Most of us think cotton clothing is sustainable because it is a natural fabric. Unfortunately the reality is slightly different to what you might have imagined. Granted there are many pros to cotton, it’s soft, lightweight, breathable and a naturally grown material, but cotton can have a serious impact on the environment and the lives of those who grow it.
So is cotton good for the environment? Unfortunately not. Cotton requires huge amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow, polluting local ecosystems and the water from which farmers drink. It degrades soil quality, prevents biodiversity, and forces many to labour in tough conditions without fair pay.
The good news is that cotton clothes can be made sustainably and when they are, cotton has significant advantages compared to other synthetic or chemically intensive fibres like bamboo. You just need to know what to look for to ensure you are buying sustainably grown cotton, ideally organic cotton.
Let’s face it, we’ve worn cotton clothing for thousands of years and we’re not going to stop now.
Cotton has many advantages that make it special, arguably the perfect material for clothing. Cotton is cheap, comfortable and easy to mass produce. Hands up if you’ve worn cotton clothing today? There won’t be many that say they haven’t! It’s impossible to suggest we should suddenly stop using cotton, but we can easily transition to more sustainably grown organic cotton.
With almost 26 million tonnes of cotton produced every year, it’s time that big brands did more to source from sustainable cotton producers. We must demand more to influence the decisions of big brands.
The clothing industry is enormous, fuelled by our insatiable appetite for what’s new. But as you may know, this all comes at a cost.
It’s shocking to think that the textile industry is the second largest polluting industry after oil. It’s estimated that it releases more than 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 each year, which is more than maritime shipping and international flights combined. Around 21% of clothes are made from cotton, meaning cotton clothing therefore plays a major role in shaping the fashion industries future.
The good news is that cotton can be made sustainably, but first it’s important to understand why normal cotton is not sustainable and how it is bad for the environment.
So why is cotton not sustainable?
1. Cotton is a chemically intensive crop
Cotton occupies just 2.4% of our agricultural land, yet it consumes 6% of all pesticides and 16% of insecticides around the globe, more than any other single crop. These chemicals end up running into local waterways and ecosystems, destroying habitats and devastating the lives of those who farm it.
2. Cotton is a thirsty crop
Cotton is used to produce 21% of the clothes we wear today, but accounts for 69% of the water footprint of the entire textile industry! A kilogram of cotton takes between 10,000-20,000 litres of water to produce, which is about the same as is needed to make your favourite T-Shirt and jeans. In comparison, organic cotton reduces water consumption by up to 91%. The World Economic Forum warns that two thirds of the world's population are likely to face water shortages by 2025, and that those most vulnerable often live in regions where cotton is grown. The amount of water consumed to grow exported cotton in India would be enough to provide 85% of the country's population with 100 litres of water every day. Need more convincing water scarcity is a threat to millions? Just take a look at the Aral Sea below.
3. A healthy soil absorbs more CO2
Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used to grow cotton destroy the natural biodiversity within our soils. Many scientists believe soil biodiversity is the key to a sustainable future. The top metre of soil around the globe stores three times more carbon than the entire atmosphere. A healthy soil is not only a carbon sink, it helps grow more resilient crops that can withstand pests or poor weather without the need for chemicals.
4. Water pollution leads to ecosystem breakdown
All of the chemicals that are sprayed on cotton end up in local waterways. Once there, these chemicals can take years to break down and will likely accumulate in toxic concentrations in crops, animals, and humans. The lifecycle of organic cotton clothing creates 5 to 22 times less water pollution than regular cotton.
5. Cotton is predominantly GM
A staggering 80% of cotton grown today is genetically modified. In China, India and the US, this figure is 95-96%. The problem with GM crops is that it has the potential to contaminate the environment, potentially altering wild relatives and creating ‘super weeds’. It may also lead to unknown health issues for native species who eat the crop, and encourage farmers to expand into previously unsuitable areas, replacing natural ecosystems with plantations.
6. Organic cotton can improve soil quality
Organic cotton can support biodiversity, encouraging the growth of many different varieties of plants and animals, key to a healthy ecosystem. Healthy ecosystems help nourish the soil, improve soil fertility and prevent soil erosion. A healthy soil not only produces more crops, it also absorbs more CO2, mitigating the worst effects of climate change.
