The Truth About Cotton: The Environmental Impact and What Options you Have

I'm a great believer in living harmoniously with nature, minimizing my negative impact on the planet, and positively impacting people and communities.

The cotton industry, although a huge part of the global economy, that largely undermines those values; not only being extremely harmful to the planet but also a trade in which slavery has been prominent since its inception centuries ago.

Synthetic Pesticides and Fertilisers

It's not the material itself that is harmful but the production methods, and with cotton production predicted to reach 82.8 million bales by August 2023, the impact is vast.

Cotton field - why the cotton industry is bad for the environment

It's the largest non-food crop and the most widespread textile. But keeping up with fast fashion means that crops need to mature quickly. And, the truth is that cotton crops are not that hardy, being susceptible to bad weather and pests. The solution? The industry has responded by using chemical fertilizers and harmful pesticides that not only protect crops but speed up production too.

This response is having a dramatic effect on the planet, with 4.5% of the world's pesticides being used on these crops, and that doesn't include the liberal use of insecticides and herbicides too.

There are still a lot of gaps in tracing pollution from the industry, with true figures not being recorded and publicized. Even so, pollution from pesticides is often found in neighboring water bodies to crops, as well as being evident in the degradation of soil.

Extensive use of Water

Fashion is a thirsty business, and cotton production is no exception. The latest figures show that crops use 93 billion cubic meters of water per year, and this figure is set to grow due to climate change and dryer landscapes that will see these crops demanding even more water to thrive.

The consumption of water is used both in agriculture and industrial phases; this includes:

  • Collecting water
  • Evaporation following collection
  • Water used for irrigation (watering systems for crops)
  • Industrial and pesticide pollution - diminishing freshwater supplies

Conservation of our freshwater supply is important, it not only means using less energy (through filtering, pumping, and heating), but it also means preserving wild habitats and ensuring that everyone has fair access to fresh water.

People; the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

As a multi-billion industry, cotton farmers and producers are, of course, there to make a profit, and maximizing that profit at the expense of people is a mistake made too often.

Forced labor is not buried in the past, with many anti-slavery groups seeking an end to these practices, even today.

A prime example is Uzbekistan, in central Asia. The Uzbek government has been accused of using forced child labor in their cotton fields, with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) confirming that this is the case.

The ILO is calling for an end to these practices and for the Uzbek government to honor their commitment to eradicate forced child labor by 2025. Still, until then, many children will continue to be used as slaves in the industry - all in the name of fashion.

Cotton farming is also hurting local communities. In Africa, small-scale farmers are being pushed out as large-scale farms increasingly monopolize land and water resources. This not only threatens food security for those farmers who can no longer farm but also increases poverty and hunger.

So Organic Cotton is Different, but What Makes it Better?

Organic cotton is farmed without the use of any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, making it a more environmentally sustainable option.

It also means that organic farmers are not contributing to water pollution, and they are using fewer resources overall, by working with instead of against nature.

In terms of labor, the organic farms must adhere to strict environmental and social standards to meet certification. This means that the use of child or forced labor is prohibited. So when you buy organic cotton, you can be sure that the people involved in growing and producing it have been treated fairly.

The Bottom Line

Cotton is an important crop, but the way it is currently being grown and produced is having a detrimental effect on both people and the planet.

Organic cotton provides a more sustainable alternative that doesn't sacrifice people or the environment in the name of fashion.

The next time you need to buy some new clothes, make the switch to organic and help make a difference.

What are my Options?

While the organic option does have a higher price tag, it is worth investing in  to help support more sustainable practices that underpin positive change for both the environment and people. 

There is plenty to choose from, with organic cotton clothing being offered both from independent manufacturers, like myself, and some of your favorite brands.

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