Cotton - The Water Waster

While the rest of the country is covered in snow, here in California we are entering a drought.

When Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency last month, I, along with the rest of the state, started investigating ways to save water. Shorter showers and less frequent toilet flushing seemed like a good first step. But I also had a hunch that some of the main water culprits might be in industry. It turns out it was even worse than I thought! One example - compared to saving 12 gallons of water when you cut your shower time from 10 minutes to 5 minutes, you could save over 1,800 gallons of water by cutting out a steak or two from your diet. That's right - farms use 1,857 gallons of water to get just 1 pound of beef!

Recently, I also learned about another water waster - denim. Cotton in general, actually. According to, cotton is a water intensive crop, made worse when additional water is needed to treat heavily fertilized fields. More water is used in the dye and manufacturing process of cotton and other fabrics. So much, in fact, that one pair of jeans requires 2,900 gallons of water!

I know this may not come as a surprise for many of you worldly folks out there, but in times of drought this was a special reminder for me. As someone who attempts to make my own clothes not just for fun but to cut down on the environmental effects of shipping and the social costs of factory labor, I rarely take the time to consider the sources of my fabrics. As we all know, finding the perfect fabric is hard enough, let alone trying to track down the origins of said material!

Recently, websites like I Give 2 Hoots and Handmaker's Factory have sought to highlight ways that we can be ethical sewists. I have considered my options for organic cotton and other fabrics, but I would like to learn more.

Does anyone have any knowledge to share about how we can minimize the environmental impact of our clothing? Any good sources of low-impact fabric? Tips of the trade?


  1. Wow. These are some really eye opening statistics. I don't know as much as I wish I did about the environmental impact of textile production. I do buy a lot of fabric from estate sales in an effort to reduce my impact. I'm sure that the same resources went into producing those fabrics at some point in time, but I feel like I'm doing my part to take a stand against over-production by using them rather than always searching for something new.

  2. I've often wondered about the ethical/sustainable nature of the fabric that I purchase, be it at Joann Fabrics or the Garment District in NYC. Sure, we're being sustainable by making our own clothes instead of buying them, but what are the factory conditions where our fabric is manufactured? So much of the fabric we buy in stores is made in China. I wish there was a way to source ethically and environmentally friendly fabrics that aren't just cotton. We need to bring fabric manufacturing back to the US in a big way.

  3. I too have struggled with this dilemma, particularly with cotton. You are right about it. And it requires some serious application of fertilizer that is bad for our planet. I do a few little things. For example, I keep a trash can next to my sewing machine, lined with a bag made from scraps. I put only thread and fabric bits in it. When it is full, I seam it closed and give to the animal shelter for them to use with dogs during the winter. Also I buy *fabric* at thrift stores in the form of large garments. You can cut them up for smaller garments. Two small things.

    1. Wow I love it! Creative sewist and creative conservationist!

  4. Great post - I think that's an issue many of us wrestle with. is a great online source for fabric; they offer a mix of ethically produced and eco-friendly fabrics, plus lots that have been saved from landfill. Well worth a look!

  5. Another environmental issue is plastic in other types of fabric. Thousands of little pieces of plastic come off of a single piece of polyester clothing each time it's washed, which of course eventually end up in the ocean.

  6. Interesting, Meg. I didn't know cotton required so much water to produce. I don't have any knowledge on the subject, but please keep posting any updates you find!

  7. I like your post. Even sewing our own clothes there are so many things to think about. I read about the plastic clothing in landfills recently - I don't prefer polyester but hadn't thought what happens to it after it's discarded - now I will avoid it even more.

    Conventional beef is very hard on the environment for the simple fact that they are fed grains which are also hard on the environment due to monocropping, etc. Grass-fed and finished beef is actually good for the environment - Joel Salatin gives great talks on the subject if it sounds interesting. Grazing herbivores being raised for meat are even being used to push back the edges of the Sahara desert.


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