Water Driving down our water footprint

Today, around one billion people live in areas where access to fresh water is scarce; by 2025, two thirds of the world’s population may struggle to access enough clean water to meet their needs. The apparel industry uses a lot of water, from crop irrigation to wet processes in production, through to customer use. It takes the equivalent of three years’ worth of drinking water (2,700 litres) to make a cotton T-shirt [SOURCE: WWF]. We must work together to reduce this level of consumption quickly, while also improving the quality of wastewater that is currently discharged along the supply chain. Our cornerstone commitment to sourcing more sustainable cotton underpins our approach to water, as more sustainable cotton uses considerably less water than conventional cotton. 

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Using last year's model, we are pleased to announce significant water savings this year in blue and green water footprint compared to 2015, primarily driven by our more sustainable cotton and raw materials goals. In 2016, we've set new goals in Europe to continue to reduce water in the production of our raw materials by 30%, and to further reduce the water we use in stores, distribution centres and head offices by 10%.

How we are reducing our water consumption

The first step to reducing water consumption in our supply chain is to get a clear picture of our footprint – how much we’re using and where. We have used a hybrid Life Cycle Assessment to achieve this insight, and are now developing a strategy to reduce our use and – most importantly – that of our suppliers.

As with our GHG analysis, we have improved our data granularity and estimation method, which draws from the results of multiple Water Footprint Network studies commissioned by C&A Foundation. Furthermore, we also included a grey water estimate for 2016, providing us with a more complete understanding of our embedded water use impacts.

The production of raw materials (57%) and intermediate textile goods (29%) composes 86% of our total combined blue, grey and green water footprint.

Water footprint definitions

The water footprint is an indicator of freshwater use that looks at both direct and indirect water use for any kind of productive activity. For example, growing cotton for the products consumed by an individual or group of individuals, or for the activities within a geographic area. It accounts for both water consumption and pollution over each phase of the production process and value chain, and includes three components:

  • The blue water footprint is the amount of fresh surface or groundwater used to grow a crop or produce goods or services. It is the amount of water evaporated, incorporated into the product or returned to a different location or in a different time period from where it was withdrawn. 
  • The green water footprint is the total rainfall or soil moisture used to grow plants. It is relevant for products that include agricultural crops and wood and other forestry inputs; where it refers to the quantity of water either evapotranspired by plants or incorporated into the harvested crop, or both. 
  • The grey water footprint is a measure of pollution. It is expressed as the volume of water required to assimilate the pollutant load to meet ambient water quality standards. The pollutant that requires the largest assimilation volume is referred to as the critical pollutant and is used to calculate the grey water footprint; if there are both surface and groundwater discharges, the grey water footprint for each discharge is calculated separately. 

By measuring the water footprint – and finding out where and when it lands – C&A can see the impact of its water use and take steps to reduce that impact. 


Total water footprint by the stages our life cycle

Year-on-year comparison of our water footprint across the stages of our life cycle

The graph below shows a comparison of our water footprint between 2015 and 2016. The reductions are dominated by a decrease in inventory and the sourcing of more sustainable cotton.  The numbers have been adjusted to take into consideration the full effect sourcing organic cotton has on our overall water footprint. With this in mind, our water footprint has decreased from 2.1 billion m3 to 1.5 billion m3.

2016 areas of focus

Our blue and green water footprints are dominated by cotton agriculture (58% and 87% of total respectively), whereas polyester production (35% of total) and textile manufacturing (33% of total) drive our grey water footprint.


Our cornerstone commitment to source more sustainable cotton – including organic and Better Cotton – is also helping to drive our water management goals. 78% of our combined blue and green water consumption is in cotton growing, measuring both direct and indirect water consumption. As with GHG emissions, sourcing more sustainable cotton is our best lever for reducing blue and green water consumption from agriculture, reducing them by 46% and 31% respectively as opposed to traditional cotton.

C&A's sourcing of more sustainable cotton, relative to conventional cotton

C&A’s sourcing of more sustainable cotton reduced agricultural blue water by 46% relative to conventionally sourced cotton.

Our sourcing of more sustainable cotton reduced agricultural green water by 31% relative to conventionally sourced cotton.

And furthermore, C&A's sourcing of more sustainable cotton reduced agricultural grey water by 39% compared to conventionally sourced cotton.

We plan to use these baselines to track future reductions resulting from more sustainably sourced cotton going forward.



Almost a third (29%) of our total water footprint (blue, grey and green) is consumed when fibre is processed into fabric. The major impacts in this stage of production are in the dyeing, laundering, and finishing of fabric. C&A is also a close partner of the Better Mills Initiative (BMI), which is working to improve the textile wet processing industry in China. The BMI addresses a wide range of issues at mills, including water and energy consumption, wastewater and chemicals use. Since the project began in 2013, the 38 mills that are part of the BMI’s programme have saved a total of 6.3 million tons of water and reduced their impact across the board.

Consumer use

12% of water used is in the consumer laundering of garments. In Europe, our 2016 denim range included products that were made out of organic cotton, recycled denim, or made with an average use of 65% less water in the finishing process. The C&A website backed this up by advising customers to preserve the fit of their favourite jeans by washing them less often – a change that also saves water and significantly reduces GHG emissions.

Read more on how our products enable customers

Case study

Focusing our efforts through PaCT in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has one of the highest population densities in the world, with a population of 160 million living within 57,000 square miles. Of those 160 million people, 13% lack access to safe drinking water and 39% lack improved sanitation (SOURCE: Water.org). It is also one of our biggest production countries, accounting for 35% of our blue water footprint as well as 23% of our carbon emissions, the highest of all our sourcing countries. Not only that, but its low-lying position on a river delta makes it vulnerable to some of the most extreme effects of climate change. We have a responsibility to our workers in Bangladesh to do all we can to mitigate our environmental effects on an already strained ecosystem.

C&A is a member of PaCT – the Partnership for Cleaner Textile. Through training, on-site support and access to funding, PaCT has introduced cleaner production methods to over 100 factories and mills in Bangladesh, including 52 that supply C&A. In 2016, PaCT’s work saved 18.4 billion litres of water and avoided 15.9 billion litres of wastewater. We are working with the International Finance Corporation to help shape the next phase of the programme.  

Next steps

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2017, we will continue to align our approach to water management with the UN Sustainable Development Goal of Clean Water and Sanitation. We will bring together our ongoing work with Water Footprint Network with Aligned Incentives to further understand our impacts on water consumption and on chemical use on surface water in cotton agriculture and garment manufacture.

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