the truth about cotton

by | Apr 4, 2018 | Know Your Fibres

Try to think of the purest, cleanest, and most eco-friendly piece of clothing you can.  What comes to mind?  Is it an organic white cotton t-shirt?  If so, then you’re probably on the same wavelength as most other people.  However, this also means there may be a lot about cotton that you don’t know. 

Cotton has a long history: the oldest found samples dating as far back as 5000 BC, and it is currently being used in roughly 50% of all clothing produced today.  However, cotton production comes at a cost much higher than most people recognise, and even organic cotton isn’t always what it seems. 

Yet before I delve too deep into the murky depths of today’s cotton production, it’s also important to acknowledge the benefits of cotton.  Natural and biodegradable, cotton has been farmed since prehistoric times and the mass production we associate it with now only started with the invention of the cotton gin in the late 18th Century.  Cotton is a wonderfully easy fibre to care for: it doesn’t stain easily, is breathable, won’t pill and doesn’t tend to wrinkle.  With proper growth and care, cotton is also easily renewable and the same plants can be used year after year. 

All of this makes cotton sound like a dream miracle fibre.  So why does it have so many problems?  Whilst the issues surrounding cotton production are multi-faceted, they can essentially be broken down into two key categories: the environmental factor, and the human factor. 

Environmentally, cotton can have a hugely damaging impact, starting simply with the excessive amount of water required.  For each kilo of cotton produced (the equivalent of just one pair of jeans and one t-shirt) over 20,000 litres of water is required.  Poor irrigation systems means even more water is wasted due to leaks.  The huge amounts of water involved in cotton production can have drastic effects, with the most notable example being the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, a country which is responsible for roughly 5% of global cotton production.  Formerly the fourth-largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has been shrinking in size at an alarming rate since the 1960s, and finally in 2014 the eastern basin completely dried up.

Left: Aral Sea in 1989. Right: Aral Sea in 2014. (Image source: NASA) 

Once you’ve wrapped your head around just how much water is lost in producing your jeans, t-shirts, bedding and towels, then there’s the issue of chemicals to deal with.  Cotton production is responsible for roughly 25% of all insecticides sold globally, and over 10% of pesticides.  These chemicals are one of the causes for such high water usage, and can have a detrimental effect on local wildlife.

The use of these insecticides and pesticides are also closely tied to the other main category mentioned earlier: the human factor.  There is no doubt that cotton farmers are being poisoned by the chemicals they use.  In the US alone, over 10,000 farmers die each year from cancers related to cotton chemicals.  These chemicals find their way into local water supplies where they can affect the drinking water.  ADHD, birth defects and damaged immune systems are just some of the health issues attributed to cotton-related chemicals being absorbed through drinking water.

Severe health issues aside, the human cost of cotton production also includes slave labour and financial manipulation.  Cotton has a long history of slave labour (most notably with the cotton fields of the Southern US), but what many people aren’t aware of is how rife the problem still is today.  Uzbekistan is probably one of the most severe examples, with the government forcing its citizens to abandon their work and studies each year to harvest cotton against their will, and at risk of fines and imprisonment if they refuse.  This included schoolchildren until 2012, when the Uzbek government altered its policies to exclude children under 17.  However, corruption and a lack of transparency makes it difficult to enforce this rule, and to know how many children are still working in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields (in 2014, there were still records of thousands of children working in cotton fields).

Child cotton pickers in Uzbekistan (Photo: Thomas Grabka)

Finally, there’s the issue of financial manipulation.  Retailers of cotton seed and chemicals have a history of inflating costs and driving local famers deep into debt.  In India, severe cotton debt has been attributed as the cause of suicide of over 300,000 farmers since the 1990s. Just think about that statistic for a moment: it means that between the start of 1990 to the end of 2017, a farmer in India has committed cotton-related suicide every 30 minutes.

A cotton farmer in India sprays his crops with pesticides, and without any protective gear (Image source: Andrew Flachs)

But surely the entire cotton industry can’t be that bad, can it?! What about organic cotton? Isn’t that the green and friendly way to produce cotton?

In some ways, yes.  Fairtrade initiative and sustainable fashion labels continue to work hard to develop an economically and socially responsible cotton industry, and their work should be acknowledged and supported.  But organic cotton comes with its own downsides, and it’s crucial to really understand just how organic your cotton really is.  For instance, most organic cotton is only organic up until the point where it’s harvested.  After that it needs to be processed, cleaned and bleached (to get that lovely, pure white colour we all associate with cotton) and dyed.  These processes are rarely organic, and usually involve the use of multiple chemicals.  The growth of organic cotton also allows for natural and synthetic pesticides to be used in moderate amounts, and sometimes the natural pesticides can be even more harmful than the synthetic ones (for example, Rotetone is a natural pesticide that has been found to cause symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease).

Organic cotton can also require more water than conventional cotton.  Since the organic plants have not been genetically modified, they are smaller and tend to yield lower amounts.  This means that in order to match the same yield as conventional cotton, you need to plant more, use more land, and therefore use more water.

Hand-picked cotton (Image source: Environmental Justice Foundation)

Here’s the good news though: it’s getting better, and there are things you can do to make a difference.

Organic cotton currently makes up just roughly 1% of the total global cotton production, and it is by no means a perfect solution, but it’s a step in the right direction, and there are many organisations working hard to keep improving it.  Groups like the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) are doing admirable work to minimise damage caused by cotton production and to support and educate local cotton farmers.  In fact, since 2013 BCI farmers in China have reduced their use of chemicals by 10%, and farmers in Pakistan have increased their use of organic fertilisers by 85%.  Additionally, in 2015 alone, just 22 farmers in Australia grew 60,000 metric tonnes of BCI cotton, with some also seeing water use efficiency improved by up to 300%.  The Rural Economic & Education Development Society (REEDS) has also supported over 5000 female cotton workers in 2016 and intends to keep growing. They help these women run their businesses profitably and to understand how to follow good practice in growing cotton.

So what can you do to make a difference?  The key thing is to buy consciously.  Take the time to consider each cotton item that you buy – do you really need it?  Is it truly organic?  Remember to check for a certification label that guarantees it is a fully organic item (i.e. from the Global Organic Textile Standard).  Over time, you’ll learn to recognise the difference between items that are genuinely organic, and ones that use the word “organic” as a marketing ploy.

You can also make an effort to shop from brands that have committed to supported clean and organic cotton.  Brands like Nike, Esprit, Burberry, H&M and IKEA have all invested in BCI, and you can find a complete list of their investors and partnerson their website.  If you want to support clean cotton on a local level, a quick Google search will help you find local designers who are supportive of the fair cotton industry.  Here in Berlin, Erie, Daniela Salazar, Moeon and Studio Hertzberg are some of my personal favourites.

Finally, you can consider alternative fibres.  The Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) has supported the development of super-lightweight merino clothing that has a similar weight and texture to cotton.  These clothes are particularly popular in the activewear industry, but more fashionable and everyday options continue to crop up.  Tencel & modal are another two (man-made) alternatives that have a very similar feel and properties to cotton.  Naturally, these materials also come with their own extensive list of pros and cons, but let’s save that for another article, shall we?

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©Emma Wood 2020