Globally, cotton is the largest non-food crop produced, and is a textile I have historically embraced for a number of reasons: it is a natural fibre; it is incredibly versatile and easy to turn into soft, lightweight and breathable fabric; it can biodegrade at the end of its lifecycle; it’s crops produce high yields; and it isn’t animal derived unlike some other natural fibres. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I have taken this plant fibre at face value because it fits a narrative (and function) that has suited me. Sadly, however, the environmental truths behind cotton production are actually pretty disturbing.
The first uncomfortable truth is that cotton is an incredibly water intensive crop, both in its cultivation and its processing into fabric. To produce one kilogram of cotton, 10,000 litres of water is needed. In clothing terms, this means one cotton t-shirt takes more than 2,700 litres of water. Add to this the fact many cotton producing regions – India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Australia, in particular – don’t have sufficient rainfall to supply the amount of water required so it is instead diverted from rivers and lakes for irrigation.
Pesticides and emissions
The second big negative is the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers in cotton farming, which can leech into water ways and into the earth. Cotton crops are the most heavily sprayed crops in the world and cotton production alone is reported to account for over 15% of pesticide use worldwide – pesticides which pose a significant health risk.
On top of these two major environmental factors is the sheer amount of greenhouse gasses that are generated in cotton production, especially where synthetic fertilisers are employed.
Less directly related to the environment, but critically important nonetheless is the social impact of cotton farming. Sadly, even today, it is an industry rife with exploitation of both farmers and workers, with poor working and pay conditions a regular occurrence and even child and forced labour occurring in some cotton producing regions.
Part of the reason cotton production has such a detrimental environment impact is the sheer level to which it is cultivated, which is a consequence of its demand. At its low price point and high versatility and usability, it is prized by fast fashion producers – a section of the fashion industry which, according to reports, sees over 100 billion garments produced globally per annum.
What about organic cotton?
Organic cotton is increasingly becoming available and is seen by many as the antidote to the cotton problem. Certainly, it reduces the chemical pollution associated with non-organic cotton production – which is definitely a positive – and has other benefits including a safer working environment (due to the lack of pesticides), and a reported greater reliance on rainwater over ground water.
As yet, however, it is not the perfect solution. For one, the yields of organic crops are smaller and are therefore far from being able to meet the needs of the mass market, and they are more labour intensive for the same output. And unless they are certified under the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), they are likely to still undergo some level of chemical processing (mainly via dyeing and finishing) just like non-organic crops.
Ultimately the true solution is in not buying new clothing (or other cotton fabric) unless you can’t avoid it, and when you must, to buy from brands committed to fair trade and sustainability, to buy quality that will last, and to care for and repair items to extend their life.