Cotton is one of the most widely and heavily used fibres in clothing, fabric and textile products.
In this short guide, we look at how cotton rates amongst different measures to see how sustainable and eco friendly it might really be.
Summary – How Sustainable & Eco Friendly Is Regular Cotton For Clothing, Fabric & Textiles?
Although it’s one of the most popular/commonly used fibres in the world, regular cotton appears to have several major areas where it may lack sustainability and eco friendliness.
It uses a lot of water, a lot of pesticides and fertilizer, a lot of land (agricultural land that needs to be suitable for growing crops), a lot of processing chemicals, and dyes and bleaches (amongst other resources and inputs). It’s responsible for damage/pollution to the environment, wildlife, and humans as well. It’s also heavily subsidized in some countries too.
On the flip side, cotton has such a wide range of uses, it can be produced at scale, it’s cheap compared to other fibres (in part because the eco cost isn’t paid upfront), and it can be blended with other fibres. Cotton provides mass employment for farmers and cotton industry workers, and is a popular fibre for consumers because of characteristics and benefits of the final product.
In several countries, over the last 50 years or so, there has also been improvements in developed countries across key indicators such as yields, water usage, and overall resource and production efficiency in the cotton industry.
There may also be scope for further improvements in the production of cotton, such as growing more rain fed cotton (instead of heavily irrigated or non drip fed irrigation cotton), GMO seed cotton (which can be engineered for a range of different benefits … although it’s worth noting that herbicide use has increased 15 fold according to some sources since the introduction of GM seeds), and new more efficient cotton irrigation technology that uses water more efficiently.
Some sources indicate that for overall sustainability, it might be worth looking at GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% natural linen, and companies that are very transparent with their supply and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), with TENCEL’s lyocell and modal fibres being one potential example of this.
But, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well. Some bamboos and hemps could be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes, naturally derived production chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco friendly post-growing processes and chemicals used.
Some dot points from the above summary and the info in the guide below to consider are:
Bamboo for example uses about a third of the water in the growing stage that cotton uses, and hemp uses about 50% less water than cotton
Taking it a step further, when you add the processing stage in, cotton uses four times as much water as hemp
Some countries are far more unsustainable with water usage on cotton crops – India is currently one of these (using double the global average)
Cotton requires less energy to grow and process than hemp (but, it’s questionable whether this is the case when taking into consideration the production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers)
Although the cotton plant provides a carbon sink, there’s the release of nitrous oxide from synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to consider with cotton
Cotton is one of the highest using crops of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and pesticides and herbicides
Cotton can be land inefficient compared to other crops like hemp, and can’t make use of lower quality land like for example trees used for lyocell might be able to. However, the production efficiency of cotton may be able to make up for some of that in some instances – yield has increased significantly in some countries over the last few decades. But, some sources indicate that bamboo and trees have a better yield in terms of tonnage per hectare compared to cotton
Cotton may not be as good for soil health as some types of bamboo are for example. Unless conservation tillage is practiced by farmers, the soil is turned and broken up. Compare this to bamboo which has strong root structures that bind the soil sub surface together, and can be cut without disturbing the soil. There’s also the impact of agricultural chemicals from conventional cotton on soil bacteria and microorganisms to consider
There’s the potential impact of agricultural chemicals used in cotton production (especially in developing countries) on farm workers and factory workers to consider
There’s the use of GMO cotton seeds in countries like the US to consider (other crops used for fibres don’t yet use GM seeds to the extent cotton does)
We’ve also put together these guides which have further information on cotton and organic cotton:
- The impact of growing and using conventional cotton
- The present and future of the cotton industry
- Conventional cotton vs organic cotton: comparison
- Pros and cons of organic cotton
The above summary and the information found in this guide is a generalisation only.
* Note that cotton growing/farming, and processing may differ by country, especially between the first world and developing world countries.
* Different conditions, climates, soils, farming technology, farming methods and other factors can impact how well the cotton fibre grows, and different factories and processing plants for cotton have different procedures.
* Developments and advancements with cotton farming, and use of GMO cotton seeds is allowing new capabilities with cotton production such as increased yields and better drought resistance (amongst other capabilities)
These factors and others can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness of any particular product.
There’s also the social impact, economics and practicality to consider. Just because something is eco friendly and sustainable to produce – it doesn’t mean that it is good for employment, profitable or even practical to produce (for businesses and workers) or use (for consumers).
So, there can be a weighing up of product priorities, preferences (for buyers, sellers, and society) and conflicts of interest to consider (political and corporate agendas can sometimes play a part too for example).
How Much Water Does Cotton Use For Growing & Processing/Manufacturing?
- It takes about 10,000 liters of water to process just one single kilo of conventional cotton
- It takes about 2700 liters of water to produce one cotton t shirt
- [organic cotton can] use far less water to grow since organic cotton growers typically utilize rain far more than irrigation.
- [an alternate fibre from bamboo] requires 1/3 the amount of water to grow that cotton uses
- [comparing cotton and hemp as a fibre…] the cotton plant needs about 50 percent more water per season than hemp, which can grow with little irrigation.
- When you add processing into the equation, cotton uses more than four times as much water as hemp.
In countries like India (on some parts of India), cotton can use more than double the global average of water that it takes to produce/grow cotton. Although, some parts of India are starting to move towards more efficient forms of irrigation like drop fed irrigation too.
Carbon Footprint Of Cotton, & Energy Use
- Global consumption of non-organic cotton releases huge amounts of greenhouse gas … about 220 million tonnes a year.
