Have you ever paused to consider the impact the textile industry has on the environment and individuals who play a role in the production process? Sewing is a great hobby, but there’s no denying that it grew in popularity when problems within the apparel industry, and the truth about fast fashion, were coming to light. With this in mind, we’d be remiss not to talk about how textile production is a huge part of the issue, and the most popular fiber crop, cotton, is a big player in this. So, let's address the question on all of our minds: Is cotton sustainable?
Before we start, I’d like to preface this by saying that we don’t want to be a downer. Let’s be real here - we sell fabric! Our only goal is to bring light to some of these issues, face the problems, and talk solutions. It shouldn’t be on the shoulders of small businesses and consumers to prioritize these conversations, but it’s clear that most larger businesses aren’t going to make changes unless it becomes profitable to do so. True sustainability has three pillars - environmental, social, and economic. Businesses tend to prioritize the latter, but it's important to think about all three if we are wanting to achieve true sustainability. So, we will be talking about the environmental and social effects of the cotton industry today. What you choose to do with this information is entirely up to you, but we think talking about the not-so-pretty side of things is vital to change taking place.
So, let’s jump into it!
Cotton is the most widespread non-food crop in the world, but it is far from the most sustainable. Cotton farming requires a much larger amount of water than other fiber crops, like linen and hemp. This large water usage not only depletes water stores but also contributes to soil degradation, as the water washes away nutrients. Additionally, conventionally grown cotton accounts for 16-25% of global pesticide use even though the crop only covers about 2.5% of the world’s total agricultural land. Pesticides and fertilizers are used to increase yields, but they can have disastrous effects on the environment. And, because such large amounts of water are required to produce healthy cotton crops, these chemicals run off into other areas to contaminate water sources and harm wildlife.
So, you might be thinking, “I get why pesticide runoff is bad, but aren’t fertilizers just nutrients? They can’t be a bad thing, right?” And, that’s where this gets tricky. Too much of a good thing can lead to disastrous effects. Nutrient pollution can negatively harm the environment, affect human health, and make waterways unsafe to enter. Excess nutrients in fresh waterways will feed naturally occurring algae. When algae grows too aggressively, or “blooms”, it can destroy entire ecosystems by inhibiting light from reaching other plants growing below the surface, and killing off aquatic life through oxygen depletion.
After cotton is grown, its production into fabric also has environmental impacts. Processes involved in spinning, weaving, dyeing, and treating fabric can produce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Some of these processes also use large amounts of water, depleting resources and requiring additional water processing, which produces more emissions. Improper disposal of that water, which occurs often in areas that are not well regulated, can lead to further pollution of waterways.
It is clear that cotton farming and production have significant environmental impacts, but it's also important to consider the people involved in these processes. How are they affected by the industry?
The social impacts of cotton cultivation and processing are vast, which isn’t surprising when we consider about 90% of cotton farmers live in low-income countries. It has been an established pattern within the textile and apparel industries for higher-income countries to move production overseas so that they can turn a blind eye to the negative impacts of the trade. As inflation rises and general costs increase, pressure to produce raw goods at a competitive price leads to an increase in unsafe working conditions and questionable practices.
One of the most concerning aspects of cotton farming is the use of child labor. It is not uncommon to see children involved in seasonal harvest work, but forced and trafficked labor also occurs. Children are often tasked with working in hazardous conditions alongside dangerous machinery or in activities like pesticide application.
Speaking of pesticides, did you know that 44% of the global population of agricultural workers experience unintentional acute pesticide poisoning each year? Approximately 11,000 of those poisonings end in death. India is one of the leading producers of cotton, and 60% of all fatalities from pesticide poisoning occur there, with 62% of all agricultural workers in India being afflicted with pesticide poisoning.
Cotton is one of the most heavily traded commodities, and traceability along the supply chain is very difficult. This makes it hard for companies to ensure their cotton is being farmed and processed in a humane way. Some positive changes are happening within the industry, and more will happen as the demand for sustainable goods rises, but let's talk about what sustainable options already exist.
Sustainable Choices You Can Make Today:
Efforts are underway to make the cotton industry more sustainable. Through innovations in water management, crop rotation, and pest control, farmers are reducing their environmental impact while also increasing efficiency and yield. For the moment, however, cotton is still one of the least sustainable natural-fiber fabric options.
The most sustainable option, in any scenario, is to use what you already have. So, if you're sitting on a sizeable fabric stash, we'd recommend looking at what you already have and seeing if any of it will work before you buy new fabric.
Deadstock or thrifted items are the next most sustainable option. Shopping secondhand or hosting a craft swap with your friends are two great ways to sustainably acquire new sewing supplies!
Next, we'd recommend linen and hemp if you're looking for natural fiber fabric that is very sustainable! Both flax (which linen comes from) and hemp are much more sustainable crops than cotton. They use a fraction of the amount of water required for cotton cultivation, while also requiring little or no pesticide and fertilizer use.
If you must use cotton, recycled cotton is a great alternative! Recycled cotton saves 20,000 liters of water per kilogram when compared to conventionally grown cotton. This number is greatly affected by the fact that the fiber has already been grown, and much of the water usage occurs during the crop stage, however, recycled cotton also diverts fabric waste from the landfill! This goes hand-in-hand with the idea of using fabric you already have, as recycled fabrics restore existing materials to a useful state and offsets the production of new goods. Less reliance on new materials means a lot of resources saved!
While organic cotton is not as sustainable as a lot of big brands would want you to believe (a great example of greenwashing), it is another alternative to conventionally grown cotton. Organic cotton takes a step in the right direction, but it still requires large amounts of water, as well as the use of pesticides and fertilizers. That's right! Pesticides are still used on organic cotton, just not synthetic pesticides. These inputs may be better than those used on regular farms, but they can still be harmful to the environment and are often used in larger quantities since they don't pose the same poisoning risks. Organic cotton can also be chemically treated and dyed after it is grown and that can have negative environmental impacts too. We'd recommend looking for GOTS-certified organic cotton.
And, while we're on the topic of certifications, looking for OEKO-TEX certified products is also a good idea! They have a few different certifications with varying requirements, which you can read about on their website, but their goal is to ensure products are free from harmful chemicals and produced in socially sustainable ways. When shopping for fabrics, this is a good certification to look for!
The textile industry has historically fallen short when it comes to environmental and social sustainability, and cotton fiber presents serious challenges. However, the industry is taking steps in the right direction. Efforts are being made to reduce the environmental impact of cotton farming and production, but consumer choice also plays a crucial role. By choosing sustainable cotton products and supporting environmentally responsible practices, we can work towards a more sustainable future for the industry.