The Ugly Truth About Cotton
Up until Stacey Dooley’s ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secret’ documentary aired on BBC2 last October (2018), it’s safe to say many consumers would assume cotton, being a natural and biodegradable material, is an eco-friendly and sustainable option. The documentary shed light on some of the damaging effects of fast fashion, educatingthe general public and viewers at home on facts that included the reality of how much water goes into producing enough cotton for a single pair of standard jeans (a whopping 1,800 gallons) and the devastating result that conventional cotton production has had on what used to be the Aral Sea (it’s now completely parched, with even camels grazing what used to be the sea bed).
Whilst the documentary only covered the tip of the iceberg on the subject of cotton production, it was a small turning point that reached a wide audience, and resulted in a Twitter outcry on the effects fast fashion has on the environment. So what makes cotton good or bad? Is there really that much difference between conventional cotton and organic cotton? Well the answer is yes, and probably more than you would expect!
Increasing demand from the fashion industry and the shift towards fast-fashion led to seed producers Monsanto creating genetically modified cotton seeds, designed to grow much faster than natural cotton to keep up with global demand. These GMO seeds also require expensive pesticides for the crops to be successful, plunging many farmers into crippling debt and dependent on successful harvests. The bigger catch? Monsanto own the monopoly on GMO seeds and their accompanying pesticides, placing them in a huge position of power over a dependent workforce.
Sadly, the financial pressures they inflict on cotton farmers using their products (which is the majority of Indian cotton farmers) drives many to suicide in attempt to relieve their families from debt, with an estimated average of one farmer dying by suicide every 30 minutes directly linked to Monsanto debts. The documentary ‘Dirty White Gold’ is a real eye-opener on this topic.
How is organic cotton much better in terms of labour practice? Well for starters, the farmers aren’t trapped in a vicious circle of debt like conventional cotton farmers. Organic cotton that is GOTS certified (Global Organic Textile Standard) requires the harvesting of raw materials through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing, meaning workers are not exploited for their produce.
There are many different ways in which cotton can affect the environment, from water, to soil, to aquatic life. Let’s use water usage as a starting point. Did you know that it can take up to 2,700 litres to produce a single conventional cotton t-shirt?! Conventional cotton requires intensive irrigation during the farming process, partially due to low soil quality which is a result of ‘mono-crop’ culture that causes soil to be lost through repetitive use.
Organic cotton is said to use up to 71% less water, a huge difference especially in water-scarce areas that don’t have a lot of rain water (two-thirds of Indian cotton is fed by ground water). The reason that organic cotton requires less water? It’s all in the soil, as not only does organic matter help soil retain water more efficiently, crop rotation also builds strong soil, making it super-efficient! The downside is that organic cotton requires more land than conventional cotton to reap the same volume of crop, however the methods are a lot less destructive and gentle on the environment. Chemical usage during cotton production has probably the biggest overall impact, affecting the environment, local communities and wildlife.
Conventional cotton uses a heavy cocktail of synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides (accounting for approximately 25% of global consumption) and pesticides. The pesticides in particular are heavily used, the nine most common are highly toxic, with five being probable carcinogens. Because of the mass production of conventional cotton, aerial spraying is frequently used, with potential drift onto farm workers, neighbouring wildlife and communities. This widespread pollution of harmful chemicals has been linked to local disease and illness, aquatic and wildlife poisoning, and even greenhouse gasses given off by synthetic fertilisers. According to the soil association, poisoning in non-organic systems have been estimated to kill around 16,000 people each year. GOTS certified cotton has its own methods of dealing with weeds and pests without the need of expensive and harmful chemicals, making it a far more manageable, safe and financially stable option for cotton farmers. Weeds are manually tended to, ‘trap crops’ are planted to lure pests away from cotton crops, and because the absence of harsh chemicals means a more balanced eco system, beneficial insects are able to help control the ‘pests’.
Although organic cotton is probably unlikely to be able to produce the same volume of successful crop as conventional cotton due to slower production speed and the amount of land needed, it has huge benefits and avoids the major consequences of conventional cotton. It is also very gentle on the most sensitive of skin and ideal for those with respiratory problems! Statistics show that the sales of organic clothes have been rising consistently since 2009, proving it to be an increasingly popular choice, something I’m sure we can all totally get onboard with!
This article was written by Melanie, who is the director of Melanie Kyles. She is a contemporary embroidery artist based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Soil association website
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