World Water Day 2017 - The True Cost Of Conventional Cotton

The production of consumer goods is a crippling drain on the world's water resources. We reveal the price we pay for conventional cotton and look to the inspiring alternatives already available.

Words: James Bates-Prince
The True Cost of Conventional Cotton for Water Day 2017 | buymeonce.com

World Water Day has never seemed more vital. As worldwide population expands and global temperatures continue to rise, already struggling communities will have their livelihoods further restricted. The developed world has (with some exceptions) been able to avoid these issues over time, the scarcity of water a distant and detached issue. It can be strange to even think of something as a resource when it literally falls from the sky, but water is indeed a strange resource; utterly vital for survival, globally abundant, distributed incredibly unevenly. As with so many other issues, drought often only seems an immediate compelling problem when it's on the doorstep.

No matter the physical distance, the problem is not a detached environmental issue for shops or manufacturers. Perhaps it's due to the advice we're given in the USA as our plentiful water supplies begin to dry up, but there is an accepted mentality when it comes to saving water, a mentality that lets industry off the hook. Consciousness is instead focused on the consumer and the home - sprinkler bans, brushing your teeth with the tap off. Helpful measures to be sure, but measures that can only go so far. Industry and agriculture account for a whopping 90 percent of the world's water use, and it's these two fields that customers may feel they have no power over. It's an attitude that the most cynical and close-minded organisations ruthlessly exploit in the name of continued profit.

Every product that you purchase has one cost on the label. The second is never shown. The water cost. From skinny jeans to washing machines, everything will need a flow of H2O in its creation cycle. The amount will vary massively of course, but it's not just about the litre number. No matter how thirsty a crop or product is, if it's brought to life in Seattle it's going to struggle to gulp down all the rain. It's location, location, location when you're calculating the water cost.

Money talks. It talks louder than ecology has ever been able to. And where there's any opportunity for industry to exploit any resources a region has, it tramples over the simplest and sanest environmental concerns. When an otherwise dry country has one or two lush supplies of water, it's natural that it should be drawn from the proverbial well. And then a little more is withdrawn. And then, seeing as it's all just sitting there, how about we intensify things, bring in the cash crops that really spin the money? What could go wrong?

Uzbek cotton fields. Photo: Open Society Foundations.

Uzbek cotton fields. Photo: Open Society Foundations.

One material stands apart from others when it comes to water cost. Conventionally produced cotton is the dominant fabric grown on every continent and worn in every country across the globe. Up to 60 percent of all women's apparel contains some kind of cotton blend and that number rises to 75 percent for men. An amazing 2.5 percent of the earth's arable land is used to grow the plant. To its credit it is a fantastically versatile fabric; soft, durable and most of all abundant. But its utility can come at a high price.

Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in the world; each year 198 trillion litres of water is used in its production. It's a crop that best suits tropical and sub-tropical environs, where it can find both the reliably powerful sunshine and a predictable supply of water needed for it to flourish. It's not designed to grow in the driest regions of the world. But that doesn't stop us from growing it. ‘Cheap’ cotton is fuelling unsustainable production and consumers commonly do not pay a price which reflects these costs. The damage can go beyond the usual or fixable. It can cause widespread ecological disasters.

Two boats lie forever adrift on the Aral plain. Photo: EJF Foundation.

Two boats lie forever adrift on the Aral plain. Photo: EJF Foundation.

THE ARAL SEA: A MAN MADE CATASTROPHE

For thousands of years and up until the 1960s, the Aral Sea stood as the planet's fourth largest inland sea. A regional oasis within arid Uzbekistan, the area surrounding it revelled in a stable existence. It was biologically diverse and resource rich; a fishing industry prospered alongside a small and sustainable agriculture sector.

Today, there is no Aral Sea. Two bodies of water remain, the North Aral and South Aral. Neither of these are large enough to match the top 50 lakes. On the other hand, since the 1960s Uzbekistan has climbed from a non-player in the cotton industry to one of the most prominent exporters in the world. In 1988 it became the world's largest exporter of cotton. That lofty status couldn't last, but then neither could the Aral.