- 1 tonne of conventional cotton fiber produces 1.8 tonnes of CO2e.
- [compared to hemp] cotton requires less energy to grow and process
How Much Pesticide & Fertilizer Does Cotton Use To Grow
- Conventional cotton has “earned” the title of being the dirtiest crop on earth.
- It consumes 16% of the world’s insecticides and requires $2 Billion in pesticides each year.
- [Cotton uses] more than 10 per cent of the world’s pesticides and nearly 25 per cent of the world’s insecticides.
- In India, about 50% of all pesticides used in the country are used in cotton production
- [cotton] is one of the highest nitrogen fertilizer use crops in California at 16% of total nitrogen fertilizer use relative to other crops grown
- In Australia, where nitrous oxide emissions have increased 130 percent since 1990 due to fertilizer usage, it’s estimated that a third of the nitrogen applied to cultivated fields is lost before serving any purpose.
- When these fertilizers are applied haphazardly, large amounts of nitrous oxide—which has a GWP (global warming potential) of 310—can be lost to the atmosphere
- Supporters of cotton though say that cotton lint provides a cotton sink for some of this nitrogen and nitrous oxide emission
Cotton, & Soil Health & Land Degradation
- [cotton] needs approximately twice as much territory as hemp per ton of finished textile
- Heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers have potential to deplete soil over the long term when cotton is grown
- Cotton production has depleted and degraded the soil in many areas.
- Most cotton is grown on well-established fields, but their exhaustion leads to expansion into new areas and the attendant destruction of habitat.
The Yield Of Cotton, & Efficiency To Process Cotton
- [an average yield from one farmer might be] from 2 to 4 tons (4400 to 8800 lbs.) of cotton per hectare, or 0,8 to 1,6 tons (1760 to 3527 lbs.) per acre.
- Keep in mind that 1 ton = 1000 kg = 2.200 lbs. and 1 hectare = 2,47 acres = 10.000 square meters.
- The expected yield of ginned cotton is 0,66 to 1,33 tons (1455 to 2932 lbs.) per hectare or 589 to 1187 lbs. per acre.
- Keep in mind that there can be significant deviations from these figures.
- Over the last 20 years [up to 2017], Australia’s cotton yield has increased 38%
- [as a comparison of cotton to hemp], Hemp for fibre will be harvested as a fibre only crop or a dual grain and fibre crop.
- In a dual-purpose scenario, stalk yield estimates are 0.75 to 1.5 tonnes/acre.
- In crops grown and managed solely for fibre, average yields of 2.5 to 3 tonnes/acre are expected with a range from 1 to 6 tonnes per acre.
- [as a comparison of cotton to bamboo], Bamboo grows very densely, its clumping nature enables a lot of it to be grown in a comparatively small area, easing pressure on land use.
- With average yields for bamboo of up to 60 tonnes per hectare greatly exceeding the average yield of 20 tonnes for most trees and the average yield of 2 tonnes per hectare for cotton, bamboo’s high yield per hectare becomes very significant.
How Effectively Is The Cotton Plant Used?
Quite effectively – it is used for both the lint (for fibre), and the cotton seeds for cottonseed oil.
How Many Chemicals Does Cotton Use In The Processing Stage?
This is where cotton can be very damaging.
Unless it’s certified cotton (certified not to use synthetic chemicals), cotton can use a lot of chemicals, bleaches, dyes and other substances during the cotton processing stage.
Pollution Of Land, Air & Water By Cotton Growing & Processing
Conventional cotton growing can use a lot of pesticide and fertilizers.
Production can also use chemicals, bleaches, dyes and other synthetic toxic substances.
All of the above substances and solids can get into the soil, water and air either when they are used, or when they are discharged or dumped.
For example, pesticide and fertilizer can run off into the soil, into groundwater tables, and into the ocean and freshwater streams and rivers.
Impact Of Cotton On Humans & Human Health
There’s several human health and other human issues related to cotton growing and production, such as:
- The amount of water that cotton uses means that this water (if it comes from an irrigated freshwater source) can’t be given to people in developing countries for drinking water. India is a good example of where this happens
- Cancer – Global organizations estimate thousands of people exposed to the chemicals used in non-organic cotton production die of cancer, poisoning, and miscarriages each year. Many also suffer from birth defects and other diseases such as asthma. The exposure to these toxic chemicals is taking its toll mostly in developing countries, such as India and Uzbekistan.
- The majority of cotton farmers and workers live in developing countries, work extremely long hours, are exposed to poisonous substances daily and earning very little in wages. In fact, many of them have unsustainable debts because they are unable to keep up with employer demands. Other factors such as climate change, decreasing prices of cotton and tough competition from farmers in rich countries don’t make it any easier.
Impact Of Cotton On Wildlife & Animals
Pesticides, fertilizers, production chemicals, bleaches and dyes all have the ability to harm aquatic animals and other animals.
Biodegradability Of Cotton
Cotton is a natural fibre, which means it is biodegradable by itself. But, cotton can be combined with other fibres into a fabric or piece of clothing which might not be very biodegradable.
You also have to consider the chemicals on that piece of clothing which might not be all natural.
Use Of GMOs In Cotton Growing
- In the U.S., 93 percent of all cotton currently grown is GMO cotton.
Option For Organic Cotton
Cotton does have an organic option in organic cotton which doesn’t use GMO seeds, and doesn’t use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or processing chemicals.
You have to make sure to get certified organic cotton (ideally by a recognized third party) though to know exactly what you are getting.