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The Truth about Water and Cotton: It’s Complicated

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Cotton has a reputation for being “difficult,” water-wise. Numerous non-profits and global media outlets such as The Guardian have laid blame on it for dwindling water resources in places like India, or for the environmental devastation in the Aral Sea. The truth, as is often the case, is not so cut and dried. In fact, cotton is downright drought tolerant and there are numerous ongoing efforts to improve cotton’s water footprint across the board.

If cotton is not such a grotesque water hog, why the erroneous conventional wisdom? According to Ed Barnes, Senior Director for Agricultural and Environmental Research with Cotton Inc, a U.S.-based industry research and lobbying organization, quite often, it is guilt-by-association.

“Cotton naturally is very heat and drought tolerant,“said Barnes. “The plant…has always grown in very harsh environments. When you have a crop that is adapted to hot and dry climates, then it is growing in areas that experience water scarcity.”

Understanding where cotton is being grown is key to both understanding its water footprint, and also developing strategies to improve it.

“There all these complexities,” said Laila Petrie with the World Wildlife Federation’s Global Partnerships Team. “Is cotton being grown in a water-scarce area? Is there not good water governance?”

Even factoring all this, cotton – as one of the world’s mostimportant agricultural products – does effect water scarcity in certain parts of the world, with sometimes negative impacts.

“There is a correlation between cotton and high irrigation, and there’s a high correlation between cotton growth and water scarcity and high water risk areas,” said Petrie.

Still, putting all the blame on the cotton plant is misguided. While farmers bear some responsibility, things like global warming and lack of oversight are beyond their control.

For example, the Aral Sea. While it is true that cotton farming was scaled up around Central Asia by the then ruling Soviet Union Government, it was the diversion of rivers away from the landlocked sea for unsustainable irrigation, all for quick cash from cottonexports, that was to blame for the disaster.

“The Aral Sea is a real tragedy of modern times,” said Barnes, “But there was nothing intrinsic about cotton that contributed to that problem.”

The truth is, we need cotton. As a product, it has numerous advantages. It is durable, recyclable, and provides livelihoods to millions. It’s main competitors – synthetics such as polyester, or leather – are rife with sustainability challenges as well. Cotton is an essential part of the global economy, and that is not changing anytime soon.

“Water is not a cotton problem, it’s a world problem, and none of us have really cracked that. It just so happens that cotton production is correlated with areas that have challenges,” said Petrie.

Thus, to blame the cotton plant alone would be a folly, and ignores the important role that technology, good governance, and proper farming techniques can play in making the crop more sustainable. In fact, Cotton Inc is working directly with farmers to provide better tools to help them make smarter water decisions – and seeing real results.

“The trend over the last 30 years – for every inch of water we use in irrigation, we’re getting more cotton,” said Barnes. “We’re finding over a 70 percent increase in lbs per inch of water.” And new technology, including the growing power of data, is making things ever better.

“One of our big pushes in the last five years is use of sensors in the field to measure the soil or the plant to see if it needs water,” said Barnes. They hope to have a national app for farmers next year that taps into sensor data, and data from the national weather service, to better equip farmers with the information they need to reduce water usage.

WWF is also working with partners – including Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle, and numerous other global brands – to improve cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative. Their goal is to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future, by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.

This means understanding that cotton’s life-cycle water usage and consumption, however, is not just what happens in the fields. Throughout the entire supply chain water is used, whether it is processing, printing, or even consumers washing and drying cotton products at homes across the world.

“Not much visibility from one end to another,” said Petrie. “There are 20 steps between the brand and cotton field. Cotton is traded as a commodity which means its hard to trace without a lot of effort.

This is a fundamental challenge for the industry.”

Both Cotton Inc, and WWF, have commissioned extensive, detailed reports and studies to figure out the whole picture of cotton’s water footprint, because unless we truly understand cotton at every phase of its, we can’t make it sustainable. In a future piece, we’ll look at the entire supply-chain water impacts of cotton to better understand the big picture.

*This story first appeared on The Triple Pundit

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Nike and Levi’s pile on for ‘fast fashion’ culture reform

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Shutterstock luanateutzi Even clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.

Fast-growing, fast-fashion retailer H&M, which has more than 4,000 stores in 62 countries, sold $24.5 billion worth of T-shirts, pants, jackets and dresses last year. It also took 12,000 tons of clothes back. In a glossy, celebrity-studded video, H&M says: “There are no rules in fashion but one: Recycle your clothes.”

Recycling has become a rallying cry in the apparel industry, with H&M as its most vocal evangelist. The Swedish firm launched a €1 million contest to seek out ideas for turning old clothes into new, invested in Worn Again, a company developing textile recycling technology, and enlisted hip-hop artist M.I.A. to produce a music video called Rewear It that aims to “highlight the importance of garment collecting and recycling.”

