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
By Catherine Salfino
In a world where demanding consumers want everything faster, the term fast fashion has taken on a less than desirable connotation: big conglomerates using unfair labor practices to sell inexpensive, poorly made product. Contrast that with independent makers who champion the idea of producing smaller batches of apparel from better materials, using fairly treated skilled laborers. While plenty of fashion is still made fast and cheap, more of the big players are switching to the middle lane, looking for better materials, fair labor, and increased quality. And this is something consumers appreciate.
Kathleen Fasanella, founder of Apparel Technical Services and author of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing, says in the past, fast fashion simply referred to efficiently produced apparel.
“It wasn’t a value proposition of presumed defective or lower ‘quality’ items as it is now,” she says. “Fast fashion can use better quality materials, better craftsmanship, and fair labor. We cannot assume they’re not doing it now — I know people who are. However, this raises the contradiction in thinking that anything produced quickly as being ‘fast’ fashion. We must decide if ‘fast’ means speedy crap or just speedy. Conversely, a lot of people are doing things slowly because they’re inexperienced and inefficient; not because they’re better.”
Whether it’s made fast or slowly, consumers are becoming more aware of sustainably produced apparel. Although slightly less than 4 in 10 consumers (38%) say they actually put effort into finding environmentally friendly clothing for themselves, and that is up from 33% who did so in 2013, according to the Cotton Incorporated 2014 Environment Survey. However, nearly 7 of 10 shoppers (69%) would be bothered if they found out an apparel item they purchased was not environmentally friendly.
Additionally, if consumers purchased an apparel item that was not produced in an eco-sensitive way, Cotton Incorporated’s 2014 Environment Survey research shows 4 in 10 (39%) would blame the manufacturer, followed by the brand (15%), and themselves (12%).
That’s why some of the big names in fashion — be they fast or traditional — have taken a pro-active approach to improve their environmental footprint.
Levi’s has implemented sustainability measures for decades. Its most recent programs include the 2013 introduction of the Dockers Wellthread collection of socially and environmentally sustainable apparel, as well as its Water<Less jeans, which use less water in the finishing process.
Meanwhile, fast fashion maker H&M has teamed with Solidaridad to improve environmental conditions in the supply chain. Together they developed a cleaner production program in China titled “Better Mill Initiative,” which supports cleaner dyeing and printing during wet textile processing. Zara’s parent company Inditex has a Green Code to improve environmental policies during production. Its “zero discharge pledge” serves as a guide on the use of chemicals for manufacturing. And retailing giant Walmart even has its own sustainability index that covers more than 700 product categories.
Of course, even with these programs, work remains to be done within the industry. The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has called on 15 major retailers and brands, including Forever 21, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren, and Michael Kors, to help stop the destruction of forests. Around the world, RAN states, forests are cut down to cultivate monocrop tree plantations, whose dissolving pulp is used in a toxic slurry to create manmade fabrics like viscose and rayon.
Unlike viscose and rayon, cotton is a renewable, natural fiber that does not undergo chemical processing to becoming a fabric. On the contrary, an independent research report from Field to Market, the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, shows the environmental impact of producing a pound of U.S. cotton has fallen substantially over the past three decades. Through modern seed technology, conservation tillage practices, advanced scientific research, and machinery and equipment practices, there’s been a 75% decline in irrigation water used per pound of cotton produced. Furthermore, monitoring by land grant universities in the U.S. found a 50% reduction in pesticide applications has occurred at the same time USDA data shows. Fiber production has doubled without expanding acreage.
Such advances help maintain the positive sentiment consumers have toward cotton. More than 9 in 10 consumers (92%) continue to say they find cotton to be safe for the environment. In fact, consumers rate cotton and other natural fibers like wool and silk (81%) significantly higher in environmental safety than manmade fibers like polyester (60%), and rayon (59%). Additionally, 77% say the claim of 100 percent cotton would be influential to their apparel purchases, followed by Made in the USA (68%), natural (61%), and sustainable (57%).
This natural textile has benefitted from the work and research of Cotton Incorporated, which represents U.S. cotton growers and importers. Cotton Incorporated also collaborates on research with other organizations like the Better Cotton Initiative, whose aim is to make cotton more sustainable by reducing water inputs and promoting more sustainable growing techniques, as well as The Sustainability Consortium and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
Of course, cotton works for both fast and slow fashion. When eco-conscious online brand Zady recently introduced its .02 The T-Shirt, it released an infographic pointing out that cotton apparel can last a lifetime yet, once disposed of, can decompose in less than a year. This, as opposed to synthetic fibers, which Zady says can take 200 years to break down.
Rather than choosing fast over or slow or vice versa, Fasanella says all producers should be more efficient in all aspects.
“There’s room for everyone.”
**This article first appeared on Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor here.