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Environment: Cotton

The globalised world makes things, on the one hand, more accessible and at the same time  isolates us from one another. The impact of our consumer choices has far reaching consequences. It affects the lives of people all over the world and contributes to climate change. This is true when one buys everyday clothing goods. I wanted to illustrate this with the humble cotton t-shirt.

Cotton is the most widely used fibre in the world. This can be attributed to European colonisation of America. Crop production in the Southern states was the foundation of the American economy. Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin (gin is short for engine) in 1794. This greatly reduced the time it took to separate the cotton boll from the seed. In turn this created an explosion in demand for Black slaves. The US produced 750,000 bales of cotton in 1830, due to the cotton gin this rose to 2.85 million bales in 1850. The English economy equally profited. Textiles were a main export, thanks to technological advancements in the 1760s. The US and English supply chains were unified when the English opted to buy cotton from the South instead of India. The economies of European nations were built by the labour of slaves. Since this time cotton has been an internationally profitable industry which explains its wide use.

cotton aral sea 2
Image courtesy of David Stanley via Flickr

Sadly slave labour is still a feature of the cotton trade today. In Uzbekistan, a major global exporter, the government forces millions of its citizens, including children, to pick the crop or face state oppression. The citizens make little money, if any, for carrying out this labour-intensive work. In contrast  the government and their inner-circle  make US$1 billion in annual profit. The Cotton Campaign seeks to raise global awareness to force governments and institutions to put pressure on the Uzbek government. We too can play a part by raising awareness, and using our purchasing power to buy goods from progressive companies.

Many companies state they do not know where their cotton comes from due to the complexities of the trade. This may be a case of wilful blindness. The US government subsidises its farmers in order to ‘dump’ their cotton crop on the global market, below cost-price. Farmers in developing nations are undercut and locked into the cycle of poverty. It falls upon NGOs and informed consumers campaigning to call out the practices of large companies. Driven by the scale of global cotton production, questions have been asked of the environmental impact it has. Cotton accounts for 2.5% of the worlds farm land and uses 16% of global pesticides – more than any other crop.

The process of producing a cotton t-shirt is resource intensive, requiring  2700 litres of water to make just one t-shirt. With 73% of global cotton farming requiring irrigation, the impact upon communities and the surrounding area can be disastrous. The Aral Sea is a well known example. Overuse of the rivers leading into the lake led to it dramatically reducing in size. The use of pesticides on the farmland lead to run off, which sees pesticides enter the surrounding rivers. This leads to  the loss of species and the contamination of fresh waterways.

cotton aral sea
Aral Sea 1989 – 2008 Image courtesy of UN Development Programme via Flickr

Conventionally grown cotton is an intensive business. In order to maximise yield, and thus profit, insecticides are used. It is said that seven out of the 15 most carcinogenic chemicals in the world are used in cotton farming. Defoliants are used to force leaves to fall from crops to speed up the harvesting process. The Americans used Agent Orange, a defoliant, in  the invasion of Vietnam to remove forest cover. These substances enter the soil, waterways and vegetation generally. The impact, as is too often the case, falls disproportionately on poorer people in developing countries. The use of chemicals is not limited to the field. In the finishing process; formaldehyde, sulphuric acid and caustic acid are used. It is worrying that harmful chemicals are used on this massive scale and that this practice isn’t routinely known. There is, at least, a better alternative to this method of farming that seeks to address these concerns.

‘organic methods save 95,000 Olympic size swimming pools of water against conventional farming’

Organic cotton farming is growing in popularity as people learn about conventional methods. In terms of environmental impact the facts are staggering. As the Soil Association state, organic methods save 95,000 Olympic size swimming pools of water against conventional farming. Due to the levels of insecticides and pesticides used, it takes a conventional farm three years to transform to meet organic standards. Organic methods reject multinational GMO seed creation. Farmers, and not business people, are at the heart of the production stage. As a result the farmers, their communities and the environment are not exposed to carcinogenic material. Organic cotton is 98% less pollutant than conventional cotton. In order to ensure the fertility of the soil, farmers plant  a variety of crops. This biodiversity improves the quality of the cotton and diversifies the income farmers are able to generate. Less water is used, which safeguards all of our futures. Organic cotton farming is able to use less water as the soil is better able to retain water, thus irrigation is not required.

To ensure the goods you purchase are organic certified look for the GOTS and Soil Association labels. It may be claimed that organic cotton is more expensive than conventional / cruel cotton. However, this is due to the practices inherent in fast fashion. The low prices, much like chemicals used, are artificially manufactured. It is abhorrent that farmers / communities are forced to endure life on the bread line so that I may have a cheap t-shirt. When one factors in the environmental destruction caused by conventional  cotton we are all paying a high price for those low costing goods. The answer is to change our relentless consumption. Buy less and Be more.

There are a number of companies who adhere to the organic cotton ethos (not all companies are vegan);

The White Shirt Co.

People Tree


Beaumont Organic

You can also find a list of companies who support organic cotton on the Cotton On and About Organic Cotton websites. NB Not all of the companies featured are vegan.

Below is a short documentary about how a t-shirt is made and the people who make them.

1 Comment

  1. Christmas Gift Guide 2016 | prettygood

    November 21, 2016

    […] we know organic cotton is kind of a must, but it can be pretty expensive and hard to find, and often favoured by the more designer-y end of […]

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