Help us save the t-shirt

Posted on March, 29 2011

Saving water: been there, done that, bought the t-shirt?
Saving water: been there, done that, bought the t-shirt?

It’s so much more than your favourite t-shirt…

It’s happy memories of that music festival where you first bought it. Slipping it in your backpack to remind you of home while you travelled the world. Wearing it to unpack and decorate your new flat when you got back.

It’s your kids asking about the band on the front, and your partner promising it got used as a rag “by accident.”

Your favourite t-shirt: made from cotton, memories – and water.

Of all the water people use, 70% is dedicated to agriculture. It’s essential for the food we eat, as well as crops like cotton.

We’re working with farmers and the businesses that buy their crops to develop sustainable farming methods that take the strain off water supplies – not just for cotton, but for other “thirsty crops” like sugar cane and rice.

That way, both people and nature get to keep more of this this vital natural resource.    

What’s at stake?

One key ingredient that doesn’t show up on your t-shirt’s label is water. Amazingly, it could have taken more than 20,000 litres to produce the cotton needed to make your favourite t-shirt.

This is the unseen or “virtual water” we all consume every day. So, while it’s important to fix leaky taps and buy efficient washing machines, the water we use at home is only a tiny part of our total water footprint.

Take a refreshing cola or cold beer – only a fraction of the water involved actually goes into the bottle. Most of it is used to grow the sugarcane or barley these drinks are made from.

Your smart phone might not make you think of water, but from mining the essential minerals to washing microchips, that little gadget has a substantial global water footprint. 

The amount of fresh water available to meet the needs of people and nature is limited, but the demands grow year by year. We have to get smarter about how we use water.

The story so far

From farmers in Pakistan and India, to CEOs in the United States and South Africa, we’re helping people to use water more responsibly.

With WWF’s support, the Better Cotton Initiative is working with farmers to grow cotton with less water. In Pakistan, we’ve worked with 40,000 farmers who, as a result,  have reduced their water use by 38%, and increased their income by 26%. They also used 47% less pesticide and 39% less chemical fertilizer.

That’s good for them, good for other communities downstream, good for the fish, birds and other creatures that depend on rivers and wetlands – and good for people like you who care about where your t-shirts come from.

Big global brands have embraced the scheme: IKEA, for example, plans to set an example by switching to 100% Better Cotton by 2015.

“By using exclusively Better Cotton Initiative cotton, we will save the equivalent of 326 years of Sweden’s drinking water each year,” says Guido Verijke, IKEA’s home business leader.

Did you know?

A takeaway latte with sugar contains around 200 litres of water – if you factor in all the water used from growing the coffee to making the disposable cup.

Facts and stats

  • 20,000 – litres of water needed to make one t-shirt 
  • 20 million – tonnes of cotton produced each year
  • 97% – of water taken from the Indus River goes towards producing crops like cotton
  • 38% - reduction in water use by farmers in the Indus River basin growing “Better Cotton”
  • 180 – litres of water needed to produce one litre of beer in Tanzania

What next?

WWF wants to see farmers and businesses – large or small – become more than just efficient water users. We want them to help look after entire river basins. That means working with governments, communities, other businesses and WWF to safeguard the ultimate shared resource: water.
  • Cotton is just one of the “thirsty commodities” that take huge amounts of water to grow and manufacture. Because sugar is another, we’ve launched the Better Sugarcane Initiative, which brings together sugar cane farmers, retailers, investors and traders to reduce the environmental impact of the crops.
  • We’ve championed the idea of “water footprints” – the total amount of water used to make the goods that a particular person, business or country consumes. We’re working alongside leading companies to reduce their footprint, while looking beyond the factory fence for ways to protect water sources for the long term. 
  • WWF is a trusted voice in global discussions on water use in institutions such as the World Economic Forum and the United Nations. We help ensure that the needs of ecosystems are considered, and help governments and companies put the principles of good water stewardship into practice.

What you can do

Join the myWWF Action Center
Be part of a global community of activists ready to take simple online actions that can help save wildlife and people. Sign up today!


Morning mist over black Lake, Durmitor NP, Montenegro.
© WWF / Wild Wonders of Europe /Milan Radisics
Aquatic vegetation on the Danube. Danube Delta, Romania.
© WWF / Michel Gunther
Plataniste or Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangética), Karnaphuli river, Bangladesh.
© WWF / François Xavier Pelletier