In 1960, the Aral Sea was the 4th largest lake in the world and represented about twice the size of Belgium. Since then, it has shrunk so much that it is only a tenth of its original size. (1)
This evolution is due to the Soviet Union's decision to turn the surrounding arid lands into cotton fields (and other crops). To achieve this goal, they diverted the two rivers that were purveying the lake and created irrigations. (2) Today, 43 million tons of pesticide-laden dust lands every year over what remains of the Aral Sea and in the area, harming the ecosystem and contaminating the population – which suffers from the highest rate of throat cancers in the world and significant infant mortality.
This is one of the many examples of the massive environmental cost of cotton. With 35 million hectares dedicated to its production and half of our textile made of it, cotton is the most widespread non-food crop in the world. It provides an income to 250 million people and represents 7% of the workforce in developing countries.(3)
Unfortunately, its current production methods are highly unsustainable. 1kg of cotton – enough to make one t-shirt and a pair of denim – requires, on average, 10,000 liters of water. On a global scale, this means 250 billion tons of water go to the annual cotton production.(4)
Social and environmental costs of conventional cotton
In the US, the world's leading exporter, cotton is mostly grown in California and southern states, such as Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, and Arizona. (5) These areas regularly undergo serious droughts, which forced agriculture workers to rely on irrigations and on groundwater (effectively endangering the Ogallala aquifer).
Beyond its water consumption, cotton relies on a massive amount of pesticides and fertilizers where are sources of toxicity and greenhouse gas. According to the WHO, only 2.5% of the world's cultivated lands are growing cotton, but it represents 25% of the pesticides worldwide. In India, half of the pesticides used in agriculture are destined for cotton. And these synthetic fertilizers end up in our waterways, ultimately depriving the lakes, rivers, and oceans along with their inhabitants from oxygen (by algae proliferation) and thus destroying aquatic life. (6)
BT cotton (genetically modified), produced and sold by Bayer-Monsanto
Bayer-Monsanto introduced its BT cotton in the early 2000s. 64% of the world crops (about 90% in the US and in India) are now genetically modified. This GM seed was supposed to be resistant to bollworm, to tolerate the glyphosate herbicide Roundup, and to produce higher yields. (7) They didn’t fulfill their promise: some bollworms developed a form of immunity, other pests increased, toxic pesticides and herbicides remained needed. BT crops were extremely expensive and cannot be re-harvested like normal crops. Therefore, farmers have to repurchase the seeds every year and many fall into extreme debt as a result.
Along with 60 organic farmers, businesses, and agricultural organizations, LaRhea Pepper sued Monsanto for their GMO seeds contaminating their exploitations. (8) She is also a founding member of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative – now the largest organic cotton cooperative in the US – and the co-founder and CEO of Textile Exchange. This global nonprofit (whose team members are almost solely women) aims at promoting sustainable material within the textile industry.
In an interview for the documentary The True Cost, Pepper explained: “Organic agriculture promotes life in the soil, increased biodiversity, increased food-security, ability to mitigate impacts of climate change with stronger carbon sequestration, the reduced use of irrigation where that applies, and the elimination of toxic and persistent pesticides from the water we drink and the air we breathe.”
Organic farming has a 91% lower water consumption, 62% lower energy demand, 46% lower CO2 emissions and leads to 26% of soil erosion. (11) Its quality is usually better, making it longer-lasting. While 1kg of conventional cotton may require up to 2.8 kilograms of pesticides and 363 kilograms of chemical fertilizers, organic cotton relies on natural methods for pest prevention and disease. These include using locally suited resilient crops, wildlife to control pests, and crop rotation that preserves the quality of the soil. (12)
In front of the environmental and social damage of chemically intensive farming, organic cotton appears as the evident solution. But today, it only represents 1% of the global production, and it is grown in merely 18 countries in the world (2017’s data).
Yet, 2020 and 2021 could be a turning point. According to Textile Exchange, the demand has never been so high and the industry actually faced a shortage. Under the pressure of a new generation of environmentally conscious consumers, whose buying power is growing, many brands are shifting to organic cotton. As China grows about 17% of the global organic cotton production, the supply chain was also disturbed by the scandal of forced Uyghur labor in Xinjiang – which forced many companies to try sourcing elsewhere.
Transitioning towards organic cotton can take up to three years and be costly for the agriculture workers, but initiatives are emerging to support farmers in this process. Swedish brand Lindex is doing so through its Women in Cotton project. (14) In partnership with CottonConnect, they fund the training of 350 Indian women in organic farming, business management, health, and labor rights. “As one of the world's largest buyers of organic cotton, we are working to further increase the supply of organic cotton, while at the same time continuing the important work of strengthening women,” (15) explains Lindex sustainability manager Anna-Karin Dahlberg.
If the trend continues, we may see a long and slow replacement of conventional cotton by organic and recycled one, or by alternative materials such as hemp and linen.
Here is a list of resources to know more about sustainable cotton and fibers :
Links and Bibliography :
Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.