Not All Cotton Is Cut From The Same Cloth

It's time we cottoned on.
An Uzbek woman picks up cotton in a field outside Tashkent September 24. The harvest is in full swing in Uzbekistan, which relies heavily on cotton exports to support its cash-starved economy.
An Uzbek woman picks up cotton in a field outside Tashkent September 24. The harvest is in full swing in Uzbekistan, which relies heavily on cotton exports to support its cash-starved economy.

Stretching my toddler son into his striped jumpsuit, I realised he'd undergone another growth spurt. The zipper was tight, the fabric straining. I sighed and peeled the jumpsuit off his desperately wriggling body. I put the size one to the side and reached for a size two.

Before I became a mum, I was lucky to have inherited a number of jumpsuits of varying sizes from friends with older kids. A few blueberry stains aside, the clothes were in good condition, robust and hard-wearing. But my son's latest growth spurt made me think about the cotton from which they were made. As a naturally growing and biodegradable product, what harm could cotton cause?

The human rights abuses of sweatshop workers is the issue which has received most public attention in the ethical fashion debate. But, as it turns out, at a much earlier stage in the fashion production process, cotton production causes major pollution and salinity worldwide, and has led to an epidemic of suicides among small-scale farmers. As it stands, cotton fails to provide a sustainable and profitable livelihood for the vast majority of those involved in its production.

Cotton facts

Cotton is an overwhelmingly massive industry. According to Fairtrade, 350 million people work in the cotton industry, which is more than the entire US population (318 million). A total of 100 million households are directly involved in cotton production, with 90 percent in developing countries. In 2013, 25.8 million tonnes of cotton lint were produced. Cotton is grown in more than 100 countries on 2.5 percent of the world's arable land, making it one of the most significant crops in terms of land use after food grains and soybeans.

The rise of cheap, disposable fashion -- "fast fashion" -- has led to an increasing demand for cotton and greater competition in the market. Real cotton prices, taking inflation into account, have fallen from $3.00/kg in the 1960s to $1.73 in 2014. In the US, the cotton industry is subsidised, so farmers are able to better weather the reduction in prices than growers who only receive market prices.

Environmental impacts

Cotton production is inherently water-intensive. In order to make your favourite T-shirt, it takes about 2,720 litres of water, which is about the size of a large suburban rainwater tank. Artificial irrigation is used for much of the land, which leads to salinisation and depletion of local water supplies. The drying up of 90 percent of the Aral Sea in Central Asia is a devastating example of the effect of artificial irrigation for cotton production.

Conventional cotton production also involves the large-scale use of chemical herbicides and pesticides to control weeds and pests. These pollute the environment and impact the land's productive capacity, which makes it harder for people to grow food, and can also cause serious health impacts. It is staggering to learn that half of the $2 billion of chemical pesticides used each year are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization.

In the hope of increasing yields and incomes, farmers have increasingly turned to genetically-modified (GM) cotton. In 2012, a whopping 81 percent of cotton planted was GM. However, according to Fairtrade, the use of GM cotton seeds ties farmers into buying expensive seeds and pesticides each year from multinational companies. In India, over 270,000 Indian farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2014 after falling deeper into debt to banks to fund the increasing costs of pesticides and GM cotton seeds.

Human rights impacts

There are some direct human rights abuses in cotton production. Until recent years, school-aged children in Uzbekistan were taken out of school during harvest season and forced to pick cotton to meet government-imposed quotas. After sustained pressure from local and international organisations and foreign governments, Uzbekistan changed its forced labour policies in 2012 to no longer mobilise children younger than 16 on a mass scale. While the reduction in child labour is a positive outcome, it did not represent an end to forced labour as a whole. There has since been an increase in the number of adults forced to work the cotton harvest to compensate, including teachers, doctors and nurses.

Because clothing labels generally only list the country of the garment's production and not the origin of source materials, it is near impossible to know whether the cotton in your new T-shirt was harvested using forced labour. The Environmental Justice Foundation notes that cotton has historically proved difficult to trace "both because it is traded as an international commodity, and because the supply chain itself is long and complex, typically having 6/7 players from fibre to retail".

What can we do to achieve change?

It is clear that the current practices for conventional cotton production are unsustainable in the long term. But this doesn't mean we should necessarily look to alternative fabrics, which have their own problems. Polyester is a synthetic material made from petrochemicals and is non-biodegradable. Bamboo fabric is generally made by converting raw bamboo into a rayon or viscose with hazardous chemicals, which endanger the safety of workers and degrade the environment with waste.

Where cotton is produced with a focus on social and environmental sustainability, it remains a good choice as a clothing fabric. Today, there are many organisations taking action to build a more sustainable cotton industry.

Concerned about their exposure to toxic chemicals and the degradation of the local environment, many farmers have turned to organic cotton production. Unlike conventional cotton, the organic variety does not involve the use of synthetic pesticides. Natural pesticides are used in some circumstances, but the focus is more on better farming practices including crop rotation, crop diversification, and choosing varieties suited to local conditions.

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a standard for organic certification and includes environmental and social responsibility requirements including a prohibition on certain chemicals, a requirement for safe and hygienic working conditions, the payment of a living wage, and a prohibition on child labour. It covers the entire textile supply chain (processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading, distribution), and gives consumers reassurance that clothes carrying the "GOTS" label have been produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.

Fairtrade also has a certification scheme for cotton. The focus of Fairtrade cotton is to "tackle poverty and empower producers and workers to take control over their lives and the decisions that affect them". It does so by supporting certified farmers with fairer, more stable prices. Additional income is also used to invest in infrastructure, training, farm equipment and business improvements, as well as programmes such as healthcare, clean water, and education.

In order to be certified, farmers are audited against Fairtrade Standards, which provide a framework for a sustainable approach to production. Among other things, the Fairtrade certification for cotton requires minimised use and safe handling and storage of pesticides, herbicides and hazardous chemicals, and a prohibition on forced labour.

Another noteworthy initiative is the World Wide Fund for Nature's Better Cotton Initiative, a standard for improving sustainability in cotton production in terms of environmental, social and economic responsibility. The Environmental Justice Foundation also helps retailers investigate the supply chain in their cotton products, to help them eliminate human rights or environmental abuses.

Lastly, it is up to us as consumers to embrace these positive changes to guide our purchases. So that cotton can continue to survive as an industry, and so my son may one day wear a black T-shirt featuring his favourite, obnoxiously loud, teenage heavy metal band, without it costing the earth.