Cotton is such a widely used fiber that some people might like to know the wide ranging impact cotton cultivation and production has.
We’ve put together a guide on the impact of growing, producing and using conventional/regular cotton – outlining factors like how much water it uses, the carbon footprint, how much land it uses, pesticide use and so on.
Summary – Impact Of Producing & Using Conventional Cotton
- Enough cotton is produced per year to make 29 t shirts for every person on Earth
- But, Western countries can use a lot more cotton. In some Western countries, we use an amount of cotton that would correspond to more than 100 t-shirts per person.
- Cotton accounts for about 31% of worldwide fibre production
- Producing cotton in some countries (like India) can use more than 2 times the average amount of water per 1kg of cotton
- Most cotton comes from land that is irrigated
- Organic cotton usually produces less carbon emissions than conventional cotton, but conventional cotton might produce more than nylon, synthetic fleece, and wool
- In some countries, like Australia, it is claimed the carbon footprint is better than netutral
- Cotton uses less embodied energy than a lot of synthetic fibres
- The amount of land that cotton uses has improved markedly over the last 40 years
- Overall, cotton occupies less than 3% of the world’s agricultural land (wheat, maize, rice and barley are the major agricultural land users)
- Worldwide, more pesticides are used on cotton than any other crop, and, cotton consumes 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide
- In the US in total pounds of active pesticide ingredient applied, only corn, soybeans and potatoes used more pesticide as crops in 2008
- In India, 50% of pesticides used goes towards cotton production
- In California, in the period of 2002 to 2007, cotton and almonds used the most high nitrogen fertilizer
- Cotton is one of 10 genetically modified crops available
- With 83 percent of cotton coming from GMO seeds, it one one of the top four GMO crops produced in the world alongside soy (89 percent), canola (75 percent) and corn (61 percent).
- China, India and the United States produce the most cotton
- Cotton provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labor in developing countries. Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton
How Much Cotton Is Produced A Year
- 29 million tons of cotton are produced a year – The same as 29 t-shirts for everyone on Earth.
- But, the consumption of cotton varies a lot. In some Western countries, we use an amount of cotton that would correspond to more than 100 t-shirts per person.
- More than 100 countries in the world grow cotton (source: ICAC 2012)
- Cotton accounts for about 31% of worldwide fibre production (source: Australian Grown Cotton Sustainability Report, 2014)
- The global 20 year average (1993/94 to 2013/14) annual planted area is 33 million hectares of cotton (source: Bremen Cotton Exchange, 2014) producing about 26 million tonnes of lint each year
- Average world cotton yields reached 780 kilograms of lint per hectare in 2013/14, up markedly from 230 kilograms of lint per hectare in the 1950s (source: Bremen Cotton Exchange 2014)
How Much Water Does Cotton Use
- The water footprint of one pound of cotton is 1,320 gallons
- The water footprint of different cotton products are…
- Bed sheets (cotton) – 2,839 gallons
- Jeans (cotton) – 2,108 gallons
- T Shirt (cotton) – 659 gallons
- It takes 2,700 liters (713 gallons) of water to make just one cotton t shirt
- A 2005 report shows…
- For the period 1997-2001 the study shows that the worldwide consumption of cotton products requires 256 Gm3 of water per year worldwide, out of which about 42% is blue water (withdrawal from freshwater sources), 39% green water (rainfall/evaporated water) and 19% dilution water (polluted water)
- Virtual water content of seed cotton…
- The global average virtual water content of seed cotton is 3644 m3 /ton.
- The global volume of water use for cotton crop production is 198 Gm3 /yr with nearly an equal share of green and blue water.
- The water use for cotton production differs considerably over the countries.
- Climatic conditions for cotton production are least attractive in Syria, Egypt, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey because evaporative demand in all these countries is very high (1000-1300 mm) while effective rainfall is very low (0-100 mm).
- Climatic conditions for cotton production are most attractive in the USA and Brazil.
- The best cotton harvesting countries combine high rainfalls and high yields
- Virtual water content of cotton products…
- 30 m3 per ton for bleaching, 140 m3 per ton for dying and 190 m3 per ton for printing
- Virtual water content of cotton products at different stages of production…
- It’s different for cotton lint, grey fabric, and regular fabric. For a final textile, the global average is 9359 m3 /ton
- Producing 1kg of cotton in India consumes 22,500 litres of water, on average
- By exporting more than 7.5m bales of cotton in 2013, India also exported about 38bn cubic metres of virtual water.
