cotton-farming

Why choosing organic cotton is better for you, the environment & the people who make it

Cotton has been around for thousands of years. In fact, its heritage dates back to before 5000 B.C, with evidence that it was used by humans as far afield as Peru and Mexico.

While its production uses only 2.5% of the world’s arable land, it accounts for nearly 40% of global textile production, making it the second most-used fibre after polyester. It’s also the world’s largest non-food crop, and although it is grown for trade by more than 80 countries, production is highly concentrated in only 6 of these, which together account for 80% of all cotton production. 

The cotton farming industry supports around 250 million people, sometimes accounting for up to 7% of employment in low-income countries.

Production of cotton

Cotton comes from the fluffy fibres known as ‘bolls’ which surround the seeds of the cotton plant. The fibres are de-seeded using a cotton gin, cleaned, carded (which aligns the fibres), spun into cotton yarn and then woven or knitted into fabric.

This production process will happen in several different locations. From the fields where the fibre is picked it then moves to the gin yards where the cotton is cleaned and compressed into bales. These bales are then shipped to textile mills where they spin the fibre and then either weave or knit it into fabric. 

Finally, the fabric will move along to be dyed or printed, only then making its way to manufacturers where it will be cut and made into clothing, bedding, or any other number of products.

Although the cotton plant grows wild in many areas, it is an extremely labour-intensive crop and growing it successfully requires dry warmth, sunshine, regular irrigation and protection from pests and weeds.

The impact of conventional cotton

Conventional cotton farming is highly damaging for the environment and the communities that grow and manufacture it.

Water

The majority of cotton production is done in countries that are already facing severe water shortages. With the change in climate and unpredictable weather patterns becoming the norm, this situation is only set to get worse. Unfortunately, it’s the low-income countries where this issue will be most felt as they are not equipped to adapt to the challenges that drought brings.

Rather than relying on rainwater alone, cotton tends to be grown in areas that require irrigation which diverts water away from rivers and lakes, often having terrible impacts on the local communities and ecosystems. With temperatures rising steadily, this demand for irrigation is only likely to increase and as water becomes more scarce it will also become more expensive. 

Incredibly, the growing of cotton equates to 69% of the water footprint of textile fibre production, with one kilogram of cotton, or 6 t-shirts, taking 10 000 – 20 000 litres of water to produce!

Chemicals and Pesticides

Along with being a thirsty crop, cotton also uses a huge amount of chemicals. Pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are all chemicals that are used to manage disease and pests that might affect crops, many of them being highly toxic for both humans and animals. 

While the plant only uses about 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, it accounts for 16% of insecticides and 4% of pesticides sold globally. These then end up polluting local drinking water supplies and ecosystems and because they cannot be broken down or metabolized, they can remain present for many years to come. These toxins then bioaccumulate in our food chain.

Exposure to pollutants in water can lead to a range of health problems including impaired memory and severe depression as well as more serious illness such as cancer, birth defects and infertility. Studies have also shown that the main effect on children’s health was the impairment of the nervous system which leads to difficulties with coordination, body reflex issues and learning disabilities.

Due to the synthetic nature of these fertilizers, the soil isn’t able to properly absorb the nutrients in them, leading to farmers having to apply them even more intensely to crops to keep plants healthy. A large amount of the nutrients is then washed away, contaminating the waterways further.

Soil Erosion & Cotton as a Monoculture

Most conventionally grown cotton is planted as a monoculture. A monoculture is when the same crop is replanted in the same field over and over without any other plants to support it. This is the basis for large-scale farms. It has many downsides as using the same soil repetitively without rotating crops can lead to diseases in the plants. These diseases learn to adapt to the soil and end up attacking the crops.  

Because synthetic fertilisers don’t help to maintain or improve soil, the land where these chemicals are used is more prone to soil erosion, which can also lead to a buildup of sediment in rivers and lakes. Not only can high levels of sediment reduce the number of aquatic animals, but it can also lead to a rise in water temperatures which itself leads to reduced oxygen availability.

Social Impacts

The history of cotton and its connection to slave labour is well known. Unfortunately, it’s not just a thing of the past, but in fact something that is going on right under our noses. The ongoing use of forced and child labour in countries such as India and China is still being found on cotton fields and ginning factories today.

Besides the issue of slave labour is the fact that cotton prices fluctuate significantly, changing value from one week to the next and forcing small family farms to match the prices of the huge conglomerate farms, affecting their income, working conditions and quality of life.

Benefits of organic cotton

Unlike with conventionally grown cotton, organic farmers work with, rather than against nature to support and grow their crops.

They don’t use any toxic pesticides or fertilizers, keeping waterways clean and benefiting human health. They make use of soil management techniques such as crop rotation and cover crops so that they can naturally boost the soil, improve its fertility and reduce erosion. By supporting healthy soil and preventing toxic substances from polluting communities, organic cotton helps to support biodiversity and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Organic cotton also needs up to 91% less water to produce than conventional cotton, with 80% of the land where organic cotton is produced being predominantly rain-fed. In addition to this, organic farmers use a range of techniques to conserve water, from rainwater harvesting to seed selection and soil management. 

Importantly, it has been shown that organically farmed crops often yield more than conventional crops during times of drought, an important factor with our ever-changing climate.

Why we use GOTS certified organic cotton

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) was developed to bring organic principles into practice in the manufacturing of fabric. With GOTS certified cotton you can be assured that working conditions in factories are safe, that workers rights are protected, and that no toxic chemicals are polluting the waterways of local communities.

Strict criteria needs to be followed throughout the production process, with water and chemicals being closely monitored.

GOTS is the only certification that not only guarantees the environmental credentials of organic cotton but also ensures that workers are protected too. That’s why we’re sure to use only GOTS certified cotton that we’ve observed in manufacturing ourselves.

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