Don’t miss The Circular Economy Gets Down to Business with Ellen MacArthur of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Cyrus Wadia of Nike and Kate Brandt of Google on Sept. 20 at VERGE 16.

With Nike, H&M is a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to drive a transition to a circular economy — an industrial system in which everything at the end of its life is made into something new, in contrast to today’s economy, where most consumer goods are produced, used and then thrown away.

“We have to change how fashion is made,” Karl-Johan Persson, chief executive officer of H&M, has said. “We have to go from a linear model to a circular model and we have to do it at scale.”

It’s not just H&M. American Eagle Outfitters, Eileen Fisher, Levi-Strauss & Co., Nike, the North Face, Patagonia and Zara all collect old garments (or shoes, in the case of Nike) in their stores, in some cases taking clothes from any manufacturer. Startups Ambercycle, Dutch Awareness and Evrnu are developing chemical processes to take cotton, polyester or blended apparel and transform them into new fibers. “Our ultimate goal is to harvest our raw materials from our consumers’ closets,” said Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss.

That H&M is leading the charge for the circular economy is no small irony. The company’s low-cost clothes — it sells women’s T-shirts for $5.99 and boys’ jeans for $9.99 — are one reason why the apparel industry is growing so fast and drawing fire from environmental activists.

It’s been estimated that the global apparel industry generates as much as $2.5 trillion in annual revenue and that it will double in the next decade. What’s more, despite efforts to collect old clothes by retailers and nonprofits such as Goodwill Industries, the overwhelming majority of items eventually wind up in landfills, at least in the U.S. Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually, which amounts to about 80 pounds for each man, woman and child, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated.

Eileen Fisher, the founder of the apparel company that bears her name, has called the clothing industry “the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil,” a claim that can’t be verified because reliable data on fashion’s global footprint is scarce. But there’s no doubt that vast amounts of water, energy and chemicals are required to manufacture clothes — up to 200 tons of water, for example, to make a ton of fabric, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In places where environmental regulation is lax, chemicals are routinely discharged into rivers and streams without treatment. The textile industry long has been one of China’s biggest polluters, and it has fouled rivers and ruined farmland in India, Cambodia and Bangladesh, as well.

Growing cotton, the most-used fabric in fashion, requires water and agricultural chemicals. (Organic cotton is an exception.) While cotton is grown on just 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland, it accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent of global sales of insecticides and pesticides, respectively, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition — an alliance of retailers, brands and nonprofits — has been working for about five years to measure and reform the industry’s environmental footprint.

In the long run, the industry will need to take more radical action, particularly if it wants to sustain current growth rates, sustainability executives say.

For Nike to achieve its “moonshot ambition” of cutting its environmental impact by half while doubling its business, the company “will need to forget the linear and move to a circular model,” said Hannah Jones, the company’s chief sustainability officer. “Incrementalism and efficiency measures will not get us there.” Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability, said the company wants to “decouple growth from resource use, so that economic and social development can happen, but within planetary boundaries.”

This will be a daunting task. Consumer behavior is one obstacle. Most people don’t bring their old clothes back to stores, despite incentives. In the U.S., H&M, Levi-Strauss and the North Face have offered a variety of discounts, sometimes for as much as 20 percent on future purchases, but they are collecting far fewer clothes than they sell, executives admit. (H&M won’t say how many tons of clothes it sells, but the 12,000 tons it took back in 2015 is clearly a fraction of what the chain sold.) San Francisco is one of very few cities to offer curbside recycling of textiles.

Some insiders say the hype about closing the loop in fashion is outpacing actual progress. John Mowbray, founder of MCL Global, a media company focused on textiles that last year published a 100-page report called Closing the Loop, said: “There’s a hell of a long way to go for the industry to get to meaningful scale, despite what the marketing people are saying.”

To see why the job ahead is so hard, it’s essential to distinguish between recycling and closing the loop. Conventional recycling of clothes doesn’t create feedstock for new clothes. Instead, garments that can be worn again are sold in thrift stores or bundled for overseas bulk sales at just a few pennies a pound. (Even at those rock-bottom prices, the U.S. exported $705 million of worn clothing last year, sometimes to the detriment of local economies.) Clothes that can’t be worn again are resold as rags; downcycled for use in products such as insulation, carpet padding and stuffing for toys; incinerated for energy, or sent to landfills.

By contrast, a closed loop or circular economy is “restorative and regenerative by design,” stated the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. For the apparel industry, this means designing a system that will keep textile resources in use for a long as possible, and then recovering the materials at the end of life to make new high-value products. No company today is doing this on a commercial scale, but several are trying.

