Cotton: Nature’s Offering [TEXTILE SERIES 3]
Cotton has long been a wardrobe staple and still remains the world’s largest non-food crop. Despite how common cotton is in our daily lives, consumers are often misinformed on how sustainable cotton is — after all, it’s natural and thus biodegradable, right? But even after cotton has cleaned its reputation as the crop that started slavery, many social concerns still linger today, not to add the new environmental issues associated with the industry. It’s about time to knock this natural textile off its pedestal and ask — just how (un)ethical is cotton?
From raw cotton to finished product, a single pair of jeans could consume around 7,500 liters of water, which is more than enough to provide for 10 people for a year. This shockingly large amount of water is due to cotton’s high water requirements and its dyeing process. Although cotton is a very thirsty crop, it is grown mostly in arid conditions in India and China. To meet the high demand for water that natural rainfall alone cannot fulfill, many farmers turn to irrigation, mainly wasteful flood irrigation. The disastrous environmental impacts of cultivating this water-intensive crop are clearly illustrated by the Aral Sea, once the 4th largest lake. In the 60s, the Soviet Union drained large amounts of water from the lake to irrigate cotton farmlands in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Despite multiple efforts to revive the site, it remains just 10% of its original size.
The Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right)
The use of water doesn’t end with the harvest of cotton crops — as, with most textiles, the dyeing process involves water and energy-intensive procedure that ends with unchecked dumping of polluting chemicals into local waterways. Rivers and canals in Dhaka, Bangladesh, have turned a “pitch-black color” and become thick like tar during the winter without seasonal monsoons to dilute the wastewater.
A man walks through contaminated wastewater near a dyeing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh in June 2018
With a past deeply rooted in slavery, the cotton industry has struggled to emerge as an ethical field. The systematic use of forced labor and child labor in cotton fields with threats to withhold welfare programs, fire employees, and expel students has only come to an end last year n Uzbekistan, while many neighboring authoritarian countries persist in these practices. Another concern is the introduction of genetically modified (GM) cotton crops, which have been alleged to increase farmer suicide rates in India. Monsanto’s Bt. cotton seeds, the most widely used in India, are touted to have additional bollworm-resistant proteins which supposedly make production more efficient. However, the GM seeds cost nearly twice as much, and the foreign company has encouraged many local farmers to take on larger loans, often from moneylenders charging exorbitant interest rates. This ultimately resulted in overwhelming debts that prompted the farmers to end their own lives, leaving their debt to their widows and children.
Organic cotton seems to avoid every unethical and harmful process described previously: it is much cheaper than GM seeds, uses 91% less freshwater, refrains from pesticides and insecticides, and is often (but not always) certified by third-party fair-trade initiatives. Sustainable cotton production has made great strides in recent years: Better Cotton Initiative, founded in 2005 by World Wildlife Fund, has reached as high as 14% of global cotton production.
Anitha Amgoth, 27, grieves during her husband’s funeral. Her husband, a cotton farmer, committed suicide after going into debt by about 90,000 rupees.
However, it is important to note that even though organic cotton is grown sustainably, the textile manufacturing process still remains largely irresponsible. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) has risen to tackle this problem: this third-party certification system covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, trading, and distribution of textiles to ensure sustainability in all levels of cotton production.
Of course, to not buy is the best buy for the environment, but we recognize the difficulty in refraining from consumption. Since cotton is so frequently used, take the next purchasing opportunity to invest in an ethical piece instead!
*Ethical brands can be found here: