Textile Review: The environmental impacts of cotton

What are the environmental costs of cotton? It is a natural fiber and is biodegradable, so surely it is more sustainable than polyester and nylon, right? Can I be sustainably minded and still buy convention cotton? The short answer is no. But it is possible to reduce the impact of cotton by choosing more sustainable alternatives. So let’s look at the facts.

Cotton is responsible for 25% of the world’s pesticide use. That’s right, 25% of the world’ pesticide use! With all the food crops we grow worldwide, not to mention the other textile fiber crops, a full 25% of the world’s pesticides are poured onto cotton crops which are then used to make a huge amount of substandard quality clothing that is worn a few times before it looses it shape and colour and is discarded.  That is an awful lot petrochemicals which are being poured into our soils, running into our waterways and poisoning our environment.  The World Health Organisation considers half of these chemicals to be hazardous to the environment and human health. Due to this fact, cotton has been dubbed ‘the world’s dirtiest crop’. Most of the world’s cotton crops are grown in developing countries where environmental laws are regulations are lax. Many harmful chemicals that are banned in places such as Australia, the US and the EU, such as DDT, are still manufactured by developed world multinationals and sold in developing countries. So we have good reason to be concerned about the impact of cotton on the communities and ecosystems in the countries where the crop is grown.  This is not to mention that commercial pesticides are derived from petrochemicals, a non-renewable resource with a significant carbon impact. Estimates of the carbon impact of cotton vary, but is it believed that somewhere between 0.3% and 1% of global carbon emissions come from cotton production. This equates to 6.5kg of carbon emissions to produce one large unisex cotton t-shirt.

The significant reliance on pesticide use also had significant social impacts that shouldn’t be overlooked. Cotton crops in the developing world are often cared for and harvested by the rural poor, and in many instances they have minimal access to protective clothing when working with the harmful chemical pesticides and fertilisers used on the crops. The World Health Organisation estimates that there are approximately 3 million pesticide poisonings per year worldwide, resulting in 20,000 deaths, and most of these are attributed to the cotton industry. Cotton is a crop that is highly vulnerable to pests, and conventional cotton farming is reliant on pesticides to ensure a good yield for the crop. This means that pesticides inputs are a huge financial burden for farmers, especially when world cotton prices fall, or drought conditions lead to crop failure. According a a report from the Centre for Human Rights are Global Justice, every 30 minutes a farmer in India commits suicide due to pesticide debt. This is largely the result of the cotton industry. Forced labour and forced child labour is also a significant issue in the cotton industry, particularly in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest producers of cotton, where the government forces public servants, teachers and school students  as young as ten to pick cotton in order to meet harsh quota conditions. Bangladesh is the largest importer of Uzbek cotton, adding another unethical dimension to the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ fast fashion industry.

Beside the environmental and social harms related to pesticide use, cotton is also an extremely water hungry crop. In many cases water is diverted from natural ecosystems to irrigate cotton crops, putting enormous pressure on the natural environment. It is widely known that the shrinking of the Aral Sea (which has been called ‘one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters’), was caused by the Soviet project to divert rivers for irrigation purposes to boost cotton production in the dry region. Of all the natural fibers, cotton is by far the thirstiest crop, using many times the water needed to grow hemp, bamboo, flax or other cellulose crops such as eucalyptus. Around 50% of world cotton crops are rain-fed, meaning that the harms of irrigation are avoided. However, rain-fed cotton is still a thirsty crop which uses water resources which in some locations may potentially be better used for food crops. Furthermore, in regions of high rainfall, the chemical run off from cotton farms has been known to pollute the local water supply. So whilst rain-fed cotton may be a better choice in terms of water use, it may be a worse choice in terms of the effect on the water quality in the region that it is grown.

