Cotton: The thirsty crop
To put it simply, cotton is a natural material derived from the cotton plant. The part of the plant that is harvested for the production of cotton (material) is the boll, the protective case surrounding the plants seeds. This boll can then be harvested and spun into yarn for textiles.
However, the process isn’t this simple…
There are many stages to cotton production, sourcing, growing, manufacture; and within this process there are many processes which negatively impact our environment.
Within this blog post we will highlight three different cotton production processes (conventional, organic and recycled), their methods of production and their environmental impacts, in order to present you with all of the facts you need regarding cotton to make informed consumer decisions.
The properties of cotton
The versatility of cotton is exceptional. It is a natural fibre, made of cellulosic material and holds a small amount of water, this makes any fabric naturally breathable, static resistant and able to withstand more heat than a synthetic fibre. Cotton is also inherently biodegradable by nature as it is derived from a natural source, however, depending on the coatings and finishes put onto the fabrics, this trait may no longer be viable. Cotton can also be woven differently to produce different properties. Longer staple cotton fibres can be woven into soft, almost silky materials such as Egyptian Cottons. Fabrics can also be light, medium or heavyweight, depending on the need; and they can be woven in weaves such as the twill weave which is used to create denim.
These incredibly useful and versatile properties have ensured that cotton is the single most consumed fibre worldwide. Used in almost every industry in one way or another, and it is most prominent in the fashion, interior and automotive industries. But how is it made?
Conventional cotton and its manufacture
With regards to the sourcing and growing of conventional cotton, the process often begins with a lab. Conventional cotton is genetically modified to produce high, uniformed cotton yields with little biodiversity in the fields in order to maximise quantity and quality. Within this section of cotton growth, pesticides and insecticides are also used to ensure the protected growth of the cotton. However, this stage is extremely damaging to the environment with regards to mono crop culture and intensive irrigation causing soil degradation and water pollution due to chemicals.
The manufacturing stage of cotton is also one of chemicals and wasteful processes. In order to create a warp thread that is strong enough to weave with, a toxic wax is used. Post weaving, the cotton is bleached using chlorine-based chemicals and then the fabrics can be died or printed upon using heavy metals, sulfur, and petroleum-based chemicals. All of these chemicals can then often be removed from the factories in a form known as sludge. This pollutes waterways causing damage to environments and ecosystems and has many negative health impacts on surrounding villages.
The impacts of conventional cotton
The global cotton industry is worth over $3 trillion, and the majority of this industry is composed of conventional cotton manufacturing methods. The industry itself make up 2.5% of all agricultural land on the planet!
That is a lot of money and a lot of land; and it may make you question, if cotton creates such a strong and long-lasting material then why is it so consistently produced?
Well… that is all down to the consumer. Each person consumes at least 40 metres squared of cotton per annum. This consumption is only on the increase with the rise of disposable income.
Lack of biodiversity is another large issue surrounding the cotton industry. There are over 30 recognised species of cotton on this planet, but only four of them actually possess any form of commercial potential. As a result, these four plants are genetically modified and are cultivated in breeding programs on mass in order to make the cotton industry thrive. The results of this type of genetic modification and cultivation achieves larger yields, more uniformity within crop and stronger fibres, which all benefit the economy of cotton greatly. However, these processes also significantly reduce biodiversity within the crop, as well as due to the land removed in order to plant, and biodiversity is vital to healthy maintaining a healthy eco system.
Another impact that cotton has ion the environment is pollution due to pesticides and insecticides that are sprayed onto the crop. Cotton plants are susceptible to the boll weevil, which is an insect that feeds on seeds and fibres of the plant. The damage they cause can be priced up as over $200 million per year in losses. This results in the use of pesticides and insecticides on the crop.
The excessive chemical use causes eutrophication, the process of chemicals being washed into local water supplies. This water pollution has extremely harmful effects on both nature and human health and is another large contributor to lack of biodiversity.
Cotton is dubbed the ‘thirstiest’ plant in the agriculture sector, with this plant using 3% of the worlds agricultural water consumption. To put it into perspective, that is approximately 2,700 litres of water per t-shirt! There is little fresh water on this planet and the majority of that water is either used or polluted by the agriculture industries, with cotton being one of the main contributors, leaving over 1 billion people world-wide without access to safe fresh water.
