More support is needed to help smallholder cotton farmers tackle water issues (image © Better Cotton Initiative)

More support is needed to help smallholder cotton farmers tackle water issues (image © Better Cotton Initiative)

With World Water Week kicking off in Stockholm this Sunday (31 August), the need for better use of increasingly limited water resources will be in the spotlight. And with water scarcity posing a potential risk to the global cotton industry, the apparel supply chain is being urged to do more to tackle the fibre's huge water footprint.

Water security is "one of the most tangible and fastest growing social, political and economic challenges faced today," according to the World Economic Forum - with the world likely to face a 40% global shortfall between forecast demand and available supply of water in the next 15 years.

Such urgent need for better use of increasingly limited water resources puts particular pressure on cotton, which is one of the largest and thirstiest crops produced - accounting for around 2.5% of all available arable land and more than 3% of the water consumed across all crop production.

Indeed, the statistics are staggering. According to according to WWF, it takes 42 square metres of land to produce enough raw material to satisfy the cotton consumption of each person; while the Better Cotton Initiative calculates about 10,000 litres of water is required to make just one kilogramme of cotton.

And for every T-shirt made, it is estimated that around 2,700 litres of water is used across the supply chain from the farm through processing to the finished product - the same amount of water the average person drinks in three years.

On top of this, water tables in key cotton producing countries China, India and Pakistan are dropping by as much as 10 metres a year.

In a bid to push the clothing industry's water challenges up the corporate agenda, CottonConnect today (29 August) published a new report that analyses the water impact of the cotton supply chain.

Timed to coincide with the start of World Water Week, which kicks off in Stockholm on Sunday (31 August), the industry consultancy warns that more support is needed for smallholder cotton farmers as they grapple with the effects of water scarcity.

And it is ultimately calling on retailers and brands play a more active role in curbing the industry's water use.

With over 100m smallholder farmers in the developing world responsible for 90% of the world's cotton production, steps that can make a considerable difference include mapping and greater transparency across the supply chain, along with closer relationships and collaboration to fund initiatives to help drive cotton supply chain sustainability at scale.

"Companies, NGOs, governments and international development agencies must not forget the farmers on the ground that need the help and support of all stakeholders if they are to run more efficient and sustainable operations," the group says in its new report 'More Crop Per Drop - Water Report on the Cotton Industry.'

It adds that providing farmers with basic information and training also has a key role to play in increasing yields and reducing the water footprint in cotton growing regions in the developing world, with simple changes such as burrow irrigation, green mulching and soil conservation helping to improve yields and reduce water use by between 30% and 60%.

Strong commercial case
If this wasn't enough of an incentive to get involved, there is a strong commercial case for companies to invest in improving the sustainability of their cotton supply chain too.

UK retail giant John Lewis has worked with CottonConnect on a three-year programme to train 1,500 farmers in sustainability best practices - and ultimately increase traceability of its products by giving the John Lewis buying team a full understanding of exactly where their cotton comes from.

"John Lewis is an established and trusted brand, so it was natural for us to want to ensure transparency and integrity right across our supply chain and support the development of close relationships with our suppliers," says Stephen Cawley, the retailer's head of sustainability and responsible sourcing.

"The engagement brings benefits to the brand - we are helping to ensure security of supply, traceability to the fibre source, as well as having a positive impact on the social and environmental conditions of the farmers in India - which is crucial when such a large part of our manufacturing supply chain is based in that part of the world."

Similarly, the C&A Foundation has financed a CottonConnect project to install drip irrigation systems on a number of farms in India, which has not only cut water use but increased productivity by up to 50%.

"Brands selling cotton clothes and homeware products are reliant on a supply chain which is facing severe climate change impacts and water shortages," notes Alison Ward, CEO of CottonConnect.

"It is in their interest to work closely with organisations that can influence cotton farmers in conserving and making better use of the water they have.

"We offer an opportunity to make that happen. We have access and trust of the farmers through our partners - and we can scale-up our impact more than ten times over with the right support. Failure to connect all parts of this supply chain will put the future of cotton at risk."