Although cotton is one of the most popular fibres used in textile manufacturing, cotton production is also one of the most polluting industries for the environment. The current levels of cotton production demanded by the fashion industry have led to unsustainable and damaging production methods. This environmental impact means it’s imperative that solutions for effective and sustainable cotton production are found. Organic cotton is often promoted as the answer, seeking to produce a quality cotton fibre that is less damaging and more sustainable. But just how sustainable is organic production? Is it automatically a better solution for textile manufacturers and consumers?
The impact of cotton production on the planet
Traditional cotton production is harmful for the planet. Cotton production uses an incredible amount of water, needing 2,700 litres of water to produce a single cotton t shirt and up to 11,000 litres for a single pair of jeans. Increased cotton production across the globe is depleting fresh water supplies across the globe, as well as harming bird and fish populations. It’s also impacting water quality in the water cycle through the run off of fabric dyes, insecticides and pesticides used in production. These have been linked to carcinogenic chemicals for both producers and consumers, causing up to 20,000 deaths a year at latest estimates by the World Health Organisation.
Is organic cotton automatically a sustainable solution?
Organic cotton is often claimed and marketed as being a sustainable solution to traditionally produced cotton, and is certainly promoted as such by big fast fashion brands and the world’s largest organic cotton purchaser, H&M. Organic cotton is currently responsible for approximately 1% of worldwide cotton production. Although many consumers are likely to assume organic cotton production is automatically more environmentally friendly, concerns have been raised about the sustainability claims. As with all things sustainable, it’s a balance.
Traditional cotton production uses genetically modified plants which have been adapted to yield maximum fibre for production. As organic cotton uses non GM crops, this means a greater number of plants are needed to produce the same amount of cotton fibre. As a result, more land is needed for organic cotton production, leading to increased water usage for irrigation. Although organic cotton is largely rain fed which can ease pressure on water supply, this increased man-made irrigation may increase water usage. Dyeing processes in the final stages of textile production also raise questions on the sustainable nature of organic cotton. Many environmentally harmful chemicals are used in dyeing processes, even when organic cotton has been used. To be sure on the organic credentials of a garment, it should be certified under a program such as the Global Organic Textile Standard. However, one area where organic cotton production is particularly beneficial over traditionally produced cotton is the lack of harmful pesticides and insecticides. This reduces poisonous run off into lakes and rivers, reducing potential harm for farmers, manufacturers and consumers.
Organic cotton should be the future
Cotton produced organically offers increased sustainability for the future. Organic cotton uses fewer dangerous chemicals and is not genetically modified, all hugely beneficial to the environment and local populations. Although generally considered more sustainable than traditionally produced cotton, potential concerns over dyeing and finishing methods mean that manufacturers and brands need ensure a fully sustainable whole system process. The whole of the production cycle needs to be sustainable to be truly effective. Brands such as H&M and Nike are increasingly using organic cotton, an important step to ensure its continued use, increasing availability and reducing cost compared to non-organic cotton. Supporting and developing organic cotton production throughout the whole manufacturing process is a vital step in reducing the impact of cotton production, fast fashion and textile manufacture.