The constant water usage and wastage via the agriculture industry is not sustainable. Fresh water is a luxury and if consumption isn’t regulated, we could see two-thirds of our global population without access to safe clean water by 2025.
Cotton, water and the Aral Sea
To see first-hand the water crisis that cotton brings about, you don’t have to look much further than the disaster of the Aral Sea. Up until the 1960s the Aral Sea was the fourth largest inland body of water, that was until it was decided that cotton should be grown in the area. The area in which the Aral Sea is situated is known as an arid climate, an area of very dry, desert like conditions, and for a thirsty crop like cotton, a desert is not an appropriate climate to grow crops.
To combat this, thousands of miles of irrigation canals were dug from the sea to source the cotton with the water they needed to grow. This was initially a sustainable practice, but with success came greed, and the need for more irrigation canals and more cotton crop. This resulted in the rapid demise of the Sea, by 1987 the sea had shrunk so much that it had split into a northern and a southern sea. Once again in 2002 the sea split on the southern side, with one half of it drying up entirely.
This disaster has had detrimental effects for nature, the ecosystems, and the people living in the surrounding areas of what was the Aral Sea. The fishing villages that once thrived struggle to make a living. There is a shortage of accessible water; and salt storms have become a regular occurrence. These salt storms are filled with toxic levels of sodium chloride and pesticides from the cotton plants, these toxic chemicals have worked their way into all levels of the food chain in the surrounding areas of the sea and are damaging the natural ecosystems at every level. This disaster truly highlights the impacts of the cotton industry and how detrimental it can be to our planet and its natural resources.
The first of the alternatives to conventional cotton is organic cotton. The crucial difference being that organic cotton is grown using low environmentally impactful materials, instead of using the toxic chemical pesticides of conventional cotton. The aim of organic cotton is also to replenish and maintain soil quality and build a biologically diverse system of cotton agriculture.
This is all achieved in the growing process of the cotton. There is no genetic modification of organic cotton seeds, making them less uniformed and more biodiverse to maintain the natural properties of the cotton plant once its planted and grown.
Furthermore, a crop rotational system is insisted upon when growing organic crops to ensure soil quality is maintained as it retains its natural moisture and organic matter, instead of being subjected to constant intensive irrigation and mono crop culture, like conventional cotton.
Trap cropping is probably the single most valuable technique used in organic cotton farming; and that is because it prevents the need for the harmful pesticides and insecticides within the crops.
This technique involves a sacrificial plant that is planted within the cotton crop that is more desirable to insects than the cotton itself. This lures insects away from the cotton and onto these other plants, keeping the crop naturally insect free.
Within the production stages of organic cotton, there are significant differences to conventional cotton with regards to chemical usage. Instead of toxic waxes being used to strengthen warp threads, like conventional cotton; organic cotton strengthens its warp threads using a double ply system. In the whitening stage, organic cotton uses a safe peroxide instead of chlorine bleaching.
Finally, any dying or printing techniques used for organic cotton consist of water based, natural and low impact inks and dyes instead of the petroleum or sulfur based dyes that are used in conventional cotton dying.
Although organic cotton is better agriculturally and in the process of manufacture than conventional cotton there is still one large negative. The water consumption of Organic Cotton is still exceptionally high. The plant maintains the need for copious amounts of water to grow, and although the water consumption is monitored when it comes to organically grown cotton, it is still using water supplies that are considered a scarcity. Pesticides are also allowed, natural and some less toxic synthetics, in order to help the cotton, grow free from insects.
However, some of these natural pesticides have been linked to significant health issues for workers and local mammalian wildlife, which have shown to be more likely to develop symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Organic cotton trademarks
One main question is how, as a consumer, do you recognise organic cotton?
Organic cotton will brandish some form of labelling highlighting what it is.
