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The Truth About Cotton – How Sustainable Is It?

  • 7 min read

Take a quick peek inside your wardrobe – what do you see? If you’re like most people, probably a whole lot of cotton. 

And no wonder – cotton is a massive industry, and each year we produce enough cotton to make 29 t-shirts for every person on the planet. It’s actually the biggest farmed non-food commodity in the world, and it’s a long-standing favorite – cotton was grown as far back as 7000 years ago, in Mexico as well as Ancient Egypt and Pakistan. 

Amazing, right?

But although cotton is a popular and versatile material, you’ve probably heard it isn’t exactly kind to the planet. Problem is, enough terms are thrown around to give you whiplash, and it’s difficult to know what it all means – what is GMO cotton? Is cotton recyclable? And what, exactly, are the benefits of organic cotton?

Most of all – why is conventional cotton so bad for the environment in the first place?

Not to worry. In this post, we’re breaking down all of it – from how cotton is grown and produced, to exactly how you can make better choices. 

Ready? Let’s dive in.

The Cotton Plant – Where Does Cotton Come From?

First, let’s tackle the basics – what is cotton?

Cotton is an all-natural fiber that comes from the cotton plant, a bush that grows to about 1.2 meters high and gives harvest once a year. The white fluff, or lint, actually comes from the fruit of the bush – also known as cotton bolls. 

After sowing in spring, the cotton bush grows for about four months, until the cotton bolls split open to reveal the white lint inside – now, it’s ready for harvest. 

Today, harvest is mostly done by machines, but in some areas of China and India, people still handpick cotton in the fields. Afterward, the cellulose needs to be separated from the seeds in a process called ginning – this is also mostly done by machine.

After this, the process differs depending on what the cotton will be made into. If it’s destined for a hanger in your closet, it’s spun into thread, and then woven into fabric before being shipped off to be dyed and sewn into clothes. 

Today, most cotton comes from China, India, and the US. But as you can tell, the production of cotton involves many steps, and not all of them are necessarily done in the same place.

Cotton Production and the Environment

So – why is cotton bad for the environment?

The two main reasons are water consumption and pesticides. And we’re not just talking a little extra water for your garden plants, here – the truth is, 3% of all clean water on Earth is used for cotton production alone, and 14% of all insecticides globally are used on cotton. 

Let’s take a moment to let that sink in – all that water and chemical, for a single crop. Add to this that cotton is mostly grown in areas of water scarcity, and we start to understand the scale of the problem.

But the question left ringing in our ears, is –why does cotton require so much water and chemicals? 

The truth is, 3% of all clean water on Earth is used for cotton production alone, and 14% of all insecticides globally are used on cotton.

And here’s the kicker – it isn’t actually the cotton itself that needs it. It’s the farming methods used in the industry that’s created the need. 

The demand for cotton means the same plots of soil are used year after year to produce more cotton. As we touched on when digging into bamboo, this creates monocultures, and over time the soil health is damaged. 

Unhealthy soil is less able to hold water, less resistant to pests, and is difficult to grow plants on because it lacks sufficient nutrients.

So, what does this mean? First, an increased need for added water – lots of it. Second, a need for added fertilizers to give the soil nutrition, and of course, pesticides to keep the insects at bay. 

Yeah. Not great. 

Social Impact of the Cotton Industry

Cotton Infographic

Of course, these farming methods don’t just impact the environment – they can have a devastating effect on the people working and living in these areas, too. 

In some rural areas where cotton is grown, especially in the hotter regions, access to clean water can be restricted as it is. When so much water is used for cotton production, this means even less drinking water for locals. 

And since the soil is less able to hold the water, much of it washes right over the plants and then away, bringing with it the added chemicals from the fields to local waterways. This pollution means evenless clean water is available. 

There is also the safety of workers to consider. Many workers don’t have the funds to buy proper safety equipment that will protect them from the chemicals and sprays used in the fields. This can cause pesticide poisoning, which can then lead to cancer, neurological diseases, and infertility – in fact, at least 1 million people end up in hospitals, for this reason, each year.

Again – not good. But there must be better ways, right? 

GMO Cotton – What Is It? 

GMO cotton, also known as GM cotton, is cotton seeds that have been genetically modified to be resistant to pests. When they were first launched, they held huge a promise of better yield and easier harvests.

And in theory, it sounds great – if the seeds themselves contain pest resistance, it should reduce the need for chemicals, right?

