There is a reason that cotton is one of the most popular fabrics in the world. It is easy to care for, versatile, soft to touch and breathable. It’s perfect for basics and intimates, and has been cultivated by our ancestors for thousands of years.
Today, around 20 million tonnes of cotton are produced every year and account for roughly half of all fibre used to make clothes and textiles worldwide. As a natural fibre, it requires minimal chemical processing, and will naturally biodegrade. So what is the controversy with cotton?
It’s A Thirsty Crop
The first problem with cotton is that it is an extremely water intensive crop. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, it can take up to 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton!
The amount of water required to grow cotton can become a serious problem for the surrounding area. The vast majority of cotton is grown on irrigated land which requires man-made interventions to collect and harvest water for agriculture. It is very common to divert rivers, drain local reserves, or build dams in order to access enough water to irrigate the cotton. This can have disastrous effects on the local water ways, drying up rivers and increasing water scarcity in the surrounding region.
If you need more convincing, google the Aral Sea laying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (the 6th largest producer of cotton globally). Formerly one of the 4th largest lakes in the world, the Aral Sea has been steadily shrinking since the mid-1960s, and is now just 10% of its original size. This decline has largely been linked to water irrigation required for the substantial cotton industry in the region of Central Asia.
Non-Organic Production Can be Toxic
There is a huge difference between organic and non-organic agriculture, especially when it comes to cotton. Cotton accounts for less than 3% of the world’s crop land, however it accounts for 24% of insecticide use, and 11% of pesticides. When you think about all of the water run-off that is produced by this thirsty crop, you can imagine that cotton is a huge source of chemical pollution harming local ecosystems, wildlife and waterways.
In addition to the damage caused to local ecosystems, we also have to consider the health of the worker that spends all day in proximity to these chemicals. Pesticides and insecticides are intended to be toxic, so it is no surprise that they would have ill-effects on the health of the workers exposed to them. According to the World Health Organisation, these chemicals can be absorbed through skin contact, consumption, or inhalation, having both short-term and serious long-term effects on the health of those who are repeatedly exposed.
So, What Do We Do?
This is arguably the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cotton controversy. There is still the issue of genetically modified cotton seeds, their impacts on the environment, and their link to the mass suicide phenomenon we have seen among Indian cotton farmers. This issue is too wide to be effectively covered here, but will certainly be addressed in the future.
For now, we have to be smart about where we buy our cotton. Not only should we look for credible certifications (think: GOTS ) to ensure organic production, we should seek out brands and companies that care about reducing the negative impact of cotton agriculture. This includes precautions to ensure effective use of water such as growing in a water rich region, or implementing water-saving irrigation techniques.