London-based Worn Again began “upcycling” a decade ago by turning textile waste — including discarded McDonald’s uniforms, Virgin Atlantic airplane seats and prison blankets — into clothes, shoes and bags. But founder Cyndi Rhoades soon realized that making consistent products out of a variety of materials was “a very difficult business.” She turned her attention to recycling cotton and polyester, which poses a different set of obstacles. Mechanical recycling of cotton lowers its quality as chopped-up fibers get shorter and less soft, while recycled polyester costs more than new. Harder still is recycling clothes made from a blend of fabrics, which must be separated.

After several years of research, Worn Again joined forces (PDF) with H&M and the PUMA division of Kering to develop chemical processes that will capture polyester and cotton from old textiles that have been broken down to the molecular level. Said Rhoades: “The holy grail is a process that can separate blended fibers, recapture the raw materials and reintroduce them into the supply chain at a price competitive with their virgin counterparts.” The technology has been proven in a lab, but Rhoades declined to predict when it will be deployed more widely.

A partnership between Levi Strauss and Seattle-based startup Evrnu recently brought forth the world’s first pair of jeans made of post-consumer cotton waste. A preliminary lifecycle assessment of the product generated encouraging results, according to Paul Dillinger, vice president and head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss.

“Cotton cultivation versus Evrnu, we’re looking at a 98 percent reduction in water use,” said Dillinger, noting that cotton is cultivated in places such as China, India and Pakistan that are — or soon could be — water-stressed.

Stacy Flynn, a former Target executive who is the co-founder of Evrnu, said its patented process purifies cotton garment waste, converts it to a pulp and extrudes it as a clean new fiber that is softer than silk and stronger than cotton. Evrnu expects to announce partnerships with two more retailers soon, one of which wants to make knit shirts out of textile waste. The other will focus on footwear.

Flynn said: “Our goal — and we’re not there yet — is to use no virgin product in the creation of our fiber, and create no waste.”

*This story first appeared on Greenbiz

Pressure Mounts on Retailers to Reform Throwaway Clothing Culture

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H&M is among the retailers that collect old garments in their stores for recycling. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Fast-growing, fast-fashion retailer H&M, which has more than 4,000 stores in 62 countries, sold $24.5bn worth of T-shirts, pants, jackets, and dresses last year. It also took 12,000 tons of clothes back. In a glossy, celebrity-studded video, H&M says: “There are no rules in fashion but one: Recycle your clothes.”

“There are no rules in fashion but one: Recycle your clothes.”

Recycling has become a rallying cry in the apparel industry, with H&M as its most vocal evangelist. The Swedish firm launched a €1m contest to seek out ideas for turning old clothes into new, invested in Worn Again, a company that is developing textile recycling technology, and enlisted hip-hop artist MIA. to produce a music video called Rewear It, that aims to “highlight the importance of garment collecting and recycling”. With Nike, H&M is a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to drive a transition to a circular economy – that is, an industrial system in which everything at the end of its life is made into something new, in contrast to today’s economy, where most consumer goods are produced, used, and then thrown away.

“We have to change how fashion is made,” Karl-Johan Persson, the chief executive officer of H&M, has said. “We have to go from a linear model to a circular model, and we have to do it at scale.”

It’s not just H&M. American Eagle Outfitters, Eileen Fisher, Levi-Strauss & Co, Nike, The North Face, Patagonia, and Zara all collect old garments (or shoes, in the case of Nike) in their stores, in some cases taking clothes from any manufacturer. Startups Ambercycle, Dutch Awareness, and Evrnu are developing chemical processes to take cotton, polyester, or blended apparel and transform them into new fibers.

“Our ultimate goal is to harvest our raw materials from our consumers’ closets,” says Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss.

That H&M is leading the charge for the circular economy is no small irony. The company’s low-cost clothes – it sells women’s T-shirts for $5.99 and boys’ jeans for $9.99 – are one reason why the apparel industry is growing so fast and drawing fire from environmental activists. It’s been estimated that the global apparel industry generates as much as $2.5tn in annual revenue, and that it will double in the next decade. What’s more, despite efforts to collect old clothes by retailers and nonprofits like Goodwill Industries, the overwhelming majority of items eventually wind up in landfills, at least in the US Americans dispose of about 12.8m tons of textiles annually, which amounts to about 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Eileen Fisher, the founder of the apparel company that bears her name, has called the clothing industry “the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil,” a claim that can’t be verified because reliable data on fashion’s global footprint is scarce. But there’s no doubt that vast amounts of water, energy, and chemicals are required to manufacture clothes – up to 200 tons of water, for example, to make a ton of fabric, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In places where environmental regulation is lax, chemicals are routinely discharged into rivers and streams without treatment. The textile industry has long been one of China’s biggest polluters, and it has fouled rivers and ruined farmland in India, Cambodia, and Bangladesh, as well.

