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Andrea Newell headshot

Quenching Cotton's Thirst: Reducing the Use of Water in the Cotton Lifecycle

By Andrea Newell
cotton and water

A 2015 U.N. report predicts that the world is on track to face a 40 percent shortage of fresh (including drinkable) water in the next 15 years. If current usage habits don't change, the world will have only 60 percent of the water it needs in 2030.

Seventy percent of the earth’s fresh water goes toward agriculture production, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Most agriculture produces food for humans or livestock, but cotton, grown largely for the apparel industry, uses 3 percent of the total amount of water consumed by agriculture. In fact, WWF calls cotton "the most widespread, profitable non-food crop in the world." This cash-crop provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7 percent of all labor in developing countries. Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton.

According to WWF, it takes more than 20,000 liters (5,283 gallons) of water to produce just one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton, which roughly equals one T-shirt and a pair of jeans. The cotton apparel lifecycle contains many places, from dirt to shirt to landfill, where we have made strides in reducing water consumption, but there is still work to be done.

Call for sustainable cotton-growing practices

CottonConnect (supported by C&A Foundation) and the Better Cotton Initiative (supported by WWF) are two global organizations that support farmer-level improvement to reduce water use and implement other efforts to make cotton farming more sustainable.

But since organic cotton still only makes up 1 percent of cotton farming, there are still plenty of improvements that can be made in the cotton lifecycle as a whole, concentrating on sustainable practices.


Ineffective use of irrigation and poor transportation and storage can lead to huge amounts of wasted water. WWF estimates about 73 percent of the global cotton crop is grown on irrigated land. Several cotton organizations like Cotton Inc., C&A Foundation and Better Cotton Initiative are working with cotton farmers to make sure that water is used effectively and efficiently.

Cotton Inc. is a U.S.-based industry research and lobbying organization (it's the one behind the "fabric of our lives" campaigns). The organization says that the majority of American-grown cotton (about 65 percent) is produced without irrigation. In the South and the Southeast, non-irrigated cotton systems dominate, while in the arid West nearly all of the crop-water requirements are met by irrigation water.

Farmers in the U.S. have improved water efficiency by 75 percent in the last 20 years, James Pruden, senior director of public relations at Cotton Inc., explained. But irrigation is still one of the villains of the water waste dilemma due to overflow and evaporation.

However, there have been many advances in irrigation like drip-irrigation installations that reduce the amount of water used to supplement rainfall, in regions where it is needed. Pruden explained that other technologies can detect where in a field the soil is dry and where it isn’t, concentrating delivery to areas where water is needed. These technologies can sometimes be financially out of reach for small farmers, but since their benefits are substantial, organizations are trying to bridge the distance.

“With CottonConnect, C&A Foundation is piloting financing schemes to give farmers greater access to drip-irrigation technology. These new irrigation systems can increase yields by 30 percent and reduce water usage by up to 60 percent,” Leslie Johnston, executive director of the C&A Foundation, wrote in the organization's More Crop Per Drop report.

Pesticide/herbicide use

Pesticides are a big dividing line between organically-grown cotton and other practices, but they also play a role in water conservation efforts when it comes to agriculture.

Pesticide use contaminates groundwater and can cause long-term pollution problems downstream from cotton farms. It is also an expensive practice, so there are several reasons that farmers are trying to curb or end pesticide use. U.S. farmers no longer apply pesticides in a cloud (a la Hollywood), Pruden explained, but they are encouraged to apply it at ground-level to a specific area, which reduces contamination. That said, any use of pesticide has the potential to affect groundwater.

Although certified organic cotton farming has lost some ground in the past few years, it looks like cotton organizations are encouraging more sustainable farming practices that steer farmers further from traditional wasteful cotton farming and more in the direction of organic principles as a whole. So, the industry is moving in a more sustainable direction, and slowly but surely, it is resulting in water savings.


Manufacturing processes also use a lot of water. The dyeing process both uses a large amount of water and causes a huge amount of pollution. The water that runs off the fabric and down the drain into sewage systems pours chemicals into the groundwater, as well as rivers, lakes and other water sources.

Several brands have worked to develop processes that use less water.

Nike has a ColorDry process that eliminates "water from fabric dyeing." It also "reduces energy consumption by around 60 percent compared to traditional dyeing, eliminates the use of process chemicals, and uses nearly 100 percent of dye in the process, practically removing the potential for wastewater pollution," the company said.

Levi's launched a waterless jeans initiative that uses recycled water in parts of its process and saved 1 billion gallons of water as of 2015 by reducing the water used in garment finishing by up to 96 percent.

Consumer habits

Consumers can do several things to reduce water use for cotton products, especially apparel and household items (sheets, etc.).

The first thing consumers can do is buy less. Brands like Patagonia have even gone so far as to tell customers that they should repair their garments rather than buy new.

Another way that consumers can be aware is to find out where their clothes come from.

Eric Henry, president of TS Designs, a U.S.-based organic cotton T-shirt design company, says that his customers can look up any of their shirts to find out its journey "from dirt to shirt" using the Where Your Clothing website. TS Designs has a close relationship with their North Carolina, third-generation cotton farmer who grows their crop relying only on rainfall. The company also insists on paying a living wage to its workers up and down the supply chain, which is all within 600 miles.

The next way to conserve water is to wash your item less, use cooler water and line-dry whenever possible to use less water to clean the item and extend the life of your garment.

When a consumer tires of a garment or it is worn out, the best thing to do is donate it. In 2015, Holly McQuillan, senior lecturer at Ngā Pae Māhutonga – the School of Designtold 3p:

"The fashion industry will produce 400 billion meters of fabric [in 2015 alone] — just for apparel. This is roughly the amount of fabric it would take to cover the entire state of California. Fifteen percent, or 60 billion meters, will be wasted during the production phase (extra fabric, itself a finished product, that ends up on the cutting-room floor), before the garments even reach a consumer. The number of garments created each year is the equivalent of everyone in the world having 20 new items annually."

Annually consumers waste more than 11 million tons of textiles.

Efforts to recover these fibers will reduce the water constraints of the apparel industry by cutting the cotton-growing component out of the equation.

Manufacturers large and small are working to recover fibers for reuse. One startup, Evrnu, takes cotton garment waste, purifies it and breaks it down into a pulp -- creating, according to founder Stacy Flynn, "a pristine new fiber that is finer than silk and stronger than cotton - made entirely of garment waste." She told 3p this process uses 1 percent of the water used in the original cotton garment process.

Right now, Evrnu is the only U.S. company in the game, although there are companies working on similar technologies in the U.K., Finland and Sweden.

If cotton-farming organizations continue to promote sustainable practices, organic gains a bigger market share, and -- from the other end of the spectrum -- fiber recovery and remanufacture becomes more than a pipe dream, the water footprint of the  apparel industry might ease.

Image credit: Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture 

Andrea Newell headshot

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

Read more stories by Andrea Newell