THE DIRT ON
Yogita Kanhaiya’s husband, a conventional cotton farmer, won’t be around to see their young children turn into adults. His forays in growing cotton didn’t go as he imagined, and he fell into such extraordinary debt that he chose “death over distress.” Yogita’s father-in-law, also a cotton farmer, came to the same decision eight years prior, falling victim to the insurmountable costs of growing cotton conventionally and the lack of rewards for his efforts. Their stories are all too familiar in Western India’s cotton belt, where one cotton grower commits suicide every eight hours (CNN, 2015).
It’s one of the many dirty secrets of conventional cotton, that’s not-so-secret anymore. Traditional methods for cultivating cotton are destructive to the environment, damaging to the workers who produce it, and far less cost-effective compared to organic production. So why do we grow cotton conventionally in the first place?
“The fabric of our lives,” cotton makes up nearly 50% of the material used to make clothing worldwide, totalling three billion items of clothing produced annually. As the world’s most important non-food crop (ELD, 2017), production needs to meet the high demands for cotton. And so, farmers turn to conventional methods, which prioritize high yields above all else.
Conventional cotton, like other conventional crops, is grown using synthetic chemicals, genetically-modified organisms and a host of other industrial products. Most conventional growers employ large amounts of agrichemicals to maximize their potential yield, with little care for soil fertility, biodiversity and the health of ecosystems. The result of these “bigger, stronger and faster” plants are massive environmental and social costs. To put it into perspective, let’s break it down in terms of numbers…
Cotton covers just 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land, but conventional cotton farmers use
annually (PAN UK, 2017). That’s more than any other single major crop, period. In the United States, conventional cotton is the fourth most heavily fertilized crop, behind corn, winter wheat and soybeans (USDA, 2003).
Insects, fungi and other pests eventually become resistant to the pesticides available, so more harmful chemicals are created. The more powerful the pesticides, the less likely pollinating insects and other beneficial species have at surviving. This is a contributing factor for the plunging population of honey bees (Carrington, 2021).
Agrichemicals contaminate the soil we use to grow crops, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. In fact,
are released into our atmosphere every year from the global production of conventional cotton (Soil Association, 2015).
In addition to destroying the environment, the chemicals used in growing conventional cotton can cause serious illness - cancer, neurological diseases, reproductive issues - and even death to farm workers. In Benin, conventional cotton farming households each lose an average of
stemming from agrichemical use (ELD, 2017).
Conventional cotton is also a very thirsty plant. It takes
(UNESCO-IHE, 2005). To compare, it would take the average person 30 years to drink the same amount of water.
Conventional cotton fields are also frequently grown in areas where freshwater is already in short supply and irrigated with systems that deplete the surface and groundwater. This disrupts the natural water ecosystem, reduces water quality and creates water scarcity.
Not only does conventional cotton have detrimental effects on the environment, it also carries heavy social consequences. In 2013 alone,
in India (CNN, 2015). That comes out to 44 farmers a day. Conventional cotton growers typically live in developing countries, work extremely long hours, are constantly exposed to poisonous substances, and take home very little wages. Their earnings are so meager, many have growing debts that eventually become unmanageable. Other factors like climate change, decreasing prices of cotton and tough competition do not make things easier for conventional cotton farmers.
CONVENTIONAL COTTON ALTERNATIVES
It’s quite evident that conventional cotton is far from sustainable. So what are our more eco-friendly options? Keep in mind, there is no holy grail fabric. The alternatives we list below are more ecological than conventional cotton, but each carry their own limitations.
Organic cotton farmers rely on crop rotation, resistant and tolerant varieties, and beneficial insects to manage pests, soil nutrition and soilborne diseases. Organic cotton is grown without synthetic and toxic pesticides, thereby alleviating many of the negative environmental effects we see in conventional cotton farming. If all conventional cotton growers switched to organic methods, the overall global warming impact of cotton farming would reduce by 46% (Soil Association, 2015).
Hemp keeps you warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and even protects you from harmful UV rays.
A natural weed, hemp easily grows without the need for chemical herbicides or pesticides. The plant cleans the soil by bonding heavy metals to its fiber, its deep roots naturally aerate the soil, and its leaves add organic matter to the field. Hemp uses 50% less water, and can produce up to double the fiber yield per hectare, compared to cotton.
Linen is the luxurious “it” fabric of the summer, great for lounging in the tropics and exploring the jungle. The strong, light cloth absorbs moisture and is naturally moth- and bacteria-resistant.
Linen is spun from flax, which can grow in poor-quality soil. The plant requires very few pesticides and minimal water, and when the plant fibers are left undeyed, linen is 100% biodegradable.
Bamboo is light, durable, breathable and soft in nature, making it a great alternative to cotton. It absorbs more water, has more antistatic properties and is more deodorizing than cotton fabric.
Bamboo is fast-growing and drought-resistant. It takes in five times the amount of greenhouse gases and puts out 35% more oxygen than a comparable stand of trees. Bamboo plants improve soil fertility, limit erosion and can easily grow without watering, pesticides or insecticides.
Lyocell has great strength, efficient moisture absorption and is exquisitely soft and pleasant to the skin. It’s often blended with other fibers - cotton, polyester, acrylic, wool and silk - to improve the softness and comfort of fabrics. Lyocell is 50% more absorbent than cotton and has moisture-wicking and anti-bacterial properties.
An innovative fiber, lyocell is created by dissolving wood pulp, often from sustainably-farmed eucalyptus trees. Production requires less energy and water than cotton, and the chemicals used are recycled to reduce dangerous waste.
JOIN THE FIGHT AGAINST CONVENTIONAL COTTON
Opting for more sustainable fabrics isn’t the only thing you can do to push conventional cotton out of the fashion picture. Below are more ways to take a stand and elicit positive change:
- Fair Wear Foundation is a movement that believes a truly sustainable garment is not only good for the planet, but also for the people who make them. By supporting Fair Wear member brands, you’re also taking part in improving the lives and working conditions of everyone along the supply chain.
- Fashion Revolution is on a quest to scrutinize common industry practices, raise awareness of pressing problems, and encourage a more ethical, sustainable and transparent future for fashion. It’s a great place to educate yourself about the fashion industry and learn how you can make a difference.
- Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability. When purchasing from a B Corp, you can trust that their product was made with careful considerations to the environment and the people involved in the process.
Let’s join hands and fight against the use of conventional cotton, and for a better future for fashion.
Sources & Further Information
Carrington, Damian (2021). Insect populations suffering death by 1,000 cuts. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/11/insect-populations-suffering-death-1000-cuts-scientists
Chapagain, Hoekstra, Savenije & Gautam (UNESCO-IHE, 2005). The water footprint of cotton consumption. Available from: https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report18.pdf
The Economics of Land Degradation (ELD, 2017). A case study from the municipality of Banikoara, Benin: The economics of conventional and organic cotton production. Available from: https://www.greengrowthknowledge.org/sites/default/files/downloads/best-practices/ELD_Benin.pdf
PAN UK (2017). Empowering cotton farmers in Africa. Available from: http://www.pan-uk.org/cotton/
Pokharel, Sugam (CNN, 2015). Why India’s cotton farmers are killing themselves. Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/19/asia/india-cotton-farmers-suicide/index.html
Soil Association (2015). Cool Cotton: Organic cotton and climate change. Available from: https://www.soilassociation.org/media/11662/coolcotton.pdf
- S. Department of Agriculture (USDA, 2003). Agricultural Chemical Usage: 2003 Field Crop Summary.