Contrary to what many think, conventional cotton production is not great for the health of our environment. If you compare cotton to polyester, you may find it the eco-friendlier choice because of its biodegradability. However, because cotton fibers will eventually decompose into soil nutrients, it does not make it environmentally inconsequential.
Cotton is a popular material in the textile industry and the most used natural fiber for manufacturing cloth for our clothes. It accounts for 33% of all fibers used in textiles and is one of the world’s top cash crops5. Humans have applied the versatile natural fiber to many uses, from fashion to home furnishing and industrial applications.
Cotton production employs over 250 million people globally6. The crop is the most popular, profitable, non-food crop globally, even though it occupies only about 2.5% of its arable land. Growing cotton employs around 7% of the total workforce in developing countries.
Cotton cultivation is vital to the economy; however, it costs the planet. Below are some ways the cotton plant is affecting the environment.
Carbon emissions from cotton production amount to around 220 million metric tons yearly7. Regular cotton uses a considerable amount of synthetic fertilizers, which release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Other unsustainable practices like deforestation and heavy chemical use also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
Cotton is water-intensive as a crop and in manufacturing. About 2,700 liters of water are needed to produce a single cotton t-shirt. That is enough drinking water for an individual for two and a half years. Dyed cotton fabrics look great, but dyeing fabrics consume about 5 trillion liters of water every year worldwide. About 20,000 liters of water is needed to produce a kilogram of cotton fiber.
Some say that cotton is the largest user of water resources out of all agricultural commodities. In most situations, this demand is unsustainable.
The cotton plant needs a lot of water to thrive and produce a profitable yield. Cotton cultivation accounts for about 69% of the textiles industry’s fiber production water footprint. In Central Asia, the Aral sea faced a crisis that depleted its surface water resources to almost 10% of its original volume. This happened primarily due to cotton farmers diverting the seawater for irrigation. The Aral sea disaster is one of the most severe climate disasters known to humans. Cotton’s water thirst also affected the Indus River, with about 97% of its waste irrigating cotton fields.
They channel surface and ground waters to irrigate cotton fields in many other places. This practice has caused water loss through evaporation, poor management, and soil erosion.
The World Economic Forum stated that water scarcity is one of the top 10 problems the world may face in the next ten years. According to a report by the soil association, two-thirds of the world’s population may have to endure water shortages by 2025.
Cotton farms are usually monocultural. And as with monocultural systems sustained for decades, the soil quality suffers degradation. The global area devoted to farming cotton has been more or less constant over the last 70 years. However, exhaustion has led to expansion into new areas. The expansion directly causes deforestation and wildlife habitat loss.
There is also a high risk of topsoil erosion as tree cover is absent on those farms. Erosions can lead to sediment build-up to a dangerous level to aquatic life. Research has proven that high sedimentation in streams and rivers can reduce the density of marine organisms like invertebrates and fish. It can also cause water temperatures to rise and reduce its oxygen.
Chemical use in cotton-growing also harms the soil. It hinders the ability of the soil to filtrate water and sequester carbon while damaging natural soil fertility.
Cotton farming, the conventional way, uses a lot of harmful chemicals to control pests and boost production. The heavy use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers harms the environment over time. These toxic chemicals also threaten human health, wildlife, water, and soil.
Cotton uses 24% and 11% of the world’s insecticides and pesticides, respectively. It also uses 4% of the world’s artificial phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers3. Cotton is the third crop with the most pesticide use in the US. In 2017, growers used about 48 million pounds in growing cotton. Experts estimate that cotton consumes 8 million tonnes of synthetic fertilizers and 200,000 tonnes of pesticides globally every year.
Out of the top ten pesticides used in cotton farming in 2017, glyphosate, diuron, and tribufos are considered human carcinogens. The rest are potential endocrine disruptors and toxic to bees.
Farmers and people who live close to heavily polluted cotton farms may suffer health injuries caused by toxicity. Glyphosate, in particular, can cause genetic damage and congenital disabilities1.
Scientists have recovered significant amounts of glyphosate in the air and water around the Mississippi River area. This is evidence of the mobility of agricultural chemicals from the point of use into the environment. According to the FDA, The chemical has also been found in many foods.
Sometimes the clothes and fabric made from chemical-intensive cotton cultivation have traces of pesticides in them. This is a potential health hazard, especially for people with sensitive skin.
Brightly colored or pristine white cotton appeals to consumers, but many people are unaware of the environmental costs. The fashion industry accounts for around 20% of industrial water pollution. All the dyeing, bleaching, and various chemical treatments cotton goes through contribute to that figure.
Run-off wastewater from production contains pesticides, toxic dyes, chlorine, and other chemicals used to process the crop into fiber and clothing. These pollutants enter water systems like rivers, lakes, wetlands, and underground aquifers and contaminate them. Rainwater in the Brazilian cotton region was found to contain 19 pesticides4, 12 directly attributable to cotton farming.
Pollution from processing cotton into cotton clothes or fabric for industrial use can affect humans as much as it affects wildlife and the environment.
