Cotton represents 26% of the raw material used in the production of clothing. It is the basis of our protagonist fabric, the denim.
With 25.9 million tonnes grown annuallyIn the light of the high demand for this commodity, it is crucial to understand what is involved in its production, and to take a closer look at some of the problems, concerns and solutions.
As a natural fibre, cotton has the advantage over polyester of being biodegradable under conditions that allow it to biodegrade (not in landfills). However, its cultivation and production is linked to claims of pollution and labour exploitation.
Environmental impact of conventional cotton
Worldwide, 2.5% of the total fertile land is used for the cultivation of this fibre, which must also be planted in dry regions and arid climates. Despite needing these conditions to survive, the water demand for its cultivation is very high. It requires 4% of the freshwater reserveis required, making it one of the thirstiest crops in the world. In India alone, a country where 100 million people do not have access to clean drinking water, the water used for cotton production would be enough to provide 85% of the country's 1.24 billion inhabitants with 100 litres of water every day for 1 year. For the production of a single LEVIS 501 jean, the following is needed 3,781 litres of water. Enough water for one person to drink for 1,260 days.
On the other hand, cotton cultivation accounts for 16% of all pesticides used. According to a Remake study, hazardous pesticides applied, including petroleum residues, heavy metals, flame retardants, ammonia and formaldehyde, can also be detected on our clothes. Even after several washes. Therefore, the use of pesticides is not only harmful to those who work in the fields, but also to those who wear the finished garment.
The fertilisers used also have a major environmental impact. By leaching into groundwater, nitrate and phosphorus reach rivers and lakes causing exponential algal blooms that lead to an imbalance in the aquatic ecosystem. Recent studies have shown that this also happens with microfibres that are released from laundry and reach the oceans.
Can cotton be sustainable?
Yes, it is possible.
The organic cotton has been perceived as the hero of sustainable fashion. It is a promising solution as it is grown without the use of pesticides, from seeds that have not been genetically modified.
Organic farmers use natural techniques instead of fossil fuel fertilisers to grow their cotton. This represents a 26% reduction in waterway pollution. Chemical-free farmland even remains fertile for much longer than land that is hindered by the constant use of pesticides. By building better soils and not relying on artificial inputs, organic cotton farming has been shown to have a 46% reduced global warming potential compared to conventionally grown cotton.
In addition, by using rainwater harvesting techniques for crop irrigation (a technique widely used in organic cotton cultivation), water savings of up to 91% could be achieved.
The benefits are clear;
The use of fewer pesticides means that workers' health improves dramatically, communities can live in relative health with access to clean water, and the land has a longer life span because it is not being damaged by chemicals. However, organic cotton production is not perfect: because organic cotton produces less fibre than GM cotton, it requires more plants and therefore more land to produce.
Today, organic cotton organic cotton represents less than 1% of the world's total cotton plantation. It is far from being able to supply the global demand of retail giants who claim to use it in percentages that are close to 100%. How is that possible? An unanswered question.
We know that organic cotton is a short-term solution. It is not the most sustainable raw material, far from being the easiest to trace, but it is the easiest to communicate. It has helped immensely to pave the way for the evolution of the industry. Materials are also the final frontier of sustainability, circularity, the most complex but also the most strategic step in this transformation.
Text by: Roberta Lebed.
Images from Unsplash and Pixabay.