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”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Who 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.
Reebok has announced it wants to produce plant-based footwear made from organic cotton and corn.
The US-based company, which is a subsidiary of adidas, has launched the Cotton + Corn initiative as part of its effort to make footwear from “things that grow” instead of materials that aren’t biodegradable.
“Unfortunately, the fact is most shoes just end up in landfills, which is something we are trying to change,” said Reebok president Matt O’Toole.
“As a brand, we will be focusing on sustainability with the Cotton + Corn programme as well as other initiatives we have in the works.”
The sportswear brand has teamed up with DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products, which produces a biodegradable rubber known as Susterra propanediol that is derived from industrial-grown corn.
The soles of the shoes will be made using this rubber while the rest will be composed of organic cotton.
“This is really just the first step for us,” said Bill McInnis, of Reebok Future. “With Cotton + Corn we’re focused on all three phases of the product lifecycle.
“First, with product development we’re using materials that grow and can be replenished, rather than the petroleum-based materials commonly used today.
“Second, when the product hits the market we know our consumers don’t want to sacrifice on how sneakers look and perform.
“Finally, we care about what happens to the shoes when people are done with them. So we’ve focused on plant-based materials such as corn and cotton at the beginning, and compostability in the end.”
The company wants to bring its plant-based trainers to market later this year.
As a responsible shopper looking to do the right thing, you might think if a brand is openly talking about their environmental or labor practices, they’re probably legit. And if they show you a picture of a happy worker or an NGO partner, it’s probably a sign of good intent and practices, right? Swipe that credit card.
Buyer beware — greenwashing is definitely a THING, and it’s not just the big fast fashion brands.
We’re always getting questions about H&M, Zara and others. Are they “greenwashing”? (i.e. exaggerating their environmental chops or social practices in an effort to make themselves seem sustainable, and even diverting attention away from negative practices like child labor, or the consumption-driven fast fashion model. Ew.)
But recently, savvy readers, like yourselves, have been asking more questions about the credentials of smaller “ethical fashion” or “eco-fashion” brands, and whether their practices add up to all their marketing.
Greenwashing is never good. But with the smaller “ethical” new kids on the block, it’s almost even more dangerous if they don’t stack up to their claims. It seeds pessimism and cynicism among consumers, just as a new vision of a sustainable industry is starting to gain traction.
So over the last month we did a mini experiment to dig into the practices of a few exciting and popular “ethical” brands, who outwardly celebrate their positive impact, intentions or transparency, and see what evidence they had to back up these assertions.
We looked at:
Everlane, the “radically transparent” basics brand
Kowtow, a fairtrade, organic cotton brand making knitwear and basics from New Zealand
Krochet Kids, a social impact brand, empowering women in Uganda and Peru
We studied their websites and social media, contacted them through numerous channels, looked at publicly available records and everything else we could find. We did an intensive search beyond what a consumer could do in an afternoon, but without using any tools you wouldn’t have at the ready.
We went to these brands with a lot of questions surrounding labor practices, environmental practices, community engagement, management practices, size and business model, intention, innovation and transparency.
Below we’ve shared some highlights, AND, as we did this in-depth research, we pieced together the five questions we realized could help you sniff out greenwashing. (If you’re a nerd for this stuff like us, you can view everything we found on their updated brand pages on our Project JUST wiki)
So check out what we found and TRY these questions on for size:
1. First, check out what kind of fabrics / materials they are using.
Fabrics are an easy way to really change the impact of a supply chain for the better. PLUS it’s a super easy way for you as a shopper to know which brands are serious about changing the game. Raw materials are a big portion of the product, and consequently, its environmental and social impact. As a designer or a brand, committing to a restricted set of fabrics can be difficult — sustainable fabrics can be more expensive and not as easy to source — but it pays off in both your impact and performance in the end. So how did the brands we picked stack up?
Kowtow uses organic and fair trade cotton. Organic cotton is proven to be significantly better for people and planet, and fair trade means farmers and workers get fair wages for their work.
Krochet Kids uses some sustainable fabrics, but also uses acrylic and polyester (oil). They’re in the process of rolling out an organic cotton line.