The Aral Sea 1989 (left) and 2008 (right). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Aral Sea 1989 (left) and 2008 (right). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The widespread use of genetically-modified cotton crops adds another ethical dimension cotton. Around 50% of cotton grown is genetically-modified. It is argued that genetic modification improves resistance of the crop to pests, meaning that fewer chemicals need to be sprayed. However, it has been shown that this may be the case in the first few seasons, but as pests adapt over successive seasons, the gains are quickly lost and the hardiest pests survive to consume the crop, and larger amounts of pesticide are again required. The GM debate fierce and is largely centered around whether GM food is safe to eat. As cotton is not a food crop, this debate isn’t really relevant here. However, the nature of GM crops adds an ethical dimension that is worthy of discussion. GM crops are patented and controlled by the company that develops them. This means that farmers cannot legally save seeds from one season to plant in the next, and they are required to buy a new supply of seeds each season, ensuring that farmers continue to be dependent upon the company that developed the seed. With the costs of pesticides already such a burden, the costs of GM seeds adds another financial burden that keeps many farmers on the brink of bankruptcy, and a failed season or a drop in world cotton prices in many cases cannot be weathered. The use of GM makes huge profits for multinational corporations, but the farmers who grow the crop see very little benefit and in many cases become more vulnerable than those who avoid using GM.

But cotton is a natural fiber that is extremely useful for textile manufacture. So how can cotton be more ethical and sustainable? Fair-trade cotton ensures that workers are given protective gear to avoid the health impacts of pesticide use. Fair-trade also offers a fair price for the cotton, shielding farmers from the price fluctuations of the global market and the additional price gives them a buffer to weather years of crop failure. However, with the huge environmental costs of cotton farming (in terms of water and pesticide use), I would not buy Fair-trade cotton unless it is also organic. Organic cotton ensures that no pesticides or chemical fertilisers are used, minimising the impact on the environment. Rain-fed organic cotton would be the most sustainable choice, as it avoids the environmental harms associated with crop irrigation. There are also some low impact non-organic options which are used in a limited manner. Biological Integrated Pest Management uses natural methods of controlling pests so that fewer chemicals are required to grow the crop. The trademarked Better Cotton is grown in California, is non-GM, uses integrated pest management (and therefor fewer chemicals) and the 13 most toxic chemicals are banned. Whilst better than conventional cotton, these low impact varieties are still not ideal. Finally, there are traditional varieties of cotton, farmed by small holder farmers using traditional methods and techniques. This is particularly the case with Ethiopian cotton, as Ethiopia was one of the first places to cultivate cotton in the world, and methods have changed little in recent times. Although this cotton is not certified as organic, the processes used are well suited to the local environment and it can be considered a sustainable option. Understandably, the use of this cotton is limited to a small range of products produced in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries.

I personally stick to certified organic cotton and will also consider traditional Ethiopian cotton if I come across a product I like. Due to the water impact of growing cotton, I try to make sure that cotton is only one of the many textiles buy. Another sustainable alternative to organic cotton is recycled cotton. This uses the off-cut waste from factories to produce new textiles, saving fabric that would otherwise end up in landfill. This is important as it takes a waste product and diverts it from landfill. However, this is a stop gap measure that I hope will not be around forever. Factories and designers would be better to address the immense waste caused by their processes and avoid this waste in the first place. But until we see a change in how mainstream fashion operates, shopping for recycled cotton is a sustainable choice for us to make. Re:newcell is an exciting new breakthrough in fiber recycling. This is a textile that takes old clothing made from plant-based fibers, and recycles it into new fabric. This is exciting because this is the first time that we can recycle old clothes into a completely new fiber. Re:newcell is only a recent invention, and we can expect in production in about 18 months. So keep your eye out for it!

In short, my recommendations for the sustainably conscious shopper are to buy organic or recycled cotton (or traditional Ethiopian cotton if you come across a product that you like), and make sure you also purchase clothing made from other fibers such as wool, hemp, linen, recycled polyester, and lyocell.

Guide to Sustainable Textiles

If you enjoyed this post and learned something new, you will learn a lot from my Guide to Sustainable Textiles. This thoroughly researched guide takes you through all the ethical and sustainability considerations in textiles to enabel youto make purchase decisions that are in line with your ethics and commitment to sustainability. If you want to be able to assess the sustainability of your favourite brands, this guide will save you a lot of time and research.
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