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Unlike popular belief cotton is not a water-intensive crop, say experts


Although denim industry engages in many wasteful practices and needs improvements throughout the supply chain experts feel cotton statistics claimed in most studies are both inaccurate and counterproductive. Transformers Foundation, a nonprofit organization for denim professionals seeking to make positive change, hosted a webinar featuring a panel of cotton experts who discussed the nuances that many global average figures fail to address.

The first claim by the World Wildlife Fund, which states that 2,700 liters of water are needed to make an average T-shirt, was contested by Simon Ferrigno, a freelance researcher and writer. Ferrigno said, this statistic is fairly meaningless. There is no global average, because there’s no global average cotton production. Since water is utilized in different ways depending on the region it’s impractical to calculate an average that’s used across the board. Throughout his research, Ferrigno has seen the statistic range from 2,000 to 20,000 liters of water needed to make a T-shirt.

Instead of numbers, Ferrigno notes the focus should be on whether or not the water that’s used in the process can be cleaned and repurposed for other needs. Ferrigno is of the opinion that water is not actually used; it’s borrowed. There is a total amount of water on the planet. We use that for cotton production or other uses, and it goes back into a water system.

It’s a concept used by mills as a way to significantly reduce water usage and make their products eco-friendlier. Vietnam-based denim manufacturer Saitex is known for its on-site water recycling methods, which remove indigo dye and leave behind water that is safe for human consumption—some of which is even repurposed to brew coffee.

Experts say the numbers are inaccurate as the complexities surrounding water recycling and how that affects calculations. The panellist noted that cotton is essential, as the crop employs millions of people and feeds numerous species. CIRAD, the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development, calculated more than 1,300 insect and animal species that feed on the crop and rely on it for survival.

Keshav Kranthi, head of technical at The International Cotton Advisory, Committee, also explained that cotton is not as water-intensive as many sources infer, noting that the majority of cotton crops around the world rely on rainwater. Calling the crop resilient, according to him many farmers throughout water-deprived regions in Africa and India prefer to grow cotton as a result.