- Cotton doesn’t usually consume this much water. The global average water footprint for 1kg of cotton is 10,000 litres. Even with irrigation, US cotton uses just 8,000 litres per kg. The far higher water footprint for India’s cotton is due to inefficient water use and high rates of water pollution
- In 54% of the country 40 to 80% of annually available surface water is used. To be sustainable, consumption should be no more than 20% in humid zones and 5% in dry areas, to maintain the ecological function of rivers and wetlands
- India could grow cotton in less arid regions with more efficient irrigation and fewer pesticides to greatly reduce the crop’s impact on water resources.
- 73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land
Carbon Footprint Of Cotton
- To estimate the embodied energy in any fabric it’s necessary to add the energy required in two separate fabric production steps – 1) fibre production (growing cotton) 2) energy used to weave those yarns into fabric
- What we see is that natural fibres like cotton have a lower energy requirement and carbon footprint than synthetic fibres when taking into consideration both crop cultivation and fiber production
- In terms of kg of C02 emissions per ton of spun fiber, conventional cotton (USA) comes in at 5.90, organic cotton (India) at 3.80, organic cotton (USA) at 2.35, and polyester (USA) at 9.52
- In terms of energy use in MJ per KG of fiber (embodied energy in the production of fibers), flax fibre comes in at 10 MJ per kg, cotton 55, wool 63, viscose 100, polypropylene 115, polyester 125, acrylic 175, and nylon 250
- Organic fibers have the lowest footprint, followed by natural, with synthetic having the highest energy and carbon footprint
The precise carbon footprint of different textiles varies considerably according to a wide range of factors. However, studies of textile production in Europe suggest the following carbon dioxide equivalent emissions footprints per kilo of textile at the point of purchase by a consumer:
- Cotton: 8
- Nylon: 5.43
- PET (e.g. synthetic fleece): 5.55
- Wool: 5.48
Accounting for durability and energy required to wash and dry textile products, synthetic fabrics generally have a substantially lower carbon footprint than natural ones.
- Cotton production has a small greenhouse gas footprint (approximately 300 pounds of carbon equivalent emissions per acre, excluding potential nitrous oxide emissions).
- U.S. cotton has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 30% since 1980.
- In Australia, Cotton growing has a better-than-neutral carbon footprint. Net on-farm emissions of greenhouse gases on cotton farms are negative because the cotton plants store more carbon than is released from production inputs used during growth
- The main sources of emissions on an irrigated cotton farm are synthetic fertilisers and electricity and fossil fuels used to power irrigation pumps
A case study of Chinese cotton shirts found:
- Estimated average CFP (carbon footprint) for the life cycle of a pure cotton shirt was 8.771 kgCO2e (kg of C02 equivalent).
- The industrial production stage accounts for the highest proportion of CFP.
- Overall agricultural and industrial production represents more than 90% of CFP.
- Approximately 96% of CFP is indirect, embedded in energy and materials.
- Energy consumption, especially electricity, is the main CFP of textile products.
How Much Land Does Cotton Use
- 50% more cotton is produced worldwide today on the same amount of land as compared to 40 some years ago
- cotton occupies less than 3% of the world’s agricultural land
- cotton production provides two crops with each seasonal harvest: cotton fiber, which currently supplies 30% of the world’s textile fiber needs, and cottonseed, a source of nutritious cooking oil and a protein-rich supplement for dairy cattle and aquaculture feeds
The land Area and Relative Proportion of the 18 Major Crop Categories in the world are:
|Crop||Area, 1000 km2||Relative Fraction, %|
|Oil palm fruit||72||<1|
|Total of major 18 crops||15,256||85|
You can also read about the geographical distribution about which countries the major crops are found in at:
How Much Pesticide Does Cotton Use
- More chemical pesticides are used for cotton than any other crop
- Over 2 billion US dollars has been spent on pesticides for cotton worldwide this year
- Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop and epitomizes the worst effects of chemically dependent agriculture.
- Each year cotton producers around the world use nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides — more than 10 per cent of the world’s pesticides and nearly 25 per cent of the world’s insecticides.
- Cotton growers typically use many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market including aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan.
- Cotton pesticides are often broad spectrum organophosphates — pesticides originally developed as toxic nerve agents during World War II — and carbamate pesticides.
