You’re likely already pretty familiar with cotton as one of the most widely-used textiles in the clothing industry. But for something so familiar, there’s a lot that many of us still don’t know about it. How is it produced? Is it bad for the environment or people? And, when you’re shopping, is it better to opt for organic cotton?
Cotton, originally produced in India—as far back as 5,000 B.C—, is now used and worn all over the world. Approximately 27 million tones are produced every single year and they are made with natural fibers from cotton plants (they look like little fluffy balls). To make it into a wearable fabric, the natural fibers are spun into yarn.
Why is conventional cotton harmful to the environment?
Excessive cotton cultivation depletes and degrades the soil and uses huge amounts of water, according to an example by the WWF, it takes 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton, and some countries like India are running out of both ground and surface water. Potent chemicals are used to treat cotton. While the conventional cotton industry covers 2.6 percent of the world’s land, it uses 6 percent of pesticides globally, as well as 16 percent of insecticides.
Polluted water from the industry runs into rivers and other waterways, harming marine life and human beings.
In some cases, cotton hand-picking leads to exploitation. According to BBC, in 2014 more than 400,000 children worked on India’s cotton farms. While many brands and retailers state they do not knowingly buy cotton harvested using child labor, it can be very difficult to trace. However, there is a way you can ensure your cotton is produced ethically: when you buy certified fair-trade cotton.
On the other hand, organic cotton is generally defined as cotton that is grown organically in subtropical countries such as India, Turkey, China, and parts of the USA from non-genetically modified plants, and without the use of any synthetic agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides aside from the ones allowed by the certified organic labeling. Production is supposed to promote & enhance biodiversity & biological cycles.
Benefits of organic cotton
The water footprint is only 10 percent of the footprint of “conventionally” grown cotton and no pesticides used in production.
According to About Organic Cotton, it uses 88 percent less water than conventional cotton.
According to the Organic Trade Association, when cotton is farmed organically, crop rotation strategies and soil building practices keep soil healthy, and this is good for the climate.
Right now, less than one percent of the cotton used around the world is organic. But as per Textile Exchange Europe, consumers can help change this by showing demand and supporting the brands that choose organic over conventional. Companies that sell their products in Europe and the U.S. have no clue where organic cotton clothing comes from. Maybe they know their first supplier and there are codes of conduct in place, but further down the chain in the lower tiers, it is very difficult to understand where the cotton comes from. But there are things you can do as a consumer to ensure you’re doing your part.
References and where to learn more
Neal, J. (23/02/2014). The task of protecting India's child cotton pickers. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-26294513
Goldsmith, B. (10/02/2017). Can going green help pick the slavery out of cotton?. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-cotton-slavery-idUSKBN15P011
The Guardian (2015). World Water Day: the cost of cotton in water-challenged India. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/20/cost-cotton-water-challenged-india-world-water-day#:~:text=The%20water%20consumed%20to%20grow,have%20access%20to%20safe%20water.
Additional resources consulted
Pesticide action network UK (2017). Pesticide Concerns in Cotton: https://www.pan-uk.org/cotton/
The World Counts (2021). Cotton farming water consumption. https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/consumption/clothing/cotton-farming-water-consumption/story
Close the loop (2021). A guide towards a circular fashion. https://www.close-the-loop.be/en/phase/3/end-of-life
Fig. 1: Wikipedia cotton: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton
Fig. 2: http://aboutorganiccotton.org/