Cotton is the most widely used natural fibre worldwide. It accounts for 90% of all natural fibres used in the textile industry and is used for 40% of all apparel produced globally. This adds up to an average of 29 million tonnes of cotton produced annually across the globe. However the production of our much-loved cotton is one of the most harmful processes in the entire textile industry.
Cotton is a highly breathable, versatile and popular natural fibre. It is revered for its durability, softness and absorption of body odours. Pilling is rarely a problem. It dyes easily and can be biodegradable when grown organically. Organic cotton also avoids the heavy application of chemicals usually associated with conventionally grown cotton. Additionally, choosing Fairtrade cotton will ensure that farmers are fairly treated and child labour is not used.
Growing cotton is incredibly chemical intensive; of these chemicals, half are thought to be hazardous to both the environment and human health. The total area of land dedicated to cotton growth has not changed significantly in 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 cotton accounts for a huge 24% and 11% respectively of global insecticide and pesticide sales. Furthermore these chemical nasties are derived from petrochemicals and so they contribute a significant carbon footprint and extensively poison our soils and waterways. It’s not surprising that The World Health Organization (TWHO) is referring to cotton as ‘the world’s dirtiest crop’.
Cotton’s reliance upon pesticide use has a significant 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 who aren’t provided with protective clothing when working with harmful pesticides and fertilisers. 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 pressure on cotton 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 quota requirements.
Around 50% of cotton grown is genetically modified to improve resilience against pests, and reduce the need for pesticides. However, it has been shown that pests can adapt to this 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 carries the title of 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 or pair of jeans. Since approximately 73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land, cultivating the thirsty crop has brought about some devastating effects, famously leading to the drying up of the Aral Sea 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 The United States and Mexico.
Opt for Fairtrade, Organic or recycled cotton. Since the environmental impact of cotton is far higher than any other natural fibre, it might be worth considering clothes made from other, more environmentally friendly fibres, such as linen and hemp.