However, to ensure that the item is truly organic, there are certain trademarks to look out for:
This is the mark of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). It is one of very few worldwide organic textiles standard trademarks and it is the leading one. This mark highlights that textile standards have been conformed to in all areas of organic criteria including both social and ecological; and in order to gain this mark the entire textile supply chain must be independently certified. GOTS ensure that organic status is compliant with every aspect of production:
- The harvesting of raw materials – the crop must be grown with no pesticides and appropriate crop rotation/biodiversity within the plant
- Processing and manufacture – in factories cotton must be separated from that of conventional cotton and clearly marked, chemicals used must be tested to make sure that they reach requirements on toxicity, biodegradability and eliminability, no chlorine bleach or carcinogenic releasing dyes can be used in organic process
- Water use must be recorded in full, alongside any chemical use, as well as any sludge disposal – this all must be tested in a functional water treatment plant to ensure safe disposal and keep chemical usage in check
- Social impacts – the GOTS also ensures good and fair working standards of the people working in all areas of the industry
In the UK, we have the Soil Association which is the UK certification body for GOTS. The Soil Association follow the same steps and rules as GOTS because they are one and the same. However, you will only see the Soil Association trademark within the United Kingdom.
These marks ensure that the cotton fibre has been produced organically and has adhered to strict environmental standards and provide good and safe working conditions.
The independent verification that is conducted in order to gain these marks, by a third party, is also an important element of the GOTS and Soil Association standards as it also ensures that there is a lack of bias or false results within the production lines.
It is important to recognise these marks when looking for organic cotton products as they are the only way to ensure that a product is truly organic.
But why is organic cotton not the normality for the cotton industry?
Although it is very obvious that organic cotton is the better of the two processes within the industry, organic cotton is not the normality or mainstream. The reason for this is simply down to cost, yield size and profit. Unfortunately growing a product organically means there is a lower cotton yield, because the plant hasn’t been genetically modified to produce a high yield.
Organic is also subject to more plant loss due to insects because of the lack of pesticides. This in turn leads to less cotton per yield, more land usage to plant enough crop to match the genetically modified crop and therefore more worker pay to tend more land. Henceforth, organic cotton is a more expensive process with a higher costing cotton material at the end.
Unlike conventional and organic cotton, recycled cotton is created directly from the waste of previously used cotton items, that being post-consumer waste and/or off cuts directly from industry. To produce recycled cotton the waste product is claimed through mechanical recycling.
Fabric is sorted into colour and shredded into yarns, and then further shredded back to the raw fibre. These fibres are then re-spun into a yarn which can be woven into a new piece of cotton fabric. Cotton quality does remain very high throughout the process of recycling however the system of shredding can be put under a great deal of strain therefore its values as a recycled cotton are not quite equal to the original fibre, there maybe a few discrepancies within the final fabric.
Impacts of Recycled cotton
Unlike its organic and conventional counterparts, recycled cotton has many more positive environmental impacts than negative ones:
Recycled cotton can create a new lifecycle for household objects like mop heads and towels and rags, that would be considered dirty and unable to be reused in their pure form.
This process means that many items that are labelled ‘unusable’ can be diverted from landfills and recycled into a new material.
Cost of environment through water waste, dyes and chemical processes are prevented with this method of cotton manufacture. All of these processes have occurred previously to the items, there is no need for them again. Most of the items are already dyed, so by sorting the recycled material into colour prevents the need for any new dying processes too. By reusing these items, not only does it create materials that do not require new virgin crop, or processes; but it also begins to offset the negative impacts that the cotton had by extending its lifecycle.
There are however a couple of negatives to the recycled cotton process:
Cotton quality is weakened by the recycling process, and contamination from other fibres is a possibility. This means that they are often blended with other fibres to strengthen the properties of the cotton in this process. Henceforth, a cotton item is not infinitely recyclable and can in fact only be recycled once.
This means that it will eventually lead to a build-up of offcuts and discarded recycled cotton that may not be able to be reused. Recycled cotton, like organic cotton, has a higher cost than conventional cotton. These costs could be prohibitive, making the item less desirable to manufacturers and designers that could potentially source a higher quality cotton at a cheaper cost through the use of conventional cotton.
Why it is the best alternative for the environment?
Using recycled cotton provides a solution to the use of toxic pesticides, and excess water within production by creating a circular economy within the cotton industry, providing a means and source to turn what would be cotton waste into more fabric.
We chose to use recycled organic cotton developed from clothing offcuts and post-consumer garments for the lining of our handbags because of the closed loop system this process creates within the cotton industry. By choosing to buy items that contain recycled cotton you can prevent cotton waste ending up in landfills where it is unable to biodegrade, and instead, produces a high-quality material that prevents waste.
You can see our handbags that are lined with recycled organic cotton here