Warby Parker uses cellulose acetate, titanium, and stainless steel in its frames for both eyeglasses and sunglasses. Cellulose acetate is usually made from wood pulp. In February 2014, the brand reported via its Facebook page that Warby Parker frames are made of acetate that comes from a family-owned Italian manufacturer.
2. Second, do they have any certifications?
When you’re shopping, check out the tags — any symbols or certifications there? A certification offers a brand a rigorous program of standards and assessment, and a signal to shoppers of monitoring, high standards, and intention. A brand doesn’t have to have a certification to do good work, but often times, brands use them as a roadmap to build out a more sustainable supply chain. You have to be cautious though — some certifications aren’t that rigorous, or have major flaws in monitoring or auditing what’s actually happening on the ground. You can read more about certifications in our New Slang dictionary.
Kowtow has organic and fair trade certifications. Plain, simple and thorough.
Warby Parker is a BCorp, but we couldn’t find any information about what this means in terms of their environmental impact, or how they treat their workers. However, their recently released response to the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act means that the brand has now made its Code of Conduct publicly available (check out this release of new information on our Warby Parker brand page).
Krochet Kids is launching an organic line, and has their own special impact measurement tool that they use at each of their facilities.
Everlane doesn’t have any certifications that provide us with an easy signal to show that they’re trying, but it’s clear they like to set things up their own way. For their supply chain, they have three pillars of work: they started with transparency, are currently building their compliance, and sustainability is next. They do hold the factories they work with accountable to a 85% or higher score on the labor audit. If they don’t hit the mark, they step in with a corrective action plan, in partnership with their auditing firm, Intertek, to help.
Certifications aren’t for everyone, nor do they always work, but for the shopper and for us, it’s an easy way to know what standard a brand is holding themselves to, what are their intentions and to look into what’s actually happening to meet it.
3. Third, how transparent are they… really?
This basically comes down to what — and how much — they’re truly sharing with us. What’s on their website? Their social media? What data do they share to back up their claims of social or environmental impact?
Let’s stack ’em up.
Everlane: As fashion supply chain nerds, ever since this brand came out with their tagline, radical transparency, we’ve been curious to know what constituted “radical” from the information they shared. After all, “radical” by definition implies something beyond average. But, when we looked on the Everlane website, we didn’t really find much beyond where some of their factories were located, and what they made. What were we looking for? How they guaranteed fair wages and safe working conditions, what kinds of environmental policies they had in place, and their intentions for future improvement.
So we reached out to their team with a list of questions, and low and behold, got to sit down with the Founder & CEO, Michael Preysman —getting serious now.
He shared quite a bit of info with us including:
Their code of conduct
The average score of their factories on quarterly audits: 90.1%
The number of times a year their team visits their factories: 3
Their current lack of environmental policies, but their intent to work on this as the next phase in monitoring their supply chain
And lots more! (available for you to see behind a tiny little paywall, but trust us it’s worth the 5 bucks)
So why isn’t all this info available on their website?
Michael said (paraphrased) that they prefer not to reveal their work until it’s fully complete, so that the company can figure the right strategy to communicate the information to their customer, in a way that makes sense.
You tell us. Given that these guys have shaken things up before, we’re excited to see what they churn out in the coming months to truly be “radical” in their supply chain practices.
Warby Parker: When it came to Warby Parker, we received not one answer to our questions. Not one! Between January and February 2017, we reached out six times to the PR company and twice to the brand, who then redirected us back to the PR company (head spinning emailing 😕).
This brand that claims positive social impact, and even has a BCorp certification (!), never answered our questions about whether they can trace their entire supply chain, where their suppliers are located, if they have a code of conduct, how much the workers in their supply chain are paid, how they monitor their social and environmental practices, and what their goals are to decrease their negative impact. In just the last two days, they did release a new set of info to comply with the California Transparency Act. Great – but we’ve still got questions.
Kowtow and Krochet Kids: These two brands both have a lot of information available on their website. Krochet Kids was willing to answer any question we threw their way, while Kowtow had enough info on their website and via their certifications to thoroughly answer our questions.
