When working in a clothes shop, one of the most common requests was, ‘do we have any natural fabrics?’ By this, 99% of the time, people were alluding to cotton. This fibre is indeed the most commonly used natural fibre with an average of 29 million tonnes of cotton produced annually across the globe. China, United States, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and West Africa account for over 75% of global production. Cotton has the reputation of a kind and natural fibre, however in this article we are going to find out if this reputation is truly deserved.
“World’s dirtiest crop”
Growing cotton is incredibly water and chemical intensive; of these chemicals, half are thought to be hazardous to both the environment and human health. It’s not surprising that The World Health Organization (TWHO) is referring to cotton as ‘the world’s dirtiest crop’.
Cotton constitutes a quarter of the world’s insecticide use
The total area of land dedicated to cotton growth has not changed significantly for the past 80 years, however in that time output has tripled. Just 2.4% of the world’s cropland is dedicated to cotton and yet it accounts for a huge 24% and 11% respectively of global insecticide and pesticide sales. These chemical nasties are also derived from petrochemicals, so they contribute a significant carbon footprint and extensively poison our soils and waterways.
Cotton’s reliance on pesticide use has a substantial social impact too. Particularly since most of the world’s cotton is grown in developing countries, where environmental laws are lax and harmful chemicals such as DDT are commonly used despite being banned in the EU and US. Furthermore, crops are often cultivated by the rural poor, with no access to the protective clothing necessary when working with harmful pesticides and fertilisers.
Cotton’s pesticide use is responsible for poisonings, deaths and suicides
Fatalities are not uncommon, and TWHO estimates that approximately 3 million annual pesticide poisonings worldwide (resulting in 20,000 deaths) can be attributed to the cotton industry. Cotton’s vulnerability to pests also means that the cost of pesticides puts a great deal of pressure on farmers and has been strongly linked to farmer suicide rates. It is thought that a farmer in India commits suicide every 30 minutes as a result of pesticide debt. Forced labour and child labour are also common in cotton production, particularly in Uzbekistan, where the government forces teachers, public servants and school children as young as ten to pick cotton in order to meet harsh quota requirements.
About 50% of the world’s cotton is genetically engineered
One alternative to using pesticides is genetically modified (GM) cotton that has been selected for its resiliency. Around 50% of cotton grown is GM. However, it has been shown that pests can adapt to the modified cotton, resulting in the survival of the hardiest. Once again, there is an ethical debate here, since GM cotton is patented by the company that owns it, farmers have less control over their crops and are forced to buy new seeds every season to procure the success of multinational corporations.
Cotton is the world’s most water thirsty fibre
It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans. Cotton is the thirstiest of all fibres, requiring many times the amount of water used to grow hemp, linen and all others. Since approximately 73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land the thirsty crop has produced some devastating effects, famously leading to the drying up of the Aral Sea (see image below) following the diversion of water from two feeding rivers for cotton irrigation. Cotton is also drying up several large River Basins including the Indus River in Pakistan, the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia, and the Rio Grande in United States and Mexico.
Cotton is an extremely useful natural resource; there must be some way to make it more ethical and sustainable?
Fairtrade cotton ensures workers are paid a fair price and shielded from price fluctuations within the market – meaning they could withstand any crop failures. Additionally, the better working conditions of Fairtrade demands that workers are supplied with protective clothing against chemical harm.
Organically certified cotton ensures that no chemicals are used throughout the production process, so toxic fertilisers are avoided. Genetically modified varieties are also forbidden under the organic certification. Finally, there are traditionally cultivated varieties of cotton available, sourced from small hold farmers using traditional methods. One example of this is cotton from Ethiopia, one of the first places to cultivate cotton in the world. The process used for Ethiopian cotton is not organic, but methods are well suited to the surrounding environment and can be considered sustainable.
Another sustainable alternative to cotton is recycled cotton as it diverts wasted cotton from the landfills, whilst saving the use of additional resources. Though this is obviously not an ideal solution, since it would be better if less cotton were produced and wasted in the first place, it is a good solution for the meantime.
Least, but not last: Diversity rocks!!!
All, in all, Organic and Fairtrade or Recycled cotton are the best options. However due to the environmental costs of a high demand for cotton, it is also worth maintaining a diverse selection of materials in your wardrobe, such as hemp and linen to ease the pressure on the environment.