Growing cotton, the most-used fabric in fashion, requires water and agricultural chemicals. (Organic cotton is an exception.) While cotton is grown on just 2.4% of the world’s cropland, it accounts for 24% and 11% of global sales of insecticides and pesticides, respectively, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition – an alliance of retailers, brands, and nonprofits – has been working for about five years to measure and reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.
In the long run, the industry will need to take more radical action, particularly if it wants to sustain current growth rates, sustainability executives say.

For Nike to achieve its “moonshot ambition” of cutting its environmental impact by half, while doubling its business, the company “will need to forget the linear and move to a circular model,” says Hannah Jones, the company’s chief sustainability officer. “Incrementalism and efficiency measures will not get us there.” Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability, says the company wants to “decouple growth from resource use, so that economic and social development can happen, but within planetary boundaries.”

This will be a daunting task. Consumer behavior is one obstacle. Most people don’t bring their old clothes back to stores, despite incentives. In the US, H&M, Levi-Strauss, and The North Face have offered a variety of discounts, sometimes for as much as 20% on future purchases, but they are collecting far, far fewer clothes than they sell, executives admit. (H&M won’t say how many tons of clothes it sells, but the 12,000 tons it took back in 2015 is clearly a fraction of what the chain sold.) San Francisco is one of very few cities to offer curbside recycling of textiles.

Some insiders say the hype about closing the loop in fashion is outpacing actual progress. John Mowbray, who is the founder of MCL Global, a media company focused on textiles that last year published a 100-page report called Closing the Loop, says: “There’s a hell of a long way to go for the industry to get to meaningful scale, despite what the marketing people are saying.”

To see why the job ahead is so hard, it’s essential to distinguish between recycling and closing the loop. Conventional recycling of clothes doesn’t create feedstock for new clothes. Instead, garments that can be worn again are sold in thrift stores or bundled for overseas bulk sales at just a few pennies a pound. (Even at those rock-bottom prices, the US exported $705m of worn clothing last year, sometimes to the detriment of local economies.) Clothes that can’t be worn again are resold as rags; downcycled for use in products like insulation, carpet padding, and stuffing for toys; incinerated for energy, or sent to landfills.

By contrast, a closed loop or circular economy is “restorative and regenerative by design,” says the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. For the apparel industry, this means designing a system that will keep textile resources in use for a long as possible, and then recover the materials at the end of life to make new high-value products. No company today is doing this on a commercial scale, but several are trying.

London-based Worn Again began “upcycling” a decade ago by turning textile waste – including discarded McDonald’s uniforms, Virgin Atlantic airplane seats, and prison blankets – into clothes, shoes, and bags. But founder Cyndi Rhoades soon realized that making consistent products out of a variety of materials was “a very difficult business”. She turned her attention to recycling cotton and polyester, which poses a different set of obstacles. Mechanical recycling of cotton lowers its quality as chopped-up fibers get shorter and less soft, while recycled polyester costs more than new. Harder still is recycling clothes made from a blend of fabrics, which must be separated.

After several years of research, Worn Again joined forces with H&M and the Puma division of Kering to develop chemical processes that will capture polyester and cotton from old textiles that have been broken down to the molecular level. Says Rhoades: “The holy grail is a process that can separate blended fibers, recapture the raw materials, and reintroduce them into the supply chain at a price competitive with their virgin counterparts.” The technology has been proven in a lab, but Rhoades declined to predict when it will be deployed more widely.

A partnership between Levi Strauss and Seattle-based startup Evrnu recently brought forth the world’s first pair of jeans made of post-consumer cotton waste. A preliminary lifecycle assessment of the product generated encouraging results, according to Paul Dillinger, vice president and head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss. “Cotton cultivation versus Evrnu, we’re looking at a 98% reduction in water use,” says Dillinger, noting that cotton is cultivated in places like China, India, and Pakistan that are — or could soon be — water-stressed.

Stacy Flynn, a former Target executive who is the co-founder of Evrnu, says its patented process purifies cotton garment waste, converts it to a pulp, and extrudes it as a clean new fiber that is softer than silk and stronger than cotton. Evrnu expects to announce partnerships with two more retailers soon, one of which wants to make knit shirts out of textile waste. The other will focus on footwear.

Flynn says: “Our goal – and we’re not there yet – is to use no virgin product in the creation of our fiber, and create no waste.”

*This story first appeared on The Guardian