extremely high water stress…

… yet brands do not disclose how much cotton they have sourced from where

2014 Top 10 Cotton Producing Countries & Water Stress

Where & when does this stop?

For cotton, the answer is staring us in the face: switch to slow & more expensive and durable fashion that reflect the scarcity and polluting nature of fashion raw materials; switch to recycled cotton; or, better still, switch to hemp. Brands: surely it’s time to invest in any and/or all of these changes and not wait until the aquifers in USA, China, Pakistan and India are sucked dry. Too far-fetched? Think of what cotton-growing did to the Aral Sea: a volume loss of ~70% between 1960-2000 due to water diverted to grow cotton in the desert.

cotton tshirtWho should be held accountable? Governments, brands or the consumers?

Fashionistas, it is also time to face up to the ugly truth. You are partly to blame for over-extraction of groundwater. The frivolity of throw away fashion means that you are only beautiful on the outside.

Ultimately, we are all to blame. Almost everyone will have at least one cotton T-shirt in their wardrobe. If this makes you, the consumer, feel uncomfortable, start demanding your favourite brand to (1) tell you where it sources its cotton and (2) guarantee that it is not causing groundwater depletion.

*This story first appeared on China Water Risk

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