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Report: Reducing Water in Cotton Industry Makes Good Business Sense

Image Credit: Flickr Galactus Man

Major brands that drive demand for cotton have an economic interest in reducing the industry's water use because it improves farms’ income and yields, according to a new report by social enterprise CottonConnect.

The report, More Crop Per Drop - Water Report on the Cotton Industry, says that to protect the cotton industry brands need to get involved in supporting smallholder farmers in the developing world, where over 100 million smallholder farmers are responsible for 90 percent of the world's cotton production. Many of these smallholders reside in areas facing severe and worsening water stress such as India, Pakistan and China and lack the financial resources necessary to invest in water saving techniques and technologies.

CottonConnect has worked with several leading brands on supply chain engagement programs that have helped cut cotton producers' water use by up to 60 percent. Simple interventions such as farmer training and knowledge sharing on basic agricultural practices have resulted in 30 percent reductions in water use among smallholder farmers.

The social enterprise worked with retail giant John Lewis on a three-year program to train 1,500 farmers in sustainability best practices. The C&A Foundation has financed a CottonConnect project to install drip irrigation systems on a number of farms, increasing productivity by 50 percent while cutting water use.

Cotton is one of the largest and and most water-intensive crops produced by the global agricultural industry, accounting for around 2.5 percent of all available arable land and more than three percent of the water consumed across all crop production. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) estimates that a single cotton t-shirt has a water footprint of 2,700 liters, equivalent to the amount the average person drinks in three years. The Initiative involves more than 100,000 farmers in India, Pakistan, China and Turkey. Ikea is a founding member of the BCI, which aims to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it and the environment.

Earlier this year, IKEA announced it has expanded the use of sustainably sourced cotton in its products to 72 percent, up from 34 percent in 2012. The furniture company uses around 0.6 percent of all cotton grown around the world, and in 2013 sourced 79,000 tons of cotton from more sustainable sources; it used a total of 110,000 tons of cotton in 2013.


Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a sustainability strategist and storyteller on Edelman's Business + Social Purpose team where he works with some of the world's leading brands on corporate sustainability strategy and stakeholder engagement. With several years of… [Read more about Mike Hower]