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 across its supply chain, from crop irrigation to wet processes in production, through to customer use. For instance, a simple cotton T-shirt requires the equivalent of three years’ worth of drinking water (2,700 litres) to manufacture and use [SOURCE: WWF]. In a world of shrinking natural resources, 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.


C&A’s commitment to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals (ZDHC) includes regular wastewater testing at our production units to validate the elimination of hazardous chemicals. Our cornerstone commitment to sourcing more sustainable cotton underpins our approach to water, as more sustainable cotton uses considerably less water than conventional cotton. 

We are pleased to announce a continuing trend in water savings for 2017, estimating a 14% decrease in our total water footprint compared to 2016. These savings resulted from a 29% reduction in blue water consumption, a 15% reduction in green water consumption and a 13% in grey water consumption.

In 2017, we committed to global 2025 goals 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% (compared to 2015). Progress against these goals will be measured in 2018 for the first time.

Reducing our water footprint

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. In 2017, we completed our third C&A-specific, hybrid cradle-to-grave Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to better understand our carbon and water footprints. Based on this assessment, we have developed a strategy to reduce our water use and – most importantly – to help our suppliers do the same.

The production of raw materials (61%) and intermediate textile goods (30%) comprises 91% of our total combined blue, grey and green water footprint.

Total water footprint, year-on-year comparison

0 10,000 5,000 2016 2017 million m 3 Green Water Blue Water Grey Water 902 337 164,497 6,915 1,059 477 7,948 9,484 14% reduction 8,154

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 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, we can evaluate the impact of our water use and take steps to reduce that impact. 

Total water footprint 2017 across our life cycle

Source: Aligned Incentives, 2017

Total water footprint across our life cycle, year-on-year comparison

Unit: million m3

The graph below shows a comparison of our water footprint between 2016 and 2017. This reduction is strongly influenced by a reduction in sourced materials (inventory weight decreased despite an increase in sold items) and the sourcing of more sustainable materials, (e.g., cotton and viscose). Our footprint also decreased as a result of our improved modelling of our consumers’ use habits. In total, these drivers resulted in a reduction of approximately 1.3 billion m3 across our value chain.

Our blue and green water footprints are dominated by cotton agriculture (61% and 85% of total respectively), whereas polyester production (35% of total) and textile manufacturing (34% of total) drive our grey water footprint.

Reducing our water footprint through more sustainable cotton

Our cornerstone commitment to source more sustainable cotton – including organic and Better Cotton – is also helping drive our water management goals. 77% of our combined blue and green water consumption is in cotton cultivation, measuring both direct and indirect water consumption. As with greenhouse gas emissions, sourcing more sustainable cotton is our best lever for reducing blue and green water consumption from agriculture, reducing them by 56% and 37% respectively as opposed to traditional cotton.

Blue water footprint of C&A’s cotton mix, compared to conventional cotton

0 50 0 25 0 Global Average for Conventional Cotton C&A Cotton Mix million m ³ Source: Aligned Incentives, 2017 463 56% reduction 204

Green water footprint of C&A’s cotton mix, compared to conventional cotton

0 1 , 4 0 0 60 0 4 0 0 20 0 8 0 0 1 , 00 0 1 , 20 0 Global Average for Conventional Cotton C&A Cotton Mix million m ³ Source: Aligned Incentives, 2017 1,206 37% reduction 755

Grey water footprint of C&A’s cotton mix, compared to conventional cotton

0 30 0 1 5 0 Global Average for Conventional Cotton C&A Cotton Mix million m ³ Source: Aligned Incentives, 2017 239 49% reduction 122

Reducing our water footprint through more efficient production

30% 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 occur during the dyeing, laundering, and finishing of fabric. C&A has worked closely with 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.