Material Guide: Cotton Environmental Impact

Where does the raw material come from?

Cotton crop is typically produced by independent farmers, either on small family run farms, or on larger industrial farming operations. They are grown in many regions around the world, the five largest cotton producing countries are: India, China, United States, Brazil and Pakistan. In addition, many other countries produce cotton at a small scale, or for domestic use (eg. in Latin America, East and West Africa, etc.).

Cotton’s impact on the environment depends on production, as it can be produced in adherence to a number of different standards and approaches. The most typical approaches are as follows.

Conventional cotton

Conventional cotton is produced without any specific environmental or social considerations in mind. It can be produced using GMO seeds, and with the use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. There is no globally recognised standard for “conventional cotton,” rather, cotton that does not adhere to any other environmental impact or social standards, is colloquially called “conventional” cotton. 

Organic cotton

Organic cotton is produced in adherence with requirements set forth by an organic standard. Three commonly used organic labels are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), OCS Organic Content Standard, and USDA Organic. The main difference between these standards includes the scope to which the requirements apply. GOTS requires cotton to be produced, processed, and traced in accordance to key environmental and social requirements, while OCS and USDA focus on on-farm activities only. Organic cotton generally allows fertilisers and other crop protective agents, but these are limited to ones that are approved under the organic label. 

Regenerative cotton 

Regenerative agriculture seeks to have a positive impact on soils, water and carbon stocks – thus transitioning a farm from being resource depleting to resource regenerating. While the concept is not entirely new, it has gotten significant traction over the last 18 months – driven largely by the recognition that farm land that serves as a carbon sink could ensure that agriculture goes from causing global warming, towards solving global warming. Key challenges remain around defining, measuring and monitoring crops produced using regenerative approaches – and for that reason the term is sometimes accused of being a buzzword without substance. Recently, the regenerative organic standard has emerged as an approach to assuring consistency and credibility in claims for crops that are produced using regenerative techniques.

What environmental impact does the material have?

Water consumption / pollution

Cotton is often described as a thirsty crop – this is because cotton is often (but not always) heavily irrigated. In addition, agricultural water runoff from cotton production often contains agro chemicals used in the production – which can have polluting effects on nearby water sources. Some metrics that evaluate water intensity of crops include this runoff water in calculations. 

According to the Guardian “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 — about 50% of all pesticides used in the country are in cotton production.”

The main factors that influence the amount of water used are: 1. climate (drier climates require farmers to apply more water), 2. irrigation systems (efficient and well-planned systems optimise water use per bale of cotton) and 3. judicial use of agrochemicals. 

To get idea of the extent of agri-chemical use in cotton, statistics indicate that Cotton accounts for 16% of global insecticide releases – more than any other single crop. In India, home to over one third of the world’s cotton farmers, cotton accounts for 54% of all pesticides used annually – despite occupying just 5% of land under crops.

GHG emission

When cotton is produced using agri-chemicals, it has a high GHG footprint, as these chemicals have a lot of embedded carbon within them. In addition, conventional cotton production depletes soils, which reduces soil carbon, and often results in farms transitioning to more fertile land – thereby placing pressures on land use. According to ITC, “cotton production contributes to between 0.3% and 1% of total global GHG Emissions

Overall recommendation

Each fabric category has its own advantages and disadvantages. Regarding cotton, it is important to understand that cotton farmers are often small scale, family owned, and in very poor countries. These small businesses are vulnerable to economic shocks, so uncertainty around the ability to sell their crop, especially if they go the extra mile to make it organic, is a huge problem for them. 

When sourcing cotton, our overall recommendations would be as follow:

  1. Make commitments to purchase organic cotton,
  2. Verify the origin and certification of the cotton by looking out for GOTS or Regenerative Organic Standard certificates
  3. Purchase the cotton in advance and ideally back the commitment through a contract

If you want to learn more about other sustainable textiles take a read of our article on sustainable synthetic fabric, and check out our other sustainable fabric guides.

Where to get more info?