How sustainable is cotton? The good and bad about the cotton industry

Know if cotton, a skin-friendly fabric, is environmentally friendly or not. Read about all the pros and cons associated with the cotton industry.

Cotton is a natural fiber primarily grown in India, America, and China. And being a breathable, soft, and durable material, cotton is widely used in home furnishings, clothing, and other industries as well. India produces approximately 5,770 thousand metric tonnes of cotton per year, making it the world’s largest cotton producer, followed by China and the United States.

Now cotton, being the crop of livelihood, needs a little focus on knowing if we can continue our dependency on cotton without harming the planet.

Know about cotton in figures

  1. According to the WWF, cotton being used globally now provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs 7 percent of the total labour force in developing countries.
  2. Cotton accounts for 55 percent of the total fibre used in clothing and textile production.
  3. In 2020–21, approximately 100 million bales of cotton was produced globally.
  4. In cotton farming, pesticides account for up to 27 percent of the total cost of cotton production. And cotton accounts for 4.71% of all pesticides sold globally.
  5. 3% of the total farmland is used for cotton production, and still, 25% of the world’s pesticides are used in this crop’s production.

These figures are important to realise that cotton being such a huge industry and providing mass livelihoods, will forever remain the most crucial crop. But this crucial crop needs to reduce the impact it has been having on the environment. Read further to learn how sustainable is cotton?

Cotton and its impacts

Cotton is important, but its production methods have a major impact on the environment, limiting its ability to be called a sustainable crop. Take a closer look at how cotton is harming the environment.

Cotton and its love for water

Cotton is a thirsty crop. To produce 1Kg of cotton, 20,000 litres of water is required. And cotton requires plenty of sunshine and a long frost-free period. So the water requirements are fulfilled by irrigation and not by rain.

"The water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would be enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year. Meanwhile, more than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water"
~A report published by The Guardian on March 20th, 2015

Not only is there a reliance on water, but cotton farming also pollutes water bodies. Pesticides and fertilisers are washed off farms into rivers, contaminating not only aquatic life but the entire ecosystem. In Uzbekistan, groundwater at depths up to 150 meters is often polluted with pesticides, impacting more than 85% of the population.

Cotton harms soil health

Cotton farming causes soil erosion and contamination. Cotton is a thirsty crop, and not every drop of irrigation water used to grow cotton actually makes it to the roots. The majority of the water becomes runoff.

Also, the impurities in the water, like salt, seep into the soil, and now, because of the salinization of the soil, the soil becomes useless. This loss in fertility compels farmers to move to the next field, causing major land clearings and the destruction of habitat.

With the population rising, the increase in demand for food, land, and other resources makes it more challenging to continue with land clearing.

Low income and forced labour

The cotton industry is associated with child slavery and forced labor. According to CottonUpGuide, “smallholder cotton farmers, who are among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, produce more than 60% of the cotton consumed worldwide. An estimated 100 million smallholder farmers cultivate the crop on less than two hectares, with about 90% of them living in developing nations. Many smallholder cotton farmers struggle to make ends meet because they receive less money from the sale of their cotton than they require for necessities like food, healthcare, and tools. “

Switching to organic cotton

If you have gotten your answer to how sustainable is cotton, then now you must know: what is the best alternative to conventional cotton?

Sustainable cotton, i.e., organic cotton, or switching to other sustainable fabrics can be a game changer here.

Organic cotton vs conventional cotton

What is organic cotton?

Organic cotton is responsibly grown without using harmful pesticides, chemicals, or synthetic fertilizers. Cultivating organic cotton benefits the ecosystem by maintaining soil fertility and reducing contamination of water bodies.

Organic cotton consumes 91% less water as compared to conventional cotton, and water pollution is reduced by 26%.

For a detailed comparison between organic cotton and conventional cotton, read here.

If you really want to contribute to nature, switch to organic cotton products and buy when required. Check for labels that tag the fabric as organic cotton and voice your opinions and demands to your favourite brands. Be a reason for the betterment of this planet.