In a Soviet chase to capitalise on the "white gold" ideal of cotton, the rivers that fed the Aral were heavily exploited for irrigation. Canals were hastily built in a bid to create an industry from scratch, speed prioritised over quality. In 1960, one imagines it would be difficult to gaze out across the vast expanse of the Aral Sea and imagine that its bounty could ever be depleted. But Uzbekistan is dry, and cotton is thirsty. With little rainfall, the crops would be fed nearly entirely by the Aral's own supplies. It was really only a matter of time.

Uzbekistan remains the world’s sixth largest producer of cotton through one of the most water-intensive and wasteful cotton production systems in the world. More than 1.34 million hectares of land are under cotton cultivation, and cotton farms today consume around 16 billion cubic metres (m3) of water each year. Thousands of kilometres lie barren, a new desert littered with memories of decades gone. These effects aren't news, they've been in the public domain for years and years. It's important to only buy cotton with a labelled source, as this Uzbek cotton does manage to find it's way into the global supply chain one way or another. We can help end it, with some good old fashioned customer pressure.

India is the second largest producer of cotton globally, behind China. Photo: Inspired Economist

India is the second largest producer of cotton globally, behind China. Photo: Inspired Economist

COTTON IN INDIA: HISTORIC WASTE, A POSITIVE FUTURE

From the sixth largest producer of cotton to the behemoth that is India. Only narrowly behind China in the production stakes, India produces a massive 6.4 million tonnes each year. Their cotton story is different, more varied and less destructive, as one might expect in a much larger country supporting a population of 1.2 billion. In India's agricultural story we can see the worst and the best of the industry, wasteful practices gradually being supplanted by the progressive thinking needed to live sustainably.

According to the Water Footprint Network, it takes an average of 22,500 litres of water to produce just one kilogram of cotton in India. The total supply of H2O required to feed India’s cotton exports in 2013 could supply the entire population with 85 litres of water every day, all year. Wasteful practices dating back to the colonial period are a burden on production – cotton growing heartlands are placed in the more unsuitable regions and with wasteful centralised irrigation systems. The dry states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, which have very high evaporation rates, dominate production, whereas naturally wet states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa are cast aside.

Meanwhile, more than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water. The conventional cotton growing process leans so heavily on chemicals and GM that the runoff water is rendered useless. By exporting more than one million tonnes of cotton in 2016, India also exported about 40 billion cubic metres of virtual water. This is the true cost of conventional cotton.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel here. Encouragingly, government officials have shown an interest in moving the cotton industry's hub away from the dryer states, rather than doubling down on inefficient existent practices. Better still is the growing interest in the Better Cotton initiative; India is quickly becoming the home to the solution, the headquarters of the sustainable, organic cotton industry.

India currently produces two-thirds of the world’s organic cotton. However, this is just 2 percent of the country’s cotton acreage. It's going in the right direction, but it will increase at a rapid rate if we as consumers vote with our wallets.

Taken from an infographic by Cottoned on. http://www.cottonedon.org

Taken from an infographic by Cottoned on. http://www.cottonedon.org

Organic cotton is the solution the industry needs. By simply growing cotton where it's biologically fit to grow, energy consumption is radically reduced and the strain on the water supply is scythed. The shift away from GM crops and pesticides that the organic standard brings makes the entire practice markedly safer for farmers and immeasurably better for the local environment. Run off water is no longer contaminated, and the soil is allowed to build the natural strength needed to sustain the crop through drought. Importantly from a BuyMeOnce point of view, this carefully grown cotton offers all of the durability of intensively farmed cotton and more.

If you're not a cotton fan or are unable to get hold of the organic stuff, there's some great other options out there. Made-By have produced this fantastic chart to signal the relative impact of a whole number of fibres; it's worth taking into account when considering a purchase. What this chart omits is the value of durability; the ultimate way to reduce your footprint is to reduce your number of purchases and make considered choices. A more intensive resource can be the right choice at the right time, just so long as it lasts a bloody long time.

The conventional textiles industry is tied to fast fashion and neither can sustain the other. By making a conscious switch to durably built, ethical and organic options, it really is possible to make a difference. Major companies won't make the move until they're forced to or until they realise their wallets are beginning to feel awfully light.

