Is cotton sustainable and environmentally friendly?

Discover the extent of the impacts of everyday material cotton and if we should be concerned by it. Read about the contribution of cotton to environmental deconstruction and if cotton can be labelled as sustainable regardless of if it is organic.

Is cotton sustainable and environmentally friendly?

Since cotton is used in our everyday lives, I chose to inform others on the extent of its impacts and if we should be concerned by it. Most people are unaware of the problems related to everyday items let alone the significance. As the global crisis for global warming and climate change is being talked about more recently issues have been flagged about the contribution of cotton to the environmental deconstruction. One of the issues is how sustainable the clothes we wear are. In this essay I am going to answer the question “is cotton sustainable and environmentally friendly”. I will discuss the production of the material and if it does cause long term degradation for the environment. For example, herbicides and pesticides can be directly linked to increased pollution in ecosystems. I will consider if cotton can be labelled as sustainable regardless of whether you buy organic or non-organic cotton.

The amount of water used to grow and process cotton is extravagant. Just one cotton t-shirt is equivalent to one and a half years drinking water for one person. This could be considered one of the main reasons why cotton is unsustainable. Unsustainability means it is not able to be maintained at the current rate. “Eighty-five percent of the daily needs in water of the entire population of India would be covered by the water used to grow cotton in the country. One-hundred million people in India do not have access to drinking water.”-Stephan Leahy, the guardian. To put that into perspective India also accounts for only about twenty-four percent of the worlds cotton production.                                                                                             

In a questionnaire I asked, ‘do you think cotton is a sustainable fabric’, thirty-eight percent answered yes. I would disagree as cotton requires on average ten thousand to twenty-thousand litres of water to cultivate just one kilogram of raw cotton. With cotton being the second most produced fibre globally and the use of more water during processing (e.g., cleaning and dying) you cannot even begin to imagine the volume of water used. The cause of the extent of the unsustainability is due to overproduction driven by retailers and consumers increasing demand. In society today fast fashion is so normalised that people continually buy new clothes without stopping to think about the real impacts. If fourteen and a half years’ worth of drinking water for one person is equivalent to one pair of jeans and you own seven jeans and that is over one hundred years just on jeans. Think how many years your whole wardrobe would be equivalent to and how over one billion people suffer from lack of access to water.

In addition, only zero-point seven percent of cotton is grown without fertilisers.                                                       Exposure to the toxic carcinogenic chemicals during production is associated to cancer as well as hormone and birth defects. For example, the Aral Sea was once a vast water reserve but after cotton farms surrounded it the water was used up and the locals were exposed to the toxic barren wasteland with pesticide and chemical residue, they contracted tuberculosis and cancer.                                                            A huge concern is that ninety nine percent of cotton farms are in developing countries which safety regulations, labour and health laws are not implemented therefore child and forced labour occur in addition to the unsafe working conditions.                                                                                                     Sadly, twenty thousand people die of cancer and miscarriages every year because of the chemicals sprayed on the cotton.  Also, cotton fibres are often blended with polyester to control shrinkage. This is negative because it increases the carbon footprint to a larger extent, and it will contribute more to global warming.

Furthermore, the pesticides and insecticides create environmental pollution from run-off which exposes ecosystems to harmful elements which can kill or cause mutations as well as a multiplier effect. It is non-organic cotton which these chemicals are used on, and unfortunately non-organic cotton is the most common cotton grown. Green peace studied clothing from major retailers Levis and Zara, and the results showed they contained toxic levels of the chemicals. Irresponsible farming using harmful chemicals have resulted in over a third of the worlds land unusable. 

On the other hand, cotton could be considered as more environmentally friendly then alternative fabrics because the chemical fibres used in the alternatives are petroleum based therefore use non-renewable resources compared to cotton which is renewable. Organic cotton has strict standards and is not produced with artificial chemicals. There has also been new technology to reduce the carbon footprint of cotton including artificial selection to create insect and drought resistant varieties. However, it can be argued that even though the cotton plants are renewable they do still cause significant environmental damage including water scarcity as discussed above, using non-renewable energy sources when processing and packaging cotton. Additionally with using selective breeding the species may become threatened and, in the future, because the path of evolution changes the plants could lack the ability to adapt to the new environmental conditions, especially as the change is more rapid due to global warming. On top of that, the desired traits can take twenty-five to fifty years to become a foundational component of the plant and with the global temperatures rising the conditions might have changed and other characteristics are more ideal. 

Given these points cotton is far from a sustainable fabric. Although organic cotton combats some environmental and social damage it does not solve the enormous energy and water consumption and time to replenish harvests. It is also estimated that organic cotton to only be 0.6 percent of global cotton production with all the worlds organic cotton supply fitting on just one medium-sized cargo ship.

Also, organic cotton does not mean it is pure cotton, other man-made fibres could have been added to the cotton to save money or to make the fabric more ideal for its purpose therefore increasing the total carbon footprint.

With everything considered, because of the magnitude of non-organic cotton grown and produced cotton should not ever be labelled as sustainable. The immeasurable amount of water used and all the ethical concerns that accompanies it makes for a material that is nothing like an environmentally friendly one. On reflection, my research has caused my view on cotton to alter, at the beginning I knew cotton had a few negatives to the environment however I not am aware that it is a gigantic issue, and it has made me reconsider the way I buy my clothes and research the companies’ sustainability beforehand.


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