7. Organic farming promotes more resilient cotton
A diverse ecosystem doesn’t just promote soil fertility, it can actually increase crop yields by boosting cotton’s natural resilience to pests. In comparison, chemical fertilizers degrade the soil, pollutes ecosystems where wildlife thrives, and can make cotton more vulnerable to pests. Research suggests that if all farmers went organic, pesticide usage would drop by 98%. By growing cotton organically, farmers work with nature rather than against it.
8. Pollution from dying clothes
Pollution isn't just linked to the growing of cotton. In fact, around 20% of all global water pollution is the result of dyeing and finishing the fabric. It’s estimated that 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater flow into rivers in China each year as a consequence of the textile industry, polluting 70% of freshwater rivers and lakes in the country. What can you do to check your cotton does not contribute to pollution? Look for the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) label on your clothes, which provides a mark of trust that strict social and environmental criteria have been met, a guarantee that low impact chemicals have been used, water and energy consumption monitored, and wastewater is properly treated.
9. Chemicals on our clothes
It’s worrying to consider the number of chemicals that might remain on the clothes we buy. 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used in fashion manufacturing, an alarming number of which are harmful to human health. Some of the chemicals that can be found on cotton clothes include heavy metals, formaldehyde, ammonia, flame retardants, petroleum scours and silicone waxes. Organic cotton isn’t only better for the environment and those making your clothes, it’s also better for you!
10. Organic cotton prevents soil erosion
Conventional cotton is typically grown as a ‘monoculture’ crop, depleting the soil of natural nutrients and requiring chemicals to maintain soil fertility. Yet these chemicals do not help protect the soil structure, which becomes prone to soil erosion. Soil exhaustion encourages farmers to look for new still untouched farmland, which brings with it the destruction of habitats.
There are many ethical issues associated with the production of cotton. Cotton farmers are often paid below minimum wage, struggling to provide food, tools, seeds, education or basic healthcare for their families. This leads many to take their children out of school to help provide for the family. Thousands work in poor conditions or forced labour camps, whilst countless others become trapped in debt, unable to negotiate better pay and left with no alternative but to use chemicals in the hope of improving their output.
These are the major ethical problems associated with cotton production, highlighting some of the disadvantages of normal cotton vs. sustainable cotton.
1. Cotton employs low income farmers
Around 350 million people around the globe depend on cotton for their income. 90% of cotton farmers cultivate small plots of land no more than two hectares in size, with many surviving on less than 2 dollars a day. The margin of profit is so thin that a poor harvest can spell disaster. Instead of receiving an education, children are forced to work to help support their family.
2. Child labour and near slave conditions
Cotton has historically been linked to slavery, sadly this isn’t just a thing of the past. There are continued reports of ongoing child and forced labour in cotton cultivation across the globe, with children as young as five working in cotton fields or ginning factories. Countries which have been found to employ bad practices include India, Egypt, China and Uzbekistan. Here children can work up to 12 hours a day for little pay in extreme heat and without sufficient food.
In India, almost half a million children are working in the cotton industry to produce textiles. These children will never experience the joys of a proper childhood, nor receive a proper education. Around 200,000 of them are below 14 years old, forming 25% of the workforce.
3. Forced labour
Forced labour isn’t just a small scale problem either. Xinjiang is a province in Western China which produces 20% of the world’s entire supply of cotton. The region is home to large populations of Uighurs, a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnic group that the Chinese government has long held in contempt. 570,000 people from this minority group have been resettled in detention centres where they are being exploited, forced to pick cotton and receiving little or no pay. This makes them the largest forced work camps since the second world war, a chilling reminder that cotton can have serious ethical consequences.
Despite recognising the problems this causes, only a handful of brands have established detailed policies to ensure their products do not contain cotton from Xinjiang. Any brands that continue to buy cotton from this region are supporting these forced labour camps.
4. Debt spiral
With meagre earnings, it’s not difficult for small farmers to become trapped by debt. Some smallholders can spend up to 60% of their annual income on pesticides based on false promises that this will enhance growth. These chemicals are often bought on credit. With minimal support and no training, yields are often not enough to repay the loans so willingly provided. This debt cycle is forcing many to consider the unthinkable and has been linked to a rise in suicide rates amongst cotton farmers.
5. Cotton farmers receive below minimum wages
Cotton farmers are often paid less than minimum wage. Rising production costs, climate change, decreasing crop yields and market price fluctuation means many smallholder farms struggle to provide basic needs for their families such as food, education, healthcare, seeds and tools. Sadly the poverty line remains a constant threat as they fail to negotiate with middle men or ginners who buy their cotton at deflated prices. It is even even less likely minimum wages will be met amongst women and children.