To celebrate the change we can make, here's a few of our favourite brands who are doing the right thing.

The White T-shirt Co – our top choice for durability and ethics, creating beautiful minimalist designs.

The White T-shirt Co – our top choice for durability and ethics, creating beautiful minimalist designs.

A great company that's wholeheartedly focused on ethics and the environment, stocking a range of clothing.

A great company that's wholeheartedly focused on ethics and the environment, stocking a range of clothing.

Cus makes environmentally responsible clothing, employing women at risk of social exclusion.

Cus makes environmentally responsible clothing, employing women at risk of social exclusion.


Help spread the word and reveal the true cost of irresponsible production using #truewatercost. Together we can effect change. Let us know your stories of personal crusade in the comments below, and follow and share on FacebookInstagram and Twitter!


For more like this...

Things I Didn't Need - Tara's Minimalist Year

Last year our ever-inspired founder and dear leader Tara Button decided to cut the crap. Living for a year without extraneous items, this list was to be her own minimalist bible. I think it's about time we discovered how she got on. Was it way too easy? Was it a little too tough? Can anything be too difficult for a female entrepreneur who's boldly created an industry-challenging company?

Luckily, we're all realists here. Each step that someone takes toward lowering their impact on the planet is one to be commended, even if all it involves is cutting a little spending here and there or taking a pile of unworn clothes to the local charity shop.

Words: James Bates-Prince
My Year as a Minimalist | buymeonce.com

You lived with one and two other people at times last year. How hard has it been to drag the non-believers with you on your clutter-free quest?

Tara Button: It is always a compromise – it has to be. People are different, and there’s no point imposing your will on other people. For the most part I’ve been really lucky to be living with a natural minimalist – my fiancé really couldn’t really give a crap about actual stuff. The only thing he’s a mass consumer of is media; he lives for stories, comedy, culture. If it was just up to me, maybe I'd have thrown out the widescreen TV... but then he might have thrown me out. The only slight struggle we still have is with his little sort of detritus clutter – you know, like dead pens, stationery, other little nick-knacks. But that's just about tidying really.

When it's not just a couple, when there’s a third or fourth person, it’s naturally more difficult. It can be pretty tough just to work out whose stuff is whose, and I'm not keen on moving stuff around I don't own. I’d never want to feel like I’m imposing something upon an unwilling participant. A great time to approach decluttering is actually when a housemate leaves or when you move house yourself. It’s a great opportunity to take stock.

How has running a business made it more difficult to keep your pledge?

TB: Well, the nature of the business means that, luckily, it's constantly on my mind. I do find myself having less and less time and that can definitely lead to more impulse-driven shopping. I think it's a lot like grocery shopping when you're hungry – you go in for a tin of soup and come out with a Twix multi-pack and a great big bag of Doritos. When there is something that I think I do need to add into my life, for the business or at home, I really try and carve out some time to make a focused decision about it. Get it right now and I'm saving myself time further down the road.

So you've managed to avoid impulse shopping all year?

TB: [Looks to the ceiling, laughs furtively]. Well, the other day I did buy this kneeling chair. It basically shares the weight of sitting between my knees and bum. I was in pain; the chair in my writing room is crazy uncomfortable, and I was just thinking of my poor back. I might not have looked into it as much as I should have, but I wanted to make the pain go away. I mean, it’s arriving in a few days so I can update you, but usually I’d have put more time into it.

I think we can let you off. How about at Christmas  did you manage to avoid giving throwaway stuff?

TB: Hmm. Well, that's a downside of running a business, writing a book and planning a wedding at the same time. My time is so squeezed that even with the best will in the world things do get left to the last minute. I have to really fight that. I now set up birthday alerts to make sure I have enough time to really think about what I want to give them. I would say I did well on the whole, but as it got closer to Christmas I was left with whatever delivered soonest, what shops were local. So maybe there were a couple of things that were sub-par.

You’ve also got to be wary of pushing your agenda on other people. When I was looking for a present for my little niece, I found something I knew she’d absolutely love. I know her really well and she’s always been obsessed with dressing her toy dolls, so when I found this sweet fashion designer set I had to get it. It was filled with fairly disposable little bits of plastic, most likely won't be remembered in five years and definitely wouldn't be classed as BuyMeOnce. But I was right to go for it – it turned out to be her favourite present. And no, I didn't ask her myself! If she gets lots of joy and use out of it then it’s worth it.

