Try to imagine the modern world without cotton. No cotton t-shirts or cotton jeans. No cotton socks, undies, sheets or towels. Go on, try! You probably can’t picture a parallel universe where we don’t use cotton, because WWF Global estimate cotton now makes up almost 50% of all fabric used worldwide. We use cotton every day of our lives.
For over a century the trade of cotton has shaped what we wear and how we shop. It’s light and breathable yet durable qualities make it an easy fabric to work with, as companies attempt to produce cheaper clothing at faster rates. It can be cut into any shape and used for most of our needs.
So, what does the popularity of cotton mean for us? It’s pretty negative. While we assume that as a natural fibre cotton is sustainable it is actually one of the world’s dirtiest crops. This is because tasty, tasty cotton is attractive to pests and requires large amounts of pesticides to protect it. And second to its pesticide use, cotton consumes an astonishing volume of water.
Environmental Issues Of Cotton
Much of the world’s cotton comes from arid regions like India, Pakistan and the southern states of the USA, where they use irrigated farmland to water the crops. This means every 1kg of cotton may take 20,000L of water to produce. That’s ten times the volume required to make a beef patty. Intensive farming and water irrigation lead to a decline in soil quality, and the soil’s inability to retain carbon contributes to global warming.
Cotton also uses a lot of pesticides. Making up less than 3% of the world’s crops, WWF’s website reports that cotton guzzles almost 25% of the world’s pesticides and over 10% of the world’s insecticides! A dirty crop, indeed. Producing these pesticides is energy-intensive (producing CO2 emissions), and the chemicals themselves emit nitrous oxide (more damaging than CO2). This means that industrial cotton farming is a significant contributor to climate change.
Pesticides and insecticides are also non-discriminatory in what they poison, wiping out not just the intended pests but other species too. The run-off from farms contributes to ocean dead-zones, the rise of secondary pests, and it remains a threat to all animals and humans along the food chain.
The Human Issues
What we spray onto plants does not just stay on the plants. It washes into the soil, groundwater, rivers, and oceans. Farmers and surrounding inhabitants inhale it. And it lingers on the cotton, leeching off the fabric onto us or into the environment after we dispose of the item. Those responsible for crop dusting are the most at risk by coming directly into contact with toxins that are banned for consumption or use in confined spaces due to their highly lethal nature.
Further, we are all aware of the rich history of slavery within the cotton trade in America’s southern states. Today this slavery still exists, it has just shifted. Slave labour is most notably found in West Asian countries Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but child labourers are still popularly used in other cotton exporters such as India and Pakistan. So, what do we do?
‘Organic’ farming refers to using methods and materials that have a minimised impact on the environment, typically from non-GMO seeds and without synthetic industrial fertilisers, pesticides or insecticides. This means vigilance in reducing greenhouse gases, protecting soil quality, and avoiding non-organic chemicals throughout the refining and production process.
Smaller yields, non-GMO seeds, and other production limitations of organic cotton increases the cost per pound of growing cotton for farmers, and this cost passes onto the consumer.
Cotton crops take six months to grow and are labour-intensive so if the production line is sustainable, consumers should expect to see that reflected in their bill. Due to the volatility of the market, it’s difficult to make a price comparison between organic and non-organic cotton. As any shopper knows, however, the less they spray, the more you pay.
A farm or factory may be certified for producing organic cotton within their arm of production, or a brand may be certified organic for using organic methods throughout the entire production process. In Australia, some of our leading organic textile accreditation organisations you may recognise are The Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), Australian Certified Organic and ECOCERT.
Organic accreditation looks at methods used during:
- Seed preparation
- Pest control
- Weed control
The interpretation of organic principles varies with no primary international governing body to set the standard. This is where organic farming draws criticism, as there is little separating the lowest standard organic certified farms from the highest standard non- certified farms. The benefits of using more natural farming methods, however, are always the avoidance of dangerous toxins, reduced carbon emissions and maintaining healthy soil.
While the definition of organic does not include labour conditions, increasingly more organic certification bodies are requiring ethical labour standards. Due to the risk of cotton being harvested by forced labour, choosing garments with a combination of organic certification with Fairtrade certification is most prudent as a consumer.
With the environmental toll of conventionally grown cotton, it’s clear something has to change. But will that change come from individual consumers looking for organic accreditation? It might not change the whole world. Yet in my opinion, the higher price tag on a clothing item comes with peace of mind of the safety of the product and the safety of everyone along the supply chain.
As informed consumers, we should be aware of the value of organic farming methods. The cost of climate change itself is one all households will all have to shoulder in the future if things don’t change. For the price you might receive the same amount of fabric, but behind that price tag is six months’ worth of important sustainability decisions that make it very, very worth it.