The sourcing of sustainable cotton is a major issue within the clothing industry. There are workers’ rights issues associated with its production, particularly in Uzbekistan, as well as the prevalence of GM cotton, the widespread use of toxic pesticides and high water footprint.
About 75% of our clothing contains some cotton and 300 million farmers in 80 countries rely on cotton for their livelihoods. More than 90% of those farmers live in developing countries on farms of less than two hectares and cotton represents an important cash crop for them.
The world’s thirstiest crop?
Cotton production is a water-intensive business. The global average water footprint of cotton fabric is 10,000 litres per kilogram. That means that one cotton shirt of 250 grams costs about 2500 litres. A pair of jeans of 800 grams will cost 8000 litres. On average, one-third of the water footprint of cotton is used because the crop has to be irrigated, contributing to water scarcity and the depletion of rivers and lakes.
For example, the water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would have been enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year. Meanwhile, more than 100 million people in India didn’t have access to safe water.
By comparison, hemp only needs 2,000 litres of water per kg.
The world’s dirtiest crop?
Cotton is said to cover 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land and yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other major crop. This fact led to the Environmental Justice Foundation and the Pesticide Action Network declaring cotton to be the world’s ‘dirtiest’ agricultural commodity.
Genetically modified cotton
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit pro-biotech organisation, genetically modified (GM) cotton accounted for 64% of cotton grown in 2016.
For some campaigners, growing GM plants in open fields are ‘the pollution you can’t put back’. Impacts of plant escape from GM fields and potential interbreeding are insufficiently understood risks. Also, farmers are unable to save their seeds and can get locked into a cycle of debt, unable to cover the costs of the more expensive agricultural inputs of seeds and chemicals.
If a company does not source 100% organic cotton or 100% Fairtrade cotton it loses half a mark under Ethical Consumer’s Pollution & Toxics and Controversial Technologies categories.