- Cotton consumes 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide
- Cotton is grown on 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land
In 2008, in U.S. agriculture, of 21 selected crops that accounted for roughly 72 percent of total conventional pesticide use (excluding sulfur, petroleum distillate, sulfuric acid, and hydrated lime), the following was the pesticide use by crop, as a percent of total pounds of active ingredient applied:
- Corn – 39.5%
- Soybeans – 21.7%
- Potatoes – 10.2%
- Cotton – 7.3%
- Wheat – 4.5%
- Sorghum – 2.7%
- Oranges – 2.5%
- Other – 2.5% (lettuce, pears, sweet corn, barley, peaches, grapefruit, pecans, and lemons.)
- Peanuts – 2.0%
- Tomatoes – 1.9%
- Grapes – 1.5%
- Rice – 1.5%
- Apples – 1.4%
- Sugar Cane – 0.8%
- In India, about 50% of all pesticides used in the country are used in cotton production
How Much Fertilizer Does Cotton Use
- In California, [nitrogen] Fertilizer use is not distributed equally among crops.
- Of the 345,900 tons of nitrogen fertilizer accounted for in the application rates of the 33 commodities considered in [a particular study], approximately 34% is applied to perennials, 27% to vegetables and 42% to field crops.
- Notably … estimates show that relatively few crops account for much of the nitrogen use.
- Multiplying the average-nitrogen-use estimates for each crop by the average harvested acreage for 2002 to 2007 indicates cotton received the largest fraction of the total nitrogen applied, 16%, while almond received 15%, rice and wheat each received 10%, processing tomatoes received 7% and lettuce received 6%.
- Altogether these six crops account for 64% of the total nitrogen use.
The high nitrogen fertilizer use crops are (as a relative proportion of the overall nitrogen fertilizer used):
- Cotton – 16%
- Almond – 15%
- Wheat – 10%
- Rice – 10%
- Processed Tomatoes – 7%
- Lettuce – 6%
- Grapes – 4%
- Walnut – 4%
- Stone Fruit – 3%
- Oranges – 3%
- Broccoli – 3%
- Carrots – 2%
- Pistachio – 2%
- Onions – 1%
- Potato – 1%
- Avocado – 1%
- Lemons – 1%
- Cauliflower – 1%
- Celery – 1%
- Strawberry – 1%
- Sweet Corn – 1%
- Melons – 1%
- Peppers – 1%
- Fresh Market Tomatoes – 1%
- Dry Beans – 1%
There’s also data on the crop area and pounds of nitrogen used per acre of these and other crops from 2005 in a table at http://calag.ucanr.edu/Archive/?article=ca.E.v067n01p68
- Cotton takes up about 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre for each 480-pound bale produced.
- Nitrogen is essential for the development of all plant organs including shoots, buds, leaves, roots, and bolls
Worldwide, fertilizer use (nitrogen, potash and phosphate) on the different types of arable and permanent crops, both as a % of total and an application rate in kg per hectare, was:
- Cereals – 64% (of total fertilizer use), and a 102 kg per hectare fertilizer application rate
- Oilseeds – 9.2%, and 85kg/ha
- Vegetables – 4.9%, and 242kg/ha
- Sugar beet/cane – 4.7%, and 216kg/ha
- Roots/tubers – 4.5%, and 212kg/ha
- Fibres – 4.4%, and 144kg/ha (cotton is a fibre crop – but there are also others)
- Fruits – 3.6%, and 163kg/ha
- Tobacco, beverages – 2.0%, and 153kg/ha
- Pulses – 1.9%, and 39kg/ha
Chemicals On Clothing Made With Cotton
- Prints on clothing are typically made from PVC, phthalates and other harmful chemicals.
- Up to 8,000 chemicals can be used in the production and processing of textiles – for dyeing, treating, printing and finishing
Genetically Modified Cotton
- The 10 genetically modified crops available today are: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets.
- In the U.S., 93 percent of all cotton currently grown is GMO cotton.
- Approximately 94 percent of the soy planted in the U.S. is GM soy
- Approximately 89 percent of corn in the U.S. is GM corn
- cotton is one of the crops most intensively reliant on big GMO seed companies like Monsanto. With 83 percent of cotton coming from GMO seeds, it one one of the top four GMO crops produced in the world alongside soy (89 percent), canola (75 percent) and corn (61 percent).
