The cotton industry is resource-intensive and requires huge amounts of pesticides. But how sustainable is organic cotton?
Cotton is probably already very familiar to you. It is one of the most used textiles in the clothing industry and most items in your wardrobe are probably made from it. But for something so familiar, there's a lot that many of us don't yet know about cotton. How is it produced? Is it bad for the environment? Is it bad for humans? And, when shopping, is it better to opt for organic cotton? So many questions that we will try to answer through this article.
A brief history of cotton
Originally produced in India (5000 BC), cotton is now used and worn all over the world. Approximately 27 million tons are produced each year.
Made from the natural fibers of the cotton plant (which look like little fluffy balls), cotton is soft and versatile. To turn it into a wearable fabric, natural fibers are spun into yarn.
Thanks to innovations in manufacturing, the mass production of cotton began during the British Industrial Revolution. In the 1760s, the "spinning jenny", a multiple spindle spinning machine, was invented. She helped revolutionize the industry and, according to Historic UK, in the early 1800s cotton products accounted for around 42% of UK exports.
But that was not to last. While Britain was one of the driving forces behind the mass production of cotton, today it is the United States, China and (once again) India that dominate the industry.
How is cotton produced?
There is more than one way to harvest cotton. At the start of production, the harvest was labor intensive and everywhere was picked up and separated by hand.
Today, some countries, such as the United States, use machines to harvest cotton. Mechanical pickers and leaf removers are used. The first picks the cotton ball off the plant, leaving the rest in the ground. The second tears off the cotton balls, along with the leaves and stem of the remaining plant. Both can harvest about six rows of the plant at a time.
However, although machinery has evolved, in many countries cotton is still often harvested by hand. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Organic cotton, for example, is almost exclusively picked by hand, which ensures better quality, as no fibers are damaged in the process. Organic cotton is also much more environmentally friendly (more on that later).
But in some cases, manual picking leads to exploitation. According to a BBC report, in 2014 more than 400,000 children worked on cotton farms in India. Children are sometimes used because they have smaller fingers, but also, according to one farmer, their work ethic is better.
Venkatram Reddy, who owns a farm in Andhra Pradesh, told the BBC: “It's not possible with adults. They don't work as hard and don't show up on time. Even though we pay them both the same salary, they are the children who work sincerely and honestly.”
Child labor in cotton is not exclusive to India. In 2016, a report by the US Department of Labor found that child labor was present in cotton production in 18 countries, including China, Uzbekistan and Brazil.
While many brands and retailers say they do not knowingly buy cotton harvested using child labor, it can be very difficult to trace back. The BBC notes that cotton can change hands a number of times before it arrives at the mill to be made into clothing.
There is, however, a way to ensure that your cotton is produced ethically. When you buy fair trade certified cotton, much of the harvest can still be picked by hand, but workers are treated fairly and child labor is not used. Be sure to look for official fair trade certifications, like this one.
Is cotton bad for the environment?
If the cotton industry was once the pride of the British Empire, it has, like the latter, a flip side. Apart from child labor and exploitation, this soft and fluffy culture has a huge impact on the environment. Excessive cultivation depletes and degrades the soil, and uses enormous amounts of water.
Use of pesticides
Harsh chemicals are used to process cotton. While the conventional cotton industry covers 2.6 % of the earth's land, it uses 6 % of pesticides globally, as well as 16 % of insecticides. Polluted water from this industry flows into rivers and other waterways, harming not only marine life but also human beings.
The drying up of the Aral Sea has been a disaster for the surrounding communities. The Guardian reported in 2014 that the dust, contaminated with salt and pesticides previously absorbed from the lake, was being blown into nearby villages, causing higher rates of throat cancer and respiratory disease.
Ecologist and sustainable fashion designer Katharine Hamnett told the newspaper at the time: "As Vandana Shiva said, 'no species has deliberately engineered its own extinction', but with industrial agriculture, we 'Have done."
Is organic cotton better for the environment?
Organic cotton is not perfect because it still uses resources, but it is much better for the environment than its conventional counterpart.
According to About Organic Cotton, a resource funded by Textile Exchange, a non-profit organization specializing in textile sustainability, organic cotton uses 88 % less water than conventional cotton. According to the environmental group Hubbub, this reduction can reach 91 %. This is because most of this cotton is grown in rain-fed areas, which reduces pressure on other water sources.
Organic cotton is also kinder to the soil. According to the Organic Trade Association, when cotton is grown organically, crop rotation strategies and soil consolidation practices are used. This keeps the soil healthy, which is good for the climate. Healthy soil helps pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
Organic cotton production also does not use toxic chemicals. This last point is non-negotiable, as pesticides are actually banned in organic cotton production. Instead, crop rotation helps protect plants from disease and other threats, such as pests. Discover the eco-designed slippers by lapantouflebio.com.
Is organic cotton biodegradable?
Cotton being a plant, it is naturally biodegradable. But whether or not this process is environmentally friendly depends on the type of cotton. When non-organic cotton biodegrades, all of the chemicals used to process it flow back into the soil, damaging local habitats. Birds and other animals may end up digesting the toxins.
Organic cotton, on the other hand, is not treated with chemicals. So when it decomposes, it is less harmful to the earth. Organic cotton takes up to five months to biodegrade.
Can cotton be recycled?
Looking to get rid of a cotton garment? There are many possibilities. If the item is still in good condition, there is the obvious solution of donating or selling. Look for local charity shops or use resale apps like Depop or Vinted.
If the item is no longer in reasonable condition, you can also check with your local town hall to find out if they accept the clothes for recycling. Some retailers, like H&M and The North Face, accept old clothes for recycling.
Cotton recycling is not a perfect process. According to CottonWorks, an industry resource, cotton must be mixed with other fibers to be made into a new yarn. This blend is necessary to ensure the strength and durability of the cotton, but it cannot be permanently recycled.
One solution is to buy products that are built to last. organic cotton will last longer than conventional cotton because its quality is much better.
Currently, less than one percent of the cotton used worldwide is organic. But Liesl Truscott, director of Europe and materials strategy at Textile Exchange, says consumers can help change that by showing demand and supporting brands that choose organic over conventional.
She told Vogue Australia: “It's about big business investing in supply and creating demand. We need them to improve continuously”.