Cotton- The Most Unsustainable Fibre?

By Ilaria Ravazzolo, GLOBUS Correspondent

When talking about fashion, which materials would you name as being the most sustainable? There’s a good chance that the answer to this question is ‘cotton’. Cotton seems to be the perfect fibre because it’s cheap, natural and plentiful. However, what most of us don’t realise is that the production of cotton is incredibly unsustainable. It is the most popular natural fibre in the textile industry, making up one third of the total globally manufactured fibres. It’s an organically biodegradable fibre that does not require extensive chemical processes. However, it’s also linked to controversial labour conditions and is causing water pollution, pesticide and chemical runoff contamination and water and energy waste. In fact, one cotton shirt can use up to 2,700 litres of water. Conventional cotton requires a great amount of water and vast amounts of pesticides, which cause 350,000 farmer deaths and a million hospitalisations a year. Its production also relies on forced labour in various parts of the world. 

The loss of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, for example, is linked to cotton farming. Home to 24 species of fish, it used to be the world’s fourth largest lake. However, this changed in the 1950s when the Soviet Union decided to use the rivers for the irrigation of the surrounding agricultural area. The exposed seabed we can see in place of the Aral Sea today – and which has completely dried up – is the result of this decision. This exposure released poisonous salts and pesticides into the atmosphere, which harmed both the people and the farmland in the area. The water from the rivers was used to grow 1.47m hectares of cotton. The fashion industry is implicated in this environmental disaster, as most of the cotton grown in that region is used in the manufacturing of textiles. Apart from the environmental degradation caused by the irrigation system, the cotton production in Uzbekistan is shockingly unsustainable in its working conditions. The cotton harvest occurs with the use of forced labour. Every year about 1 million Uzbeks are dumped in cotton fields to pick the country’s vast cotton crops. The people who are forced by the government to do this include teachers, doctors and students. The students are simply taken from their schools and sometimes even threatened with expulsion or physical violence. They have to meet strict quotas and failure to do so will result in some form of punishment. They often end up having all kinds of illnesses and are exposed to sexual abuse and violence in their camps. Uzbekistan’s children and young adults go through this horrifying experience every harvest period in order for the government to gain money from its cotton trade.  

Cotton has a long history of unethical working conditions. The fabric started growing in popularity and use from the 18th Century onwards. In the American South, plantation owners made use of over 1.8 million slaves from Africa and the Caribbean for the harvest and manufacture of the fibre. This slave labour helped American cotton to quickly constitute the majority of the global supply. The slaves on the plantations and their families (including children) all worked together to pick the cotton crop. Like the children in Uzbekistan, they had a daily quota of two hundred pounds that they had to pick or else they would risk being whipped by their masters. They often had only few breaks and little to eat while working from sunrise to sunset.  

India, the world’s second largest supplier of cotton, also faces serious challenges in terms of environmental degradation and the mental and physical health of workers in the cotton business. Cotton production only exacerbates the already existing water scarcity in the country, due to cotton’s extensive use of water. In 2013, the water used in the production of India’s cotton exports would have been sufficient to provide 85% of its population with a daily water supply of 100 litres for an entire year. This water could have been used by the over 100 million people in India who don’t have access to clean water. What makes this even worse is that the water used in Indian cotton production, being polluted and used inefficiently, is greater than in other cotton-producing nations. The global average water footprint is 10,000 litres for 1kg of cotton. India, however, uses 40 to 80% of the available surface water in 54% of the country. To combat the water problem, India could grow its cotton in less arid regions where the irrigation is more efficient and there is the need for fewer pesticides.  

Water is not the only problem associated with Indian cotton production. Since 1995 the country has seen an alarming number of suicides among cotton farmers. In 2013, data from the Indian government documents that  11,772 farmers committed suicide, which means there were 44 deaths per day. This was in part due to the increasingly expensive genetically modified seeds. In years where there is a good harvest, the surplus supply of cotton in the global market will drive down the price of the crop, causing farmers to have higher production costs than revenues. In years of a bad harvest, they simply don’t have enough crop to sell. This is why many farmers are incentivised to buy genetically modified cotton seeds, which are more resistant and will give a higher and more stable yield. The manufacturer of the genetically modified crops (GMOs), Monsanto, has added a traceable gene to its GMOs so that it can identify their seeds. While making the plant grow faster, this gene also ensures that the crop needs pesticides – which are also produced by Monsanto – to grow healthily. In order to buy these seeds and pesticides, the farmers have to take out loans. The resulting inevitable dependence of Indian farmers on Monsanto and their products gave them a monopoly position. What is more, the seeds transfer easily to neighbouring fields. Whenever the multinational discovers their GMCs on farms which haven’t paid for them, they demand a royalty. Additionally, the pesticides sold by Monsanto cause health problems when they are inhaled or get on the farmers’ skin and into the drinking water. This has caused birth defects, cancer, depression and schizophrenia. Given that most farmers in India are already indebted, this then leads to even greater debts, eventually bankrupting the farmers. This causes depression and is so damaging to the farmers’ mental health that many of them commit suicide. There are estimations that say every 30 minutes an Indian farmer chooses suicide as their escape from the indebtedness to Monsanto. Tragically, this decision causes the farmers’ families even greater sorrow, as they are then left to pay off the debt.  

These are merely a few aspects of the un-sustainability of cotton. There are plenty more reasons why this fibre is not nearly as sustainable as it’s often made out to be. It has to be said, however, that we’re talking about conventional cotton here. Organic cotton is more sustainable in some ways, as it uses less chemicals and pesticides, but there are other issues, such as the fact that the transition from conventional to organic cotton is quite challenging for farmers, especially those who are non-European. I think the case of cotton demonstrates the importance of knowing what we buy, where it comes from and how it was produced. 

Header image by Mike Beauregard via Creative Commons 

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