I should really make clear that was an exception though! I got my nephew a One World Futbol and a goal; he’s just three, but it should last him for years and years.

That's cute. What about the other way around  did you manage to prevent friends and family from piling on things you don't need?

TB: Luckily, my family are quite aware of my opinions… now. I think it does give them a certain bit of stress – I’m definitely harder to buy for. Having said that, this year everyone did well – stuff off the BuyMeOnce site is a bit of a safe bet for me! In the future I might make a point of saying that I’d be super happy to be taken out for dinner, receiving experiences over objects. Actually, something I’m especially excited about is the gift from my parents. They’ve given me money to put towards building the perfect BuyMeOnce bike.

Has there been anything that you were ready to discard that's managed to make it's way back into your life?

TB: No, I don't think so. [Pauses and gazes into the distance]. Well, actually – there was a denim jacket that I bought... well, a long time ago. I stopped wearing it because I felt it was too casual; something about it didn’t feel like me any more. But I just put it on one day a few months back– I was cold and it was close – and my fiancé really liked it. It was surprising, and I looked at it with fresh eyes. It’s a handy object that fills the gap when its too warm to have a proper jacket and too cold for a tee. It took someone else's opinion to make me realise that.

Is there an argument to just hold back a little when you're doing a big Marie Kondo-style clear out?

TB: No – still be ruthless. I kept that jacket through a cull or two so there was always something in it. I got rid of over half of my clothing last year, and I don’t miss any of it. I don’t know if I can even picture those pieces any more.

Does it help to have someone there on your side when you're having that one big declutter?

TB: I made 99.9% of the decisions myself, but if I was in a quandary it was nice to have my fiancé to call on. The other way around – maybe I was more involved when we culled his wardrobe. He knew he wanted to cull but needed a little push. We decided he'd have five vetoes on clothes he really ought to be chucking but had an attachment too. He was happy with that and looks a lot better for it.

If we all weren’t being judged every day, I think we might all end up dressing in the same casual outfit all the time. When you love someone, you might have to accept that they come with a beaten-up Goonies t-shirt. If I were to give advice on how to cull, I’d say bring someone over who’s supportive without being overbearing – you need to be in charge, but having someone emotionally comforting to have a break with, have a drink with – that's great. 

Do you feel like it's all paid off? Has your mind felt that bit clearer without so much stuff around?

TB: Definitely. It's such a joy to open a drawer and see what's in it. It saves you time and helps you to become organised. If you have 85 bits of Tupperware, matching the lids is nigh impossible. If it's five then you stand a chance. Having space on the surfaces and finding a home for everything gives you more of a rhythm in your domestic life, and you’re stopped from going into a spiral of messiness.


Checking the Checklist

 

  • i do not need a bread machine


  • i do not need a waffle maker


  • i do not need more than 4 pots


  • i do not need more than 1 frying pan


  • i do not need matching mugs


  • i do not need a smoothie maker

Tara's ransomed Tassimo pleading for it's life. Our ruthless founder will offer no mercy.

Tara's ransomed Tassimo pleading for it's life. Our ruthless founder will offer no mercy.

KITCHEN

I actually discovered more things I didn't need in the kitchen. My fiancé and I had a glorious cutlery clean out, and now every time I open my cutlery drawer I feel a little rush of happiness. We got rid of all the wobbly stuff and the pieces with dodgy rust spots – all of the stuff that just got left in the drawer. We’d also managed to accumulate a distressing amount of disposable cutlery from the takeaway. I’ve since resolved to specifically ask for no cutlery or chopsticks to be put in the bag.

I cut down hugely on the amount of baking items I had, which cleared out half a cupboard. I still have everything I need to make a decent cake; I just don’t have everything I would need to launch my own bakery.

Sometimes when you get into a hobby such as cake baking, you can go overboard with the gadgets and gizmos that go with it. Similar to buying an expensive set of golf clubs before the first lesson. To get around this, if at all possible, borrow the equipment you need for the first few months of your hobby. Only then make the expensive commitment.