6. Pesticide poisoning
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides sprayed on cotton fields often end up running into streams which provide drinking water for local villages. By using such intensive chemicals, farmers are polluting the water which they and their families depend on. Almost 1,000 people die every day from pesticide poisoning, not to mention those who suffer health issues as a consequence of pesticides such as cancers, neurological diseases, infertility and birth defects.
7. Pesticides destroy local economies
Something less commonly mentioned is the financial burden that long term pesticide use can have on local economies and healthcare services. One 2013 UNEP study found that the loss of productivity due to pesticide use reduced Mali’s annual agricultural GDP by 50% per person. This was the direct result of long term soil degradation, habitat destruction and the knock on consequences that pollution has on other industries such as fishing. The UN has estimated that pesticide usage in sub-Saharan Africa cost the region’s healthcare services around $4.4bn US dollars, which is almost the equivalent of the total international healthcare aid assistance awarded to the region.
8. Genetically Modified crops
GM crops don’t just pose risks to native habitats, such high concentrations in countries such as India and China makes finding non-GM seeds difficult and expensive. GM crops can also spell disaster for local production if they don’t meet the same quality as natural varieties, as was the case in Burkina Faso. Historically 90% of the country's cotton was classified as high quality. This dropped to just 21% after the introduction of GM cotton, costing a country reliant on its quality cotton export $85 million over 5 seasons and losing Burkina Faso’s biggest exporter of cotton.
9. Clean water promotes other businesses
Clean water isn’t just essential for native wildlife and plants, it also provides for the livelihoods of thousands who depend on their natural waterways. For example, fishing, agriculture, and even the textile industry itself relies on a constant supply of clean water. Remove this essential element of life and you significantly limit the ability of any livelihood, business or economy to thrive.
One way to make cotton more sustainable is to look for Preferred Cotton (pCotton). This means that key ethical benchmarks have been met such as fair pay and working conditions, whilst also caring for the environment in which cotton is grown. Preferred Cotton labels are a sign that the products are made with care and attention, producing a higher quality garment that will last for years to come. The longer you wear your clothes, the more sustainable your wardrobe.
Preferred Cotton is a more sustainable and ethical alternative to conventional cotton and includes a number of different certifications, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Fair Trade Cotton, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), REEL Cotton Program (REEL), Recycled Cotton, and Cotton made in Africa (CmiA).
Each of these certifications is unique, but collectively they represent a benchmark that ensures your clothes have been made sustainably.
Preferred cotton now accounts for 25% of total cotton production and this number is growing. Preferred cotton isn’t necessarily organic, in fact organic cotton is still less than 1 percent of total cotton grown. To ensure we make cotton more sustainable, look to buy GOTS certified organic cotton which provides a guarantee cotton has been made without harsh chemicals and protects the environment where it is grown.
Organic cotton is better than regular cotton for the environment because it has the potential to half cotton's impact on global warming vs regular cotton. Organic cotton is predominantly rain-fed, using 91% less fresh water from lakes and streams than regular cotton. It requires approximately a third of the energy to grow, and has the significant benefits of needing no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, which helps protect the environment and people who grow the crop.
Organic cotton farmers use a range of natural techniques to preserve the fertility of organic soil and conserve rainwater. This not only makes organic cotton less water intensive, it also means organic cotton farms are more resistant to drought, a fact which will become increasingly important as global temperatures slowly climb. Healthy soils properly cared for can store as much as 3,750 tonnes of water per hectare, the equivalent of one and a half olympic swimming pools.
Organic cotton encourages farmers to look after the soils on which their crops grow. This leads to a more healthy cotton crop with better quality cotton, as well as reducing the chance of soil erosion. A nutrient dense soil also promotes biodiversity, helping foster a sustainable ecosystem full of life. Just as importantly, a biodiverse soil helps us fight climate change in no insignificant way, with some scientists estimating that the top meter of soil around the globe stores three times more carbon than the entire atmosphere.
Clothes which carry the GOTS (or Soil Association) logo have met a strict social and environmental checklist. These garments have been made in factories that are safe for workers, protect workers’ rights, and ensure fair wages. It also means we can trust no harsh chemicals have been used, the environment has been carefully managed, and water pollution from the farm and factory has been avoided.
Organic cotton holds so much potential for a more sustainable future. This is why we are trying to do our bit to encourage its adoption. Currently less than 1% of all cotton grown today is organic, however organic cotton has experienced small but encouraging growth over recent years. We are excited to see what the future may bring.
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