How Shopping at Thrift Stores Saves Water – YWF’s Water-Saving Tips of the Week

jeans better

Infographic from Your Water Footprint

History in Your Jeans

One way or another your jeans came from the Indus Valley in Pakistan and northeast India. The Indus is a huge valley and river system that drains part of the Himalayan Mountains and is the birthplace of cotton. River and groundwater are used to irrigate rows of cotton plants.

The jeans you’re wearing contain about 800 grams (28 ounces) of cotton, and it took a whopping  15,000 liters (3,960 gallons) of water to grow that much cotton in this dry part of the world. Most of the water evaporated or was used by the cotton plants, and some ended up as wastewater or gray water. That raw cotton was shipped to an urban center or to another country such as Bangladesh, the biggest exporter of textiles. In the factory the raw cotton is washed, dyed and then washed again.

If you think about it, putting on our clothing is like wearing some of the water, soil and sun of faraway places such as the Indus Valley in Pakistan, and the labor of the hard-working hands in the cotton mills of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

How to save thousands of litres (gallons) of water

  • Shop at Thrift Stores  -save  2,900 liters (766 gallons) by just buying a previously-loved T-shirt!
  • Shop Organic – cotton grown without the use of insecticides and chemical fertilizers, and thus it has a smaller water footprint because it produces little water pollution.
  • Buy Local – U.S. cotton has a water footprint of 8,100 liters (2,140 gallons) per kilogram, much less than other countries

Your Water Footprint

Winner, Best Science Book in Canada; First Place NYC Green Book Festival

We don’t realize our societies run on water not oil. There is no electricity or gasoline without water. Nothing can be manufactured without water.  The critically-acclaimed book Your Water Footprint (YWF), uses info graphics to reveal the enormous quantities of water that are used to make the clothes we wear, the electronic devices we use and the food we eat.

On average our daily water footprint amounts to 8,000 litres (2100 gal). This is the net amount, water that can’t be reused.

Water-wise choices is all about smart substitutions and changes in habits

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Product

 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, only $19.95 Paperback   Order today

 (Now available on Kindle)

World Water Day: The cost of cotton exports in water-challenged India

Women and children gather water from pumps in India

 More than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water. Severe water scarcity in India is exacerbated by the cotton industry. Concerns are high, but are businesses, consumers and government doing enough?

Virtual water

Cotton is by no means India’s largest export commodity – petroleum products followed by gems and jewellery follow closely behind. All of these exports require water to produce, and the quantities needed are staggering. Not only does it take water to grow anything, it also takes water to make anything: cars, furniture, books, electronics, buildings, jewellery, toys and even electricity. This water that goes largely unseen is called virtual water.

What’s easy to forget is that virtual water is as real as the water you drink. Producing 1kg of cotton in India consumes 22,500 litres of water, on average, according to research done by the Water Footprint Network. In other words, this 22,500 litres of water cannot be used for anything else because it has either evaporated or is too contaminated for reuse.

By exporting more than 7.5m bales of cotton in 2013, India also exported about 38bn cubic metres of virtual water. Those 38bn cubic metres consumed in production of all that cotton weren’t used for anything else. Yet, this amount of water would more than meet the daily needs of 85% of India’s vast population for a year.

Doing things differently

Cotton doesn’t usually consume this much water. The global average water footprint for 1kg of cotton is 10,000 litres. Even with irrigation, US cotton uses just 8,000 litres per kg. The far higher water footprint for India’s cotton is due to inefficient water use and high rates of water pollution — about 50% of all pesticides used (pdf) in the country are in cotton production.

Most of India’s cotton is grown in drier regions and the government subsidises the costs of farmers’ electric pumps, placing no limits on the volumes of groundwater extracted at little or no cost. This has created a widespread pattern of unsustainable water use and strained electrical grids.

Recent reports show that India’s water consumption is far too high. In 54% of the country 40 to 80% of annually available surface water is used. To be sustainable, consumption should be no more than 20% in humid zones and 5% in dry areas, to maintain the ecological function of rivers and wetlands, experts say (pdf).

India’s extensive groundwater resources are also rapidly being depleted, with 58% of wells in the drier north-west India experiencing declining water levels. By 2030 demand will outstrip supply by 50%, according to the World Resources Institute.

“India’s water problems are well-known in the country and pollution is everywhere. Disagreement lies in the solutions,” says Arjen Hoekstra, professor in water management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

The new Indian government’s solution to the spectre of growing severe water scarcity is the $168bn (£113bn) National River Linking Project, which will link 30 rivers with 15,000km of canals. This will transfer 137bn cubic metres of water annually from wetter regions to drier ones. However, the country exports far more water than that, in the form of virtual water, in cotton, sugar, cereals, motor vehicles and its many other exports.

Faltering forward

All of these exports could be produced using far less water, says Hoekstra, who pioneered the water footprint concept. “It’s not just improving water efficiency that could dramatically reduce India’s water consumption, it’s growing and producing things in the right place,” he said.

Most of India’s water-rich crops such as cereals and cotton are grown in the dry states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, which have very high evaporation rates, unlike wet states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa. This perverse situation greatly exacerbates India’s water problems and is largely the result of government policies, Hoekstra’s 2009 study (pdf) states.

“There’s a lot of concern about water scarcity, but little interest in changing consumption patterns,” Hoekstra said.

That said, there is growing interest in the Better Cotton Initiative, an industry-led effort using standards to reduce cotton’s water footprint. Organic cotton production also has a lower net water use because it uses no chemicals. Encouragingly, India currently produces two-thirds of the world’s organic cotton. However, this is just 2% of the country’s cotton acreage.

Rather than matching production of goods to the sustainable use of existing water resources, India, like governments around the world, hopes to use engineering to increase the amount of water, said Hoekstra. Instead, India could grow cotton in less arid regions with more efficient irrigation and fewer pesticides to greatly reduce the crop’s impact on water resources.

Stephen Leahy is an international award winning journalist and author of Your Water Footprint, winner of the best science book for 2014.

First published at The Guardian Friday 20 March 2015 .