Cotton, we hug it to dry ourselves after a shower and sometimes it hugs us to keep us warm or cool and comfortable in the shape of clothes or blankets, other times it comes with us to some of the most breath taking adventures of our lives.
Not only it is a very useful and comfortable fibre, it also provides an income to more than 250 million people worldwide since half of all textiles are made of cotton.
Although cotton has many advantages there are serious things to consider to assess its impact on the planet, waterways and the communities involved in the production of cotton fibres.
Below we are going to be exploring the impact of cotton on the planet, better solutions to conventional cotton and some insights into the impact of organic cotton.
The impact of cotton on the planet and the people
The impact of cotton on water
In terms of water required for its growth, cotton is the thirstiest crop in the planet. While making efficient use of water at home and not wasting it both in and out of home is important there is what we call the "virtual water" that we consume but we don't see.
In the case of cotton, it can require more than 2700 litres of water to produce one single t-shirt if it is made from conventional cotton. Not only it is extremely water intensive, it can contaminate waterways affecting the communities that use the water for their living needs. This doesn't appear in the label but is very important that we start considering these figures and we get smarter, both from the way we produce to the way we consume.
Cotton and Pesticides
The production of conventional cotton uses large amounts of pesticides. Pesticides reduce the quality of soil and water while depleting the biodiversity of the area surrounding the cotton farms. Not only harms the planet, pesticides has been shown to impose health risks on farmers and near by communities.
Cotton and CO2
While often many brands of clothing through the use of greenwashing marketing campaigns make us think that a piece of textile made of cotton is sustainable, without further explanations this is far from the reality. In a 2020 study it was calculated that the CO2 emissions from conventional cotton was more than twice that of other textile fibres like wool, flax, organic cotton or even polyester, with 6kg of C02 per kg of cotton fibre.
The sustainable alternative to cotton : organic cotton
What is organic cotton?
Organic cotton is a great sustainable alternative to conventional cotton and other fibres that are not as environmentally friendly. There are various definitions but fundamentally organic cotton is that which is cultivated without the use of any synthetic agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides or transgenic technology.
It was first planted in the 1980s as an initiative to promote sustainable, ecological and biodynamic agriculture around the world.
Advantages of organic cotton
The production of organic cotton requires up to 91% less water to produce
than conventional cotton. Organic soil requires less irrigation since 80% of land producing organic cotton is located in areas which are predominantly rainfed. This encourages farmers to design water saving techniques and choose seed varieties which are resistant to droughts.
As various studies have shown if cotton is organic or not makes the difference to show if it actually helps or not to fight climate change. Producing 1 kg of fibre of conventional cotton produces 6 kg of C02e while organic cotton produces 2.5kg. Other fibres such as flax, linen or even recycled polyester are also more sustainable fibres than conventional cotton, while also requiring less water and solving other issues such as recyclability, chemical use and soil health.
- Helps improve the lives of farmers.
The World Health Organization has classified the pesticides used in conventional cotton production as moderately to highly hazardous to human health. One study found that the main effect on children's health was impairment of the nervous system leading to difficulties with coordination, problems with normal bodily reflexes and learning disabilities. If the cotton also comes certified as GOTS the social and working conditions of the farmers are highly taken into consideration.
- Avoids use of harmful chemicals.
Organic farming uses natural systems instead of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. The pesticides used in organic cotton farming are natural and non - or low-toxic. The use of natural pesticides reduces the grey water footprint, the amount of water required to dilute the toxics to acceptable levels before inserting into waterways.
GOTS and its importance for sustainable development
While organic cotton is a far better fibre than conventional cotton or other more water and carbon intensive fibres, there are other aspects that go unticked and some brands using organic cotton make it difficult to know more about other aspects of its production, for example the sustainability of the dyes used or the working conditions of the farmers or factory workers.
Because it is very important that as we progress towards a sustainable world all aspects of sustainability are considered, we need to assure that we cover all areas when addressing the farming and production of cotton. For this, one of the most rigorous and reliable certifications is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).
GOTS was developed to bring organic principles into practice in textile manufacturing. All brands and textiles carrying the GOTS logo have been made in factories that have met strict social and environmental criteria.
GOTS inspect various aspects: ensures fair working conditions, that waterways are not polluted, that bleaching is achieved through oxygen and not chlorine and that azo dyes are not used.
Now you have the knowledge, the solutions and the power to implement this little change that makes a big difference to our planet and sea life. Make sure to teach and share what you learn along the way, because together we are the solution!
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