We’ve recently had a coffee maker crisis. Our Tassimo takes these really non eco-friendly plastic pods that can’t even be recycled. I’ve decided to hold the coffee maker ransom until the company comes up with a better solution.

Wasn’t there a smoothie maker suspiciously sitting in your house most of last year?

Well after saying I wouldn’t buy a smoothie maker, my flatmate was given a NutriBullet and we all got hooked on morning smoothies. When we moved out, my fiancé bought us our own. We know that we will use it because we have used it for several months now, so it’ll be a good investment going forward.s

When looking back on this list, I laughed because just last week I was thinking it would be nice to have matching mugs. Sometimes it can be tempting to buy things for a life you don’t really have. I might have friends over to dinner, but rarely for coffee. They're also the kind of friends who will find more joy in my “Don’t Let the Muggles Get You Down Mug” than a matching set of elegant china.


It's the circle of shoes - and they all move Tara.

It's the circle of shoes - and they all move Tara.

  • i do not need a watch

  • i do not need any more than 8 pairs of shoes (trainers, summer flats, winter flats, flip flops, heeled, winter boots, hiking boots, wellies, slippers)

  • i do not need more than a capsule wardrobe

CLOTHES AND ACCESSORIES

I’ve gained a ring (an engagement ring) and bracelet since writing this piece. My friends and family know better than to buy me bits of jewellery now, but when my sister-in-law saw a bracelet with the symbol of my new start-up on it, she rightly thought I’d love it.

Tara's Jewellery

These extra pieces add a little bit more stress (when I thought I'd misplaced the ring) and extra thought to my day. However, they represent my love and purpose, and they complete the button necklace I wear everyday which symbolises my identity.  To have them on my person reminds me of what’s important.

I’ve been wearing my delicious winter boots every day since it started to get cold, and I’m so grateful for them. They go well with everything, have a heel high enough to give my short frame a boost, but I can walk for miles in them without getting sore.

I used to have a real shoe fetish, so it might surprise some people to know that that I’m not interested in having one in every style and colour; I just don't feel that impulse anymore. 


  • i do not need a games console

  • i do not need a desktop computer

  • i do not need a landline

  • i do not need any dvds

  • i do not need a sat nav

TECHNOLOGY

My technology use hasn’t changed at all in the last year, although my iPhone screen broke twice. Once was my fault, the next time it just died. My fiancé and I started debating about whether our future kids would be allowed a games console. I never had one growing up, but he did and he sees it as a bonding experience as much as an anti-social, brain-rotting escape. I’ll let you know what we decided in eight or nine years' time.


  • i do not need any more cushions

  • i do not need to change my interior "look" constantly

  • i do not need friends' freebies that don't fit in my home

  • i do not need decorative tat that has no meaning to me

  • i do not need any 'seasonal' decor e.g. halloween cushions


  • i do not need more musical instruments than my guitar & piano

  • i do not need any more gym equipment

  • i do not need any magazines (unless work related)


  • i do not need any massage, exfoliation or pampering gadgets

  • i do not need any makeup other than my staple 5 (mascara, eyeshadow, concealer, lipstick, perfume)

  • i do not need any hair products other than shampoo, conditioner and serum

  • i don't need any nail care other than clippers, file, remover, and my favourite colour

FURNITURE, LEISURE AND BEAUTY

I haven’t broken any of my vows on my furniture, beauty or leisure list other than borrowing a medicine ball from my sister-in-law. I have gone on to use it every week since so it’s a keeper. 

I’ve tried to go one step further and become more zero waste with my beauty regime. My deodorant, shower gel, face wash and conditioner are all unpackaged in solid form, and I now use bamboo flannel rounds to remove my makeup which work wonderfully. One side exfoliates while the other is silky soft.

Gratuitous picture of Prim, Tara's cunning cat.

Gratuitous picture of Prim, Tara's cunning cat.


So overall, not bad I reckon. Perhaps one or two slip ups at a push, and plenty of new things to add to the minimalist cart going forward. Is there anything else you think Tara or BuyMeOnce ought to be cutting out on? Let us know in the comments – we'd love to hear how you approach the problem of stuff.


For more of our latest