Well, reality has seen a different story. While the seeds were made to resist the most common pests, when they disappeared, other pests simply took their place. After a while, the original pests also grew resistant and started coming back. 

This meant farmers, who had bought more expensive seeds at the promise of better harvests, now had to buy pesticides on top – which many couldn’t afford. On top of this, the seeds were modified so they couldn’t reproduce, which meant farmers had to keep buying new seeds every year. 

This led to massive farmers’ debt, loss of harvest,and tragically suicide in many cases. 

And unfortunately, GMO cotton is still common – in India, about 80% of cotton production is GM cotton, because the story surrounding GMO cotton, in many places, still persists. In other places, it dominates the market so much there isn’t an alternative.

So, as you can see – despite the initial promise, GMO cotton isn’t the answer. 

The Benefits of Organic Cotton

Now that we understand why the conventional cotton industry is harming the planet, let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits of organic cotton. What’s the difference?

Organic cotton uses a holistic approach to farming that works with the planet’s natural systems, rather than solely focusing on the yield. At the heart of this is crop rotation, which solves many of the problems the conventional cotton industry face. 

Crop rotation means you rotate what crops are planted on the same plot of soil from year to year. First, you may grow cotton, and the next year you may instead plant peas. 

With crop rotation, the soil becomes naturally re-fertilized by the different crops, which means there’s no need for artificial fertilizers. But the improved soil health also makes it function like a sponge – healthy soil is able to hold much more water, and can store water in times of flood for later periods of drought. 

This not only makes organic cotton farms a lot more stable in a changing climate – it also drastically reduces the need for water. In fact, organic cotton production uses up to 91% less water than conventional cotton, because farmers can use rainwater to feed the crops.

Pretty amazing, right?

Besides, crop rotation also works as natural pest control – when a host plant doesn’t appear for a long time, the pests die off naturally. No need for added pesticides. 

So as you can see, organic cotton naturally takes care of most problems with cotton. And yet, less than 1% of all cotton produced today is organic. 

Organic cotton production uses up to 91% less water than conventional cotton.

Greenwashing or Certified Organic? 

It sounds baffling – with all the ‘organic cotton’ and ‘sustainable cotton’ labels you see in stores, how can less than 1% of cotton be organic? 

Well, one of the reasons is that fashion has looser laws than food is when it comes to organic labels. Meaning, companies can simply say they have sustainable practices, without having to show much proof. 

Talk about greenwashing.

And this is why organic certifications are so important – especially for clothes and household products. These independent organizations have strict and transparent criteria so that you knowexactly what you’re buying and where it came from.

When shopping for cotton, look for the GOTS and Soil Association stamps – they guarantee that each and every step of the production is organic, non-GMO, and safe for workers, even after the cotton has left the farms and entered factories.

Another good one is OCS, which also guarantees that the cotton production has been 100% organic and non-GMO – however, it doesn’t check the environment and practices in factories, which can be worth keeping in mind.

Recycled Cotton – Is the Future the Past?

Before we finish off, let’s also have a quick look at recycled cotton. There’s been more and more talk of recycled cotton lately, and after all – why not give something once-loved a second life? 

Indeed. And some even claim that recycled cotton is the most sustainable option on the market – the process of recycling cotton needs almost zero water, and offsets the effects of virgin cotton production as an added bonus.

Besides, thousands of tons of cotton end up in landfills each year. Although they eventually decompose, it seems a waste of all that potential, doesn’t it? After all, less than 1% of post-consumer cotton is recycled into new fabric today.

But although cotton is recyclable, it isn’t infinitely so. The process of recycling cotton is harsh on the fibers and weakens them. After it’s been recycled once, the cotton’s usually too weak to be recycled again, and even the first time around it needs to be blended with virgin cotton or other materials – often synthetic ones, such as polyester – to keep the quality. 

So although recycled cotton is a great option, and definitely something to seek out, it can’t completely replace virgin cotton – at least not yet. While buying recycled, we still need to work for better practices in the virgin cotton industry.

But as always – we vote with our dollars. So when you do buy products made from cotton, the best thing you can do is look for certified organic products, and recycled cotton that’s been blended with organic cotton. 

And of course, recycle those old tees! Together, we can help push for a more sustainable cotton industry.

What doyou think of cotton? Let us know below! And don’t forget to check out the sustainable cotton choices in Lochtree’s shop!

In a learning mood? Check out our deep-dive on Bamboo next.