Scientists genetically modified some cotton species to have certain qualities to increase productivity and profitability. Some of the qualities of genetically engineered cotton include insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.
GMO cotton has been widely accepted all over the world. About 90% of GMO cotton is grown in China, Argentina, Mexico, the United States, Paraguay, Australia, India, Pakistan, and South Africa.
GMO crops may produce high yields, but some types of genetically modified cotton are not great for the environment. In 2017, 10 farmers in the US sued the agricultural biotech company Monsanto. The farmers claimed that the company’s dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybean crops led to the inevitable, illegal spraying of dicamba herbicide—this extremely volatile herbicide which is prone to drifting, resulted in crop damage and pollution.
The intensive use of inappropriate insecticides to grow cotton has caused at least 40 weed species to develop resistance to glyphosate. It has also allowed some lepidopteran insects to develop resistance to the protective genes in Bt cotton. There is also a risk of genetically modified gene transfer to wild crops2.
It would be extremely difficult and almost impossible to stop cotton production totally. That is why the world needs a better way to grow cotton. Many believe organic cotton is a more sustainable alternative to regular cotton. It appears to solve the environmental issues that are associated with conventional cotton.
If the world switched to organic cotton, we could reduce the global warming potential of cotton by 46%. There could also be 70% less acidification and 26% less eutrophication potential. Also, genetic modification is not allowed in organic cotton cultivation. This makes it safer for workers and consumers.
Growing cotton organically involves practices like crop rotation, biological pest control, and water conservation.
Organic cotton consumes fewer chemicals and resources compared to regular cotton. It uses 62% less energy and 88% less water. It does not strain rivers and seas as 80% of organic cotton is rain-fed. Cotton grown organically does not use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Instead, it uses natural pest management methods. This translates to less environmental pollution alongside improved soil health.
Third-party organizations that certify organic cotton include Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS), Fairtrade cotton, and REEL Cotton Programme. Other certification organizations include Cleaner Cotton, Cotton made in Africa, ISCC and myBMP.
These organizations have specific qualities they consider essential for cotton products to earn certification. There may be differences in these qualities that consumers are encouraged to note. So they can pick products with certification that reflect their ideal of what environmentally-friendly cotton should be.
For example, GOTS will certify products that meet a 70% organic standard, while Fairtrade will certify ethical labor practices and traceability. BCI is not strict on using natural pesticides only, and they encourage integrated pest management, which bans about 13 of the most toxic chemicals.
Read More: Organic Cotton Fabric & Sustainability
Consumers have the choice to demand ethical cotton. Sustainable fashion holds fashion brands responsible not just for the materials that go into their product but also for how they are produced and sourced. A shift in consumer attitude from picking whatever is on the rack to deliberate purchasing based on sustainability can positively influence the apparel industry. It can reduce the social and environmental impact of cotton.
The social impact of cotton includes unfair trade practices, forced labor, and child labor.
About 90% of cotton farmers live in low-income countries. Fairtrade practices ensure that they get appropriate rewards for their labor. It also provides a buffer against extreme price fluctuations that may render farmers unable to earn enough to live on.
Children as young as age five have already been sent to work in cotton fields and ginning factories in Uzbekistan, India, and Egypt. Sustainable clothing choices can help to curb child and forced labor in the cotton industry.
The fast fashion industry operates in such a way that even natural fibers like cotton are becoming problematic to environmental health. Even with relatively safe pesticide use and low water consumption, organic cotton still takes energy and some resources to produce. The best way to ensure the energy and resources don’t go to waste is efficient use. Make sure to use your cotton products for as long as possible.
You can also buy clothing made from sustainable fashion brands using other sustainable materials like recycled polyester, hemp, wool, and linen.
Clothing is an essential human need, but humans may wear the planet into disastrous climate change without adequate sustainability measures.
With all the advantages of organic cotton over conventional cotton, it still struggles to gain competitive consumer acceptance. In 2015, global cotton production was about 26 million metric tonnes, but less than 1% was organic.
Sustainability in the textile manufacturing sector is improving; currently, 19% of cotton production globally is organic. However, there is still much more to be done in our move to a more sustainable alternative.
Parvez, S., Gerona, R.R., Proctor, C. et al. Glyphosate exposure in pregnancy and shortened gestational length: a prospective Indiana birth cohort study. Environ Health 17, 23 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0367-0
Evaluation of the Impact of Genetically Modified Cotton After 20 Years of Cultivation in Mexico, Rocha-Munive at al, Front. Bioeng. Biotechnol., 22 June 2018, https://doi.org/10.3389/fbioe.2018.00082
Shepherd, H. (2019). Thirst for Fashion? How Organic Cotton Delivers in a Water-Stressed World. Soil Association
Deadly Chemicals in Cotton (pdf), Environmental Justice Foundation & Pesticide Action Network.
Deborah Drew and Genevieve Yehounme (2017) The apparel industry's environmental impacts in 6 graphics. World Resources Institute.
Cotton. Sustainable Agriculture. World Wildlife Foundation.
Cotton and the environment. Organic Trade Association
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.