The Cotton Problem: From “King” to “Sin”
Written by Adam Hudson
Cotton is a staple item in most households around the world and has been for many years. As my old history teacher used to say, in a strong northern accent, “cotton was king”, citing the boom of the industry during the time of the British Empire. Can maybe include this further down? The first paragraph needs to be super concise and to the point - again just how google likes this annoyingly. It’s something we might not necessarily view has having a dark side – being presented as a fresh, natural fibre we can all love and enjoy. Yet, cotton has a secret, a sinful secret.
Cotton production has been linked to causing an ecological disaster, is responsible for mass worker exploitation, pollution and it uses a heck of a lot of chemicals and pesticides – meaning it is a whole lot dirtier product than pictures like the one above make it seem. You may ask, where is the evidence for all this? And what exactly are the alternatives? Read on to find out.
Why is Cotton Bad?
Well, the conventional production of this popular material i.e. the intensive, industrial scale of cotton production, has been dubbed “unsustainable” by the WWF under current forms of production, as it causes major environmental and social problems.
The Environmental Impact of Cotton
Overly intensive farming has led to a ‘mono-crop’ culture, which is …… A recent report by the Soil Association “Thirsty for Fashion” found this is resulting in soil degradation globally.
A 2008 book by Kate Fletcher on Sustainability and Textiles (side note, great read!) estimated one quarter of the world’s insecticides (insect killers) were used for cotton production. The owner of the clothing brand Patagonia and environmental campaigner, Yvon Chouinard, labelled cotton fields “killing fields” in a speech at the University of California.
One of the most surprising things for me, however, was the water usage. It can take 20,000 litres (L) of water to produce one kilogramme of cotton, so about one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. To put that into context, on average a single-person household uses 149L per day for washing, drinking, cooking etc – so that makes 7748L per year. Therefore, the production of a t-shirt and a pair of jeans’ uses the same amount of water as an average one-person household does, for everyday activities, for 2.5 years.
The Human Cost of Cotton
Cotton has been tied to human exploitation for years, going back to “king cotton”.Production during the industrial revolution relied on slave labour in the fields and workers in the factories being paid low wages. Unfortunately, human exploitation within production is not in the past.
According to the World Vision Action campaign, 99% of the cotton production workers live and work in developing countries where working standards are often contentious. Children are often forced to work. For example, in Uzbekistan children are forced out of class to go and harvest cotton in the summer, exposing the children to harsh heat, gruelling manual work and extremely low pay.
Health problems are also commonplace in the industry. Not only are pesticides environmentally dangerous, they also are harmful to the workers – with commonly used pesticides, such as aldicarb, phorate and methamidophos (and more complicated, hard to pronounce names), being classed as moderately – highly dangerous. Further dyes used to colour the textiles pollute waterways, resulting in water used by the poor to become filled with nasty chemicals
Whatever happened to the Aral Sea?
Cotton’s extreme water use has been found to of greatly contributed to the destruction of the Aral Sea, located on the Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan border. Acceleration of production in the 1960s was led by the diversion of the Aral Sea’s two main river arteries, Amu Darya and Syr, for irrigation. This brought wealth; however, it made the desert region economically reliant on cotton. It began to have catastrophic consequences as demand for production grew and the body of water shrunk.
The Aral Sea was the lifeblood of many communities, wildlife, biodiversity and with its shrinking, these systems collapsed. In place of the former sea, a dust bowl filled with damaging chemical from pesticides and fertilisers flew around the region generating further problems for local wildlife and drastic health problems for the local communities such as tuberculosis, respiratory problems and cancers.
The Current State of the Sea.
The body of water, at full strength, has been depleted to about a quarter of its 1960 size. The livelihoods it once supported have diminished, with an estimated 70% unemployment rate for local residents. There has been some success in saving the Northern part of the sea, which was achieved by building a dam and enforcing stricter regulations. Subsequently, communities still reside their and wildlife has begun to return. In comparison to the original size of the lake, however, this is a small win in an otherwise sad story.
If you would like to see visual evidence of the Aral Sea’s reduction since the 1960s please follow the link to the Nasa website here.
Is All Cotton that Bad?
This is all rather negative, but don’t worry, we’re going to tell you the good news!
After realising the problems relating to cotton product in the 1990s, Patagonia, decided all their cotton products needed to be organically grown. They were one of the first companies in the US to demand the product on a large scale, thus, they were a key player in helping to expand the market to what it is today – roughly worth $4bn.
The benefits of organic cotton are:
- It functions like regular cotton;
- It is still easy to clean;
- Largely looks and feels the same – if anything it can feel better!
- By not using harmful pesticides, using less water and ensuring fair pay and conditions, production is better the environment, workers and communities.
However, it is not without issue. The lower yield of organic cotton means it may never replace conventional cotton – furthermore, lower yield equals more land needed to produce the same amount, so, in a world where the population is ever increasing, organic cotton will not be the only solution. Furthermore, it remains incredibly water intensive, the problems of which we have outlined above.
So, what are the alternatives?
More alternatives will be discussed in later blogs in more detail, however, here is a brief summary of some direct alternatives with greater sustainable credentials than cotton.
- Deadstock – using any old fabric that would otherwise go to landfill for creating something new. This ensures less waste and the resources going into the textile initially are not wasted.
- Bamboo – can be used for clothing, positives are plant growth achieved without input of chemicals or water, and is fast growing, however it is less durable and more difficult to maintain.
- Tencel – this material has huge potential and is made of wood from sustainably managed forests (we’re quite partial to it here at Virgo & Co!).
What about the Cotton I already own?
Now, by no means does this information mean you should go and throw your cotton products away – that would be a huge waste! If you have cotton clothes or other textiles (I have many) from over the years, the best thing to do with it, is to use it. The waste and pollution caused by clothing is huge, and all the resources that went into making the product will be wasted!
However, next time you buy new clothes or home furnishings, consider what fabrics they are made from, then gradually over time you can make your textile collection more sustainable! There are many more ways than I have mentioned to do this, and it is important to remember that there is no one answer, no one perfect solution (I know, annoying) – however there are plenty of ways, as will be discussed in other posts here at Virgo and Co.
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Choudhury, Asim K. Roy. 2017. “Sustainable chemical technologies for textile production”. In ed. Muthu, S. Sustainable Fibres and Textiles, Duxford: Woodhead Publishing
Chouinard, Y and Brown, M. 1997. Going Organic: Converting Patagonia’s cotton production line. Journal of Industrial Ecology. 1(1), pp.117-129.
Chouinard, Y. 2011. Reflections of a green business pioneer. University of California Television: Institute of the environment. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AoXkUmmAetM
Fletcher, K. 2008. Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys. London: Routledge.
Goworek, H. 2011. Social and environmental sustainability in the clothing industry: A case study of a fair-trade retailer. Social Responsibility Journal. 7(1), pp.74-86.
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