Cotton: The Fabric of Our Lives…Unfortunately…

Cotton Facts:

  • Cotton is the biggest non-food agricultural crop in the world.
  • It uses 11% of the entire world’s pesticides.
  • In developing nations specifically, 50% of pesticides go towards cotton.
  • It uses 24% of world’s insecticides (a form of pesticide).
  • 220 million Metric tons of CO2 are released each year from global cotton production.
  • It takes 2,700 liters of water to make one t-shirt.

Cotton is everywhere. It’s in our clothing, our furniture, our bedding, our food (cottonseed oil/cellulose), and even our money! However, cotton has a dark side – it’s massively resource intensive and an environmentally destructive crop. The exact impacts vary among countries, growing practices, and conventional vs organic cotton.

The problems with cotton in general are very simple:

  • It uses tons of pesticidesˆ, fertilizers, and other toxic chemicals.
  • It’s immensely water intensive to grow and process into final products.
  • Plus, heavy use of chemicals leads to lots of water contamination.
  • As an industrial monocropˆ it degrades the soil, reduces biodiversity, and replaces wildlife habitats.

Pesticides and toxic chemicals:

Cotton is a chemically intensive crop all along its supply chain from the field to the store shelf. These include pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, defoliants, dyes, and other toxic chemicals used in manufacturing.

Pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides are used heavily to protect cotton from pests like the bollworm, and weeds. Additionally, monocropping leads to an increased need for pesticides because it disrupts normal and healthy ecosystem function. Crop rotation and co-planting are farming methods designed to preserve ecosystem health; isolating large acres of a single crop leads to greater problems with pests and soil degradation. Pesticides and related chemicals are harmful to human health and our ecosystems. These chemicals contaminate the broader environment through runoff and by seeping into soil, sometimes reaching deep aquifers.

Defoliants are chemicals used to help leaves fall off plants; for cotton, this makes it easier to pick. Agent Orange is a well-known chemical defoliant, which gained recognition during the Vietnam War due to its prolific use by the US military and the subsequent injury to humans and damage to ecosystems.

Cotton also requires high amounts of fertilizers, primarily nitrogen-based synthetic ones. These fertilizers contribute significantly to emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O)ˆ, which is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Water Pollution by Textile Industry in Tirupur, India.

Dying cotton is the most chemically intensive step in the processing of cotton into final products like clothing. Conventional cotton products use extremely toxic dyes, plus bleaching agents, wetting agents, industrial detergents, softeners, and salts. Consequently, textile manufacturing produces large quantities of wastewater that contaminates surrounding rivers and lakes with all of those toxic chemicals.

Water use:

To make one T-shirt uses an amount of water equal to what a person drinks over the course of 2.5 years. Cotton irrigation systems are an inefficient use of water, as is the case with all industrial agriculture. Diverting water from nearby lakes and streams to irrigate crops results in lost water during transport and reduces the availability of fresh drinking water.

The disappearing Aral Sea in 1970 compared to 2014.

The case of the Aral Sea disaster is one of the best examples of cotton’s environmental impact. Once the fourth largest freshwater lake, the Aral Sea was drained to near extinction to irrigate cotton crops. During the 1950s, it supported a booming fishing industry, providing livelihood and employment for thousands of people. It was considered an oasis in central Asia, located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Now, it is an arid desert where communities struggle.

Soil erosion and destruction of habitat:

Cotton is a monocrop and it takes up vast quantities of space. Reduced fallow time between growing has led to soil degradation, increasing the need for fertilizers. After almost a century of heavy use, many established cotton fields are thoroughly exhausted, forcing expansion of agricultural land into surrounding habitat. This destroys vital habitat for wildlife.

Please read my follow-up post that discusses alternatives to conventional cotton.


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Imperfect alternatives to conventional cotton (follow-up post)

This is a follow-up to the my post about the environmental impacts of cotton.

There are a few alternatives to conventionally grown cotton, the obvious one being organic cotton. World Wildlife Fund launched the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) with support from Ikea to encourage better practices of cotton production. BCI has gained wide support and has been successful in reducing pesticide use and water consumption. BCI works with farmers and other stakeholders to implement new irrigation technologies and more eco-friendly cultivation methods. In Pakistan, farmers have reduced their water use by 39%, which significantly lessens cotton’s impact on the Indus River.

Hemp and bamboo are other common alternatives to cotton, but as with all textiles, they do come with their own sets of problems. Both are quick growing and less resource intensive than cotton. Hemp needs virtually no pesticides or chemicals to grow and uses half the water cotton does. Bamboo is also less water intensive, grows amazingly fast, and doesn’t need pesticides to grow either. In terms of growing these crops, they are better than cotton. However, processing methods for these materials can be energy intensive, expensive, and sometimes require harsh chemicals. Well, nothing is perfect. I know it’s frustrating, but we do need to clothe ourselves, so don’t agonize too much. If we improve processing methods and reduce the toxicity of chemicals in the manufacture of these products, it would significantly reduce the environmental impact of these materials.

The bottom line for shopping is finding materials that are cultivated using ethically and environmentally responsible practices, requiring as little water and pesticides as possible, and processed using relatively few toxic chemicals. Waste management practices of manufacturers also differ significantly, so finding responsible and transparent companies will reduce your environmental impact as well. Ethical shopping can be more expensive, so you really need to strike a balance between your wallet and your conscience. I buy new professional clothing and things like underwear and socks, but I also try to buy organic cotton or organic hemp products, and I shop at thrift stores.

Additionally, more companies are starting to sell eco-friendly clothing. Check out companies like Pact Organic and Patagonia.

On a personal note, I’ve found the transition to ethical shopping a bit stressful – greenwashingˆ is a big problem, there are lots of choices, and it’s expensive. The fashion industry has a long way to go in terms of human labor and environmental impacts. Pushing for transparency, ethical practices, and less environmentally intensive technologies is a good start.

I’ll dig into some of the issues and possible solutions more in future posts since it’s a pretty big topic.

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