Angeli Mehta reports on how Levi Strauss and the C&A Foundation are implementing innovative ways to reduce their water footprint

A pair of Levi Strauss 501 jeans has a water footprint of an estimated 3,781 litres of water, from growing the cotton, through manufacturing, consumer use and end of life disposal. 

And although manufacturing accounts for just 9% of its embedded water, that is the stage where the company has direct control over water use. 

The brand has pioneered a range of 21 techniques – so called Water<Less – that cut water consumption in the finishing process by 96%. It has made these techniques open-source, and alongside its water recycling and reuse standard (another industry first) expects that if adopted, the garment industry could save at least 50 billion litres of water by 2020.

Jeans crafted using at least 15% recycled cotton save as much water as the entire manufacturing process consumes

The garment company has committed to ensuring that 80% of its own products will be made using Water<Less techniques by 2020. 

Levi Strauss has also been working with WWF to assess its own supply chain and identify hotspots of water risk. It expects its supplier factories to report on water consumption and to explore options for water recycling and reuse, as well as complying with wastewater guidelines and limits set by the programme for Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC). 

And since 70% of its jeans’ water footprint is consumed in growing the cotton, by 2020 Levi Strauss says it will source 100% of its cotton through more sustainable programmes like the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which it helped to found in 2005, and by using recycled cotton. (See Unpicking the confusion over sustainable cotton)

A pair of Levi's 501 jeans has a water footprint of an estimated 3,781 litres. (Credit: Nucha Palalay/Shutterstock)

The company says jeans crafted using at least 15% recycled cotton save as much water as the entire manufacturing process consumes. 

Meanwhile, the C&A Foundation recently reported that it has had success reducing the water intensity of cotton in India, which produces 40% of the world’s supply. 

The C&A Foundation said its drip pool programme, run in conjunction with the Aga Khan Foundation and Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in India, cut water consumption by almost 80% to 1,191 litres per kilogram of cotton, compared with farmers not using drip irrigation. These figures are for 2016-17, a particularly dry year.

We need to reflect if the products we offer small farmers are innovative enough, or even fit for purpose

A case study carried out by PwC reveals the technology is saving 2.5 million litres of water per acre of cotton cultivation. Drip irrigation is also labour-saving, and means nutrients are precisely applied uniformly across the field. As a result, farmers are also reporting better yields – a 24% increase in seed cotton; and 7% less fertiliser use – meaning less soil and water contamination, as well as increased income. 

Drip irrigation technology is capital-intensive, but the programme provides interest-free loans to enable small farmers in Gujarat to tap into a government subsidy scheme that provides up to 40% of the cost of installation. 

Anita Chester, head of sustainable raw materials for the C&A Foundation, explains: “Whilst the large and medium farmers manage to raise the additional sum required and avail of the scheme, the small and marginal farmers, due to their inability to raise the balance, are left in the lurch. By providing such farmers with interest-free loans to cover the margin needed, the programme is able to help the most vulnerable.” 

Farmers in C&A Foundation’s drip pool programme are saving water and increasing yields. (Credit: C&A Foundation)


What’s striking, Chester adds, is that none of the 1,352 farmers so far involved in the scheme has defaulted on their loans, which “debunks the popular belief that small farmers are not bankable. We need to reflect if the products we offer them are innovative enough, or even fit for purpose.” 

Farmers repay the loan within two years and the money is returned to a community financing pool run by farmers groups, who are being supported and trained by the programme – so eventually they’ll run it for themselves. 

By 2020 C&A Foundation expects to reach over 9,500 farmers and have 22,500 acres under drip irrigation, saving up to 55 million litres of water. Chester hopes that by making the case study public, other brands, manufacturers and donors will learn from the experience and that it will help frame public policy in other cotton-growing states.

Main photograph credit: Levi Strauss
Better Cotton Initiative  Sustainable fashion  Levi Strauss  C&A Foundation 

comments powered by Disqus