Cotton and the environment

First published January 2007, updated January 2010

Using current mainstream methods of cultivation, it takes almost a third of a pound (140 grams) of fertilizer and pesticides to produce enough cotton for a single t-shirt. That’s almost the weight of the t-shirt itself! 

Additionally, seven the most common pesticides used on cotton are either suspected or confirmed carcinogens.

As the modern cotton industry has evolved, insects and weeds have become increasingly resistant to pesticides, meaning that more of these highly toxic chemicals need to be used.

In regard to water, at least 925 gallons (around 3,500 litres) are required to produce a single pound of cotton; and 60% of the water used to irrigate cotton is lost to evaporation and poor irrigation practices. The Aral Sea in Russia, which was one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes, has practically dried up due to water being diverted for cotton irrigation.

Somewhere in the region of 79 million acres of land is currently utilized for the production of cotton globally. According to Wikipedia, Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop.

The environment has paid a huge price for our cotton demand.

GM cotton

One of the answers to the excessive pesticide issue was meant to be GM (genetically modified) cotton.
GM cotton containing Bt toxin has become widespread, but already there are indications of some pests adapting, such as the Diamondback moth.  Other issues include the problem that Bt Cotton is a patented species owned by a company and this means farmers become heavily reliant on the company – not only for the seed, but for compatible chemicals. In India, there has been a spate of  farmer suicides linked to the irresponsible promotion of GM cotton. Added to all this, there is also the risk of GM crops “infecting” non-GM cotton crops.

Organic cotton

In recent years, producers have banded together to create an organic, more sustainable cotton industry. Changes to common practices such as using manure to replace synthetic fertilizers, biological pest controls instead of pesticides and more efficient weeding strategies are being developed to help minimize the impact that cotton growing and product has on our planet. Crop rotation is also used to rest the land between plantings. Different crops are planted during the rotation period in order to restore fertility to the soil.

In order for a field to be certified as organic it needs to be pesticide and herbicide free for at least three years and the crop must not be a GM strain.

Cost of organic cotton

While the organic cotton industry has been doing very well, it’s still in its infancy. Growing organic cotton is a labor intensive process. Also, given the crop rotation requirements, it means that growers harvest less. This increased labor and decreased production does reflect in the price of true 100% organic cotton garments, but some companies are minimizing price increases by using blends of organic and non-organic cotton.

Misleading companies

When buying organic cotton items, check to see if it’s 100% or blended. If it’s the latter and an amount isn’t stated, there’s a possibility that as little as 1 – 3% of the cotton used in the item is organic. You would be surprised how many big name brands have tried to fool consumers using this strategy. If in doubt, contact the company and ask them straight out “what percentage of organic cotton do you use in X”.

Another issue to watch for is an unfolding scandal with organic cotton from India. In January 2010, a laboratory in Germany reportedly found around 30% of the tested samples of organic cotton from India contained genetically modified (GM) cotton. The presence of genetically modified material is not permitted in certified organic products.
This is a particularly disturbing situation given India produced 61% of the total amount of organic cotton grown globally in 2008/09; so it may be difficult to source products using textiles not from the region. All you can do is to ask the company selling the products pointed questions; perhaps raising the issue of the scandal and asking their response to it.

Organic cotton – truly sustainable?

While the attempts of some cotton producers to produce a more earth-friendly product are surely admirable, it’s my understanding that given the nature of the cotton plant it will always be an industry that requires incredible, and perhaps unsustainable amounts of water. If impact on water supplies is something that’s of great concern to you in your purchase choices; you may want to investigate alternative fibers for your clothing, such as hemp or perhaps a mix of hemp and organic cotton blends.