4. Do they express intention for improvement?
No brand is perfect. But given the major impact of fashion supply chains on people and planet, it’s important to at least have the intention and plans to continue to improve. Do they have goals on their website? Any plans that they share with the media, or consumers?
Krochet Kids told us all about their future plans. So did Everlane. Warby Parker — no answer and nothing available on their site. And finally Kowtow, who by committing to only use fair trade and organic cotton, has restricted their growth and made a sustainability commitment for the long run.
5. Fifth, and finally, will they get back to you / us / anyone?
When you ask a question — do they respond? And do they give you a straight answer?
After we emailed them this month, Everlane gave us a sit down with their founder & CEO. We had also reached out to them before with questions through various consumer channels, and had received responses — but not nearly as comprehensive as this. We appreciate this, but we also recognize that not everyone is afforded this kind of access. We hope they continue to strive to be as responsive to consumers as possible to attain this same standard of radical transparency.
Krochet Kids’ CEO and COO had a phone call with us after they answered our comprehensive survey. We were impressed with their brand, and especially with their willingness to share and open up to us.
Kowtow and Warby Parker both didn’t answer our repeated efforts to get in touch with them with our questions. That said, Kowtow has a ton of information about their brand and practices available on their website for anyone (not just supply chain dorks like us) to see. Warby Parker? Not so much.
So what did we learn?
In this day and age, with consumers buying products made by global supply chains, and with issues of human trafficking, child labor, worker abuse and environmental violations — the consumer should have a right to know how the product they’re paying for is made and be able to see the evidence to back it up.
And with brands like these, consumers should also know legitimately that the brand’s vision and proclaimed values match how they treat workers in their supply chain, and how they treat our planet. If you’re paying, you deserve to know.
So don’t get taken for a ride— keep searching, keep asking questions and tell your friends to ask, too. From our experience, you might even get to sit down with the CEO.
With GOTS certification, Texaura – an Indian organic textile brand – is the first brand targeting the global consumers in 200 countries with B2C model with the help of its e-commerce portal.
The company offers luxurious and sustainable cotton bedding range. Texaura is derived from two words- ‘Tex’ from textiles and ‘Aura’, the richness, comfort, durability and feel of the fabric which plays a crucial role in the making of a linen or bedsheet.
Organic textile has an estimated market size of US $ 15.76 billion in 2015 and is steadfastly growing at 16 per cent per annum. It may be mentioned here that the market is poised for growth predominantly in regions like USA, Europe and Oceania.
Manuj Terapanthi, Promoter of the company states, “Consumers are increasingly choosing organics products in pursuit of a healthy lifestyle and are willing to pay more for products with quality assurance standards supporting the environment and social welfare. Texaura is here to give a face to organic textiles from India.”
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibres and treatments, has released its new Version 5.0, three years after the Version 4.0 was introduced. The new version is a result of a comprehensive stakeholder input process in which various organizations with expertise in organic production, textile processing and social criteria participated.
The high ecological and social requirements as well as word-wide practicability and verifiability were considered in the revision work, in order to achieve a reliable and transparent set of criteria. The aim of the new standard is to define world-wide recognized requirements that ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer.
Textile processors and manufacturers are enabled to export their organic fabrics and garments with one certification accepted in all major markets. The implementation deadline for GOTS-certified entities to fully comply with Version 5.0 is 1 March, 2018. The standards for the ‘additional fibre material’ are now stricter regarding the environmentally improved and certified regenerated cellulosic fibres: The use of Viscose and Modal is now restricted to 10 per cent (25 per cent for sportswear and socks). Lyocell may still be used up to 30 per cent due its more sustainable manufacturing processes.
The new version follows the general approach of GOTS to define high-level certifiable environmental criteria throughout the entire processing chain of apparel and home textiles (including spinning, knitting, weaving, wet processing, manufacturing, and trading) made from a minimum of 70 per cent certified organic fibres.
From the Green Revolution to organic farming. In the heart of India, cotton growers have led the way in rejecting harmful chemicals and GM-seeds, working with nature, rather than against it.