- Monsanto is currently the world’s biggest seed and pesticide corporation, leading the way in GM seed development, and taking monopoly over GM seed prices. They are also the cause of thousands of farmer suicides throughout India and China. Over 54,000 suicides were recorded between 1995 and 2017 in Maharashtra, India, averaging at 2,454 suicides a year. Farmers are choosing death over the stress of debt.
- Firstly, Monsanto continuously increase seed prices, throwing farmers into more and more debt. Secondly, they have made their seeds non-renewable, meaning the seeds from past crops cannot be used for the next crop; the farmers must buy more. This throws farmers into utter despair and depression. Cotton is also grown as a monoculture, when in the past it relied on surrounding crops to protect against pests, disease, drought, and crop failure. The change of growth style reduces the success of crops. Monsanto have created a monstrous cotton issue, and it needs to be stopped.
Environmental, Wildlife, Social & Health Impact Of Cotton
As a summary, some of the overall issues to do with cotton are:
- How much water it uses – mainly irrigation water from freshwater sources
- It contributes to water scarcity and water shortages
- Use of pesticides during growing – can be harmful for cotton farm workers, animals and as run off into soil and water, and can create secondary pests or pests that become immune to certain pesticides
- Use of fertilizer – contributes to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, runoff into the soil and water, and run off into the ocean contributing to eutrophication
- Use of chemicals during cotton production and processing – contaminates water so it can’t be re-used, can run off into environment
- Some people worry that GMO cotton crops can become a problem
- + other issues
- Cotton is mostly grown in monocultures – not good for crop biodiversity
- Cotton is pesticide intensive
- Pesticides get washed out of soils, and pollute rivers, the ocean and groundwater. Pests often develop resistance to pesticides that are used on a continuous basis. Pesticides can create secondary pests, and harm other wildlife
- Intensively cultivated cotton requires large amounts of water for irrigation, which can cause soil salinisation, particularly in dry areas and hence a degradation of soil fertility. Rivers and lakes can dry up, and water can be wasted with poor water infrastructure
- Cotton contributes to climate change with the heavy use of fertilizers (takes energy to make and transport – releasing carbon dioxide). The excessive application of nitrates to agricultural land leads produces nitrous oxide – another greenhouse gas. Finally, soils are important carbon sinks. Soil degradation seriously reduces their carbon sequestration capacity, thereby contributing to the greenhouse effect.
- Fertilizer run off into oceans also contributes to eutrophication
- There are also health problems to do with workers that work on cotton farms coming into contact with and inhaling pesticides
- Economically – the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in monoculture causes soil degradation, reducing its nutrient and water retention capacity. As a consequence, farmers face declining yields and have to increase production inputs. This can impact a farmer’s bottom line, along with climatic conditions and volatile world markets for cotton prices
- Pesticides used on cotton — even when used according to instructions — harm people, wildlife and the environment. These pesticides can poison farm workers, drift into neighboring communities, contaminate ground and surface water and kill beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms
- Up to 2000 chemicals are used in textile processing, many of them known to be harmful to human (and animal) health.
- The application of these chemicals uses copious amounts of water. In fact, the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet.
- Wastewaters are discharged (largely untreated) into our groundwater with a high pH and temperature as well as chemical load.
- Cotton is a controversial crop in countries like India that are water scarce – The water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would be 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 do not have access to safe water.
- Water from cotton growing and production is either evaporated or too contaminated to use for anything else
- Some governments, like in India, subsidise cotton despite how much water it uses (most than double the US’ usage rate for cotton)
Countries That Produce The Most Cotton
In 2014/15, the major cotton producing countries overall were:
- China: 33.0 million bales
- India: 27.0 million bales
- United States: 18.0 million bales
- Pakistan: 10.3 million bales
- Brazil: 9.3 million bales
- Uzbekistan: 4.6 million bales
- Australia: 1.9 million bales
- Turkey: 2.8 million bales
- Turkmenistan: 1.6 million bales
- Greece: 1.4 million bales
Value Of The Cotton Industry, & Employment
- In 2012, the global value in billions of US dollars of cotton fibre crops was $37 billion US dollars
- The world cotton market [as a whole] was estimated at USD $77 billion for 2014/15
- Cotton provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labor in developing countries. Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton.
2. Rosenstock T, Liptzin D, Six J, Tomich T. 2013. Nitrogen fertilizer use in California: Assessing the data, trends and a way forward. Calif Agr 67(1):68-79. – http://calag.ucanr.edu/Archive/?article=ca.E.v067n01p68