Going Green — The Benefits of Organic Cotton
Updated: Aug 31, 2020
Written by Ines Karu-Salo, Sign2Act. First published at Medium.
The global apparel retail market is currently worth $1.34 trillion in retail sales per year (without footwear and jewellery). These figures are set to increase by 13% by 2021 but the estimated increase in value for the market is only 8% (4*). This worrying truth points to a continuing ongoing shift in production towards more lower-value items — fast fashion is putting the future of our planet at risk as textile production is already one of the most polluting industries (8*). „If we continue with the course we are on, our destiny may indeed be to leave behind an unlivable planet of destroyed ecosysyems and continuous, unpredictable chaos. But there is another potential future that lies ahead, a future where we embrace the goal of a sustainable planetary existence and take the steps now to ensure that we preserve the health of our planet for generations to come“(10*). Efforts to green this polluting industry require action from both, businesses and consumers.
First of all, we need to recognise the possibly permanent damage we are doing to the Earth, to ourselves and understand that it’s truly up to us to change our course of action. Secondly, we need to learn and go on start living more sustainably. This blog post is the first part of the Going Green series by me and it focuses on demonstrating why choosing organic cotton can lead us towards a better future.
“Organic cotton production requires significantly less water, is far less polluting, keeps an eye on humans and animals welfare, helps farmers feed their families and combats climate change”
Cotton is the most used natural fibre — making up around 21%of all fibre used in apparel production but also one of the most environmentally demanding crops (4*). Organic cotton production (1) requires significantly less water, (2) is far less polluting, (3) keeps an eye on humans and animals welfare, (4) helps farmers feed their families and (5) combats climate change:
According to a report by the World Economic Forum, the water crisis is one of the greatest global risk in terms of impact to society. The textiles production industry uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water a year, accounting for 4% of global freshwater withdrawal (*1). Sourcing cotton from certified sustainable farming can make a major difference to fashion’s water footprint.
Cotton production makes up 69% of this overall water footprint (1*), with one kilogram of cotton taking as much as 10,000–20,000 litres of water to produce. The majority of this water footprint comes from cotton farming (8*, 9*).
Processing of cotton into products (fabrics, garments etc.) requires as much as 200 tonnes of water for every tonne of textiles produced. It’s estimated that processing (including spinning, dyeing, finishing) a kilogram of fibre (different materials) requires 100 to 150 litres of water (1*, 4*).
Organic cotton is grown using techniques that help to conserve water. Organic soils require less irrigation — 80% of the land producing organic cotton is located in areas which are predominantly rainfed. Organic cotton reduces water consumption by 91% compared to conventionally grown cotton (1*).
Conventional cotton farming uses high levels of pesticides and toxic chemicals that seep into the Earth. Organic cotton farmers take extra care to protect the environment, animals and people — conserve water, support biodiversity and healthy soils, eliminate hazardous toxic pesticides from water, soil and air.
Global cotton production requires 200,000 tonnes of pesticides and 8 million tonnes of synthetic fertilisers every year. Cotton production uses 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, yet it accounts for 16% of all insecticides sold globally (1*, 6*).
The usage of high levels of pesticides and toxic chemicals impact farmers and local communities. The World Health Organisation figures show show that in developing countries approximately 20,000 individualsdie of cancer and suffer miscarriages as a result of chemicals sprayed on conventional cotton.
The Grey Water Footprint (GWF) of conventional cotton production can be between 5 and 22 times higher than that of organic cotton.
Around 20% of all global industrial water pollution results from the dyeing, treatment of textiles (4*). Dyeing and finishing of textiles, including cotton, can require as much as 200 tonnes of water for every tonne of textiles produced (1*).
Most of the toxic chemicals can remain present in water (rivers, lakes and the sea) and soils for many years. These persistent toxins can bio-accumulate through the food chain leading to serious illnesses for both animals and humans. Some of the chemicals and dyes used in the manufacture of cotton have been found can even cause cancer and disrupt hormones (1*).
Organic cotton benefits human health as farmers support the growth of healthy crops by using a range of natural techniques and low impact chemicals. Organic cotton farming don’t use toxic hazardous pesticides and artificial fertilisers. It is suggested that the pesticide use would drop by 98% if all farming was organic (1*). The Global Organic Textile Standard aka GOTS ensures factories have met strict social and environmental criteria.
Cotton farming supports an estimated 250 million livelihoods, accounting for almost 7% of employment in some low income countries (1*).
Cotton farmers in developing countries (including India and China) live in hardship. Cotton is vital for the survival of many low income countries in Central and West Asia and Africa but the challenges range from the impact of climate change, poor prices for seed cotton, through to competition from highly subsidised producers in rich countries and poor terms of trade (3*).
Organic cotton farmers have safe working conditions and workers’ rights are protected. Organic and fairtrade cotton production helps farmers feed their families (1*, 3*).
GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS
If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world (5*). Cotton production has a smaller greenhouse gas footprint (approximately 300 pounds of carbon equivalent emissions per acre) than polyester has but fertiliser use releases nitrous oxide — a greenhouse gas with 300 times more warming power than CO2 (4*).
How accurately growers are able to tailor nitrogen application to their crop’s actual needs — is a huge focus for cotton growers. For example, regular cotton farming uses synthetic mineral fertilisers, which are high in nitrogen and phosphorus — these are used to feed crops. Organic farmers improve soil fertility using natural inputs such as farmyard manure and compost, which supports the health of soils in the long-term (1*).
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS
Organic cotton supports the following Sustainable Development Goals laid out by the United Nations in 2015:
Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Organic cotton is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. Farming cotton this way has less impact on our planet (nature, people, animals), health and the people growing the cotton.
1* Soil Association's report “Thirsty for Fashion” by Hattie Shepherd, 2019. If you are interested in reading the latest report from the Soil Association that highlights the disastrous impact of cotton farming on water and how organic cotton offers a solution, then click here.
2* The Global Risks Report 2019 by the World Economic Forum
3* Cotton Farmers by Fairtrade Foundation
4* Sustainability Issues by Common Objective
5* Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2017 by Global Fashion Agenda
6* Childrens Health and the Environment by WHO
7* Toward Sustainable Water Use in the Cotton Supply Chain by Water Footprint Network
8* Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability by Environmental Audit Committee
9* Valuing Our Clothes: the cost of UK fashion 2017 by WRAP
10* Book “The Madhouse Effect” by M.E.Mann and T.Toles