Unable to cater for his family, Hariya, a cotton farmer from a village in Madhya Pradesh, in central India, decided to move to a city to look for another job. It was March 2008. Faced with poverty and a lack of opportunities to make a living from growing cotton, he quit farming, left his family and the little land he had cared for.
Hariya’s story is not unique. Between 2005-2009, a total of 140 million people in India left agriculture whilst Census 2011 shows that 2300 people were quitting farming every day and migrating to cities to take up menial jobs. The Green Revolution which was once omnipresent in rural India has come to embody the opposite of what people all over the world know as “green”, environmentally friendly and good for people.
Pale shade of green
Starting in 1965, India’s Green Revolutionaimed to transform the country’s farming regions into “veritable breadbaskets”, increasing significantly the country’s output of wheat and rice in particular. However, the modern agricultural methods it introduced — the extensive use of modified seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides — brought about unanticipated harmful consequences. The “green” way began to play havoc on the soil, water, animals, and human beings, creating a vicious cycle for small scale farmers who became reliant on buying pricey seeds and chemicals in order to stay in business.
To address these challenges and support farmers in Madhya Pradesh, Pratibha Syntex, one of the world’s largest textiles manufacturers, in association withFairtrade, initiated a new way: an organic revolution. They helped to set up Vasudha— a Fairtrade and organic-certified farmers cooperative. Today, Vasudha works with about 1500 cotton farmers, whilst Pratibha is associated with around 33500 organic-certified farmers across four states.
Avinash Karmarkar, VP Vasudha explains: “In the last 50 years, agriculture has led to unpredictable weather patterns, poor soil fertility and low water levels, whilst increasing pest attacks and the costs of cultivation. It has created health risks for animals and human populations. The only way to combat these challenges is to look at agriculture in a holistic way, rather than focusing on production only.”
In the aftermath of the Green Revolution a debate about the future of farming opened up a new world of possibilities across the country. Today, farmers are turning their backs on chemical farming methods and are moving towards organic. They are well aware of the adverse effects of deforestation, excessive application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and improper waste recycling.
Organic is a process
Initially, the farmers at Vasudha were a bit apprehensive of adopting organic farming, not knowing whether or not it would guarantee sufficient yield. However, having seen the positive impacts on other farms, many decided to switch to organic.
Madhusudan Patidar, a farmer from Mandouri, says: “In the first few years, I thought that organic farming had not been giving yield equal to conventional farming, but gradually the cost of cultivation substantially decreased and the yield increased. The positive impact on soil life was unquestionable.”
To reduce cultivation costs, Vasudha Organic Solution Centre (known as VOSC) was established and together with Pratibha built three centers to produce and package low cost organic inputs, sold to farmers for a standard price. The centers have created new jobs and instilled entrepreneurship in farmers, and most importantly, have reduced their dependence on expensive market inputs – a key step for the farming community to become self-sufficient.
Vasudha has also introduced two organic agricultural inputs: Sudarshan and Bheem, now used by around 3000 farmers.
“We are proud to cultivate cotton sustainably. Sudarshan, which is a bio pesticide produced from leaf extracts, has reduced my cultivation cost by 40%. Bheem is a tonic prepared from soyabean, banana and drumstick extracts, which ensures growth of the plant,” explains Kailash Patidar, a farmer from Bhudari.
With the help of Fairtrade, the centers will soon start to produce their own non-GM quality cotton hybrid seed. Vasudha has initiated this process on two acres of land this year and is planning to scale it up to 10 acres in next three years thereby ensuring non-GM seeds for all its Fairtrade farmers. Women have also been involved in the programme.
Karmarkar sums it up: “With great courage and determination, we are on the way to achieve our vision for better farming. We have raised the bar for sustainable agriculture, and won’t stop there. Abiding by the Fairtrade Standards, we have many exciting plans. Vasudha has recently established a nursery of 75000 horticulture plants to grow around farms, to create a better micro environment. They shall also provide an extra income for farmers who can sell fruits on local markets in years to come.
“After all, Vasudha in Hindi means the producer of wealth for the Earth.”