Cotton has potential as a sustainable fabric. But when it comes to resource management, pollution, and human rights, there is work to be done.
In 2001, Indus river dolphins, one of the rarest mammals on earth, were on the brink of extinction. The species, whose history can be traced back 550,000 years, had reached dangerously low levels of just 1,200.
Thanks to conservation, their numbers have started to rise over the last few years, but at just over 1,800, they’re not safe yet. Fishing entanglement is a major threat to their future, but also the amount of water-related infrastructure in their home. A number of industries rely on the 2,000-mile-long transboundary Indus River, which flows into the Arabian sea. And one of them is cotton.
Cotton has been in wide use since the 18th century and demand for the fabric, which is soft, comfortable, and breathable, is still high. The market is expected to reach a value of more than $46 billion by 2027.
But cultivating the crop is thirsty work. To produce just one kilogram, around 10,000 to 20,000 liters of water is needed. This means that satisfying demand has come at the detriment of some of the world’s most valuable ecosystems. WWF estimates that 97 percent of Indus River water goes towards crops like cotton.
As an all-natural fiber, cotton is often painted as sustainable. And with the right action, one day, it could be. But right now, the industry is plagued not just by water usage problems, but also by pesticide pollution and human rights issues. Organic cotton seemingly presents a more sustainable alternative, but again, the market isn’t straightforward.
Here, we look at some of the initiatives trying to clear up cotton’s act. But first, let’s take a look at some of the industry’s biggest problems.
As well as being water-intensive, Cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop on earth. Despite the fact the industry uses around 2.4 percent of cultivated land, according to some estimates, it accounts for 5.7 percent of pesticide use. Primarily, these chemicals are used to protect cotton crops from pests that eat them, like bugs and spider mites, and diseases. But their impact is far-reaching.
Firstly, pesticide manufacturing is linked with potent greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. But, when in use, these chemicals don’t just pollute the air. They also deplete the quality of the soil, which leads to a drop in general biodiversity.
Plus, cotton requires irrigation (when water is artificially applied to the soil through pumps and sprays). And the runoff from this process can pollute surrounding waterways, like lakes and rivers, poisoning fish and other underwater wildlife.
According to Beyond Pesticides, long-term exposure to the chemicals can cause fish larvae to mutate, as well as impact the health of their livers, brains, and gills. In severe cases, pesticide pollution can even cause mass fish die-offs. In 2012, for example, pesticide runoff from agriculture fields was thought to be the likely cause of death for thousands of fish around Canada’s Prince Edward Island.
But pesticides don’t just poison wildlife. They hurt people too. According to a study published in the BMC Public Health journal in 2020, more than 40 percent of farmers are poisoned by pesticides every year. This can lead to chronic diseases, like cancer, as well as reproductive problems, including infertility and birth defects.
Is organic cotton a better alternative?
It is possible to buy cotton without pesticide use. Organic cotton, for example, is supposed to be grown without toxic chemicals. But supply chains are messy and complicated. And this means that, according to a New York Times investigation from earlier this year, much of the “organic cotton” clothing on the market may not actually be organic.
The publication claimed that companies like Control Union, EcoCert, and OneCert, which offer or used to offer organic certifications in India (the biggest producer of cotton in the world) are not transparent enough and their “opaque” certification systems leave opportunities open for fraudulent activity.
One cotton expert called Crispin Argento, who manages a small organic cotton consulting firm, even estimated that around one-half of Indian cotton sold as organic is not actually organic at all. As a result of these transparency issues, the EU has even voted to no longer accept organic certifications on cotton from India.
The investigation casts doubt across the whole industry, not just on the use of pesticides, but also on the level of exploitation involved in producing garments. After all, cotton has also long been associated with child labor and slavery.
In 2014, one study found that around 200,000 children, aged 14 or under, were working on cotton farms. And in 2021, reports surfaced suggesting that hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China, which produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton, were being forced to pick the crop by hand.
The cotton industry is rife with problems. But there is hope. Nonprofits like the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA)—which is based in California and founded by brands like Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s, as well as organic agriculture research pioneer the Rodale Institute—are working to create ethical and transparent supply chains.
To qualify for the ROA’s stringent certification program, farmers must demonstrate directly to the alliance that they aren’t depleting the soil, they aren’t using pesticides, and they aren’t exploiting people.
The Better Cotton Initiative, the world’s leading sustainability initiative for the cotton industry, is also striving to improve the industry. In last year’s growing season, it worked with nearly three million farmers across 26 countries to produce cotton under its Better Cotton Standard, which strives to embed sustainable and ethical farming practices, like improving soil health, water management, and working conditions, in communities.
And the Sustainable Apparel Coalition—which has more than 270 members from around the world, including brands like Allbirds and ASOS, as well as cotton manufacturers, NGOs, and academic institutions—recently launched an Organic Cotton Accelerator in India and Pakistan to create lasting, necessary change in the industry.
Right now, the future of cotton as a sustainable fiber is hanging in the balance. If destructive practices, like excessive water use, pesticide pollution, and child labor, can be stamped out, it could become one of the world’s most eco-friendly materials. It does, after all, biodegrade at the end of its life. And this stands it in much greater stead than synthetic materials, like polyester, which can take centuries to break down in the environment.
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