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Is cotton culture really sustainable?
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Blog...Is cotton culture really sustainable?

Is cotton culture really sustainable?

Green News
Textile
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In this article we’ll cover everything you need to know about cotton, how it’s produced, and what kind of impact it has on the environment. ‍
Green News
2024-03-08T00:00:00.000Z
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Cotton, you’ve probably not given it too much thought, but this remarkable plant has shaped economies, driven technological advancements, and influenced global trade for centuries. It's no exaggeration to say that its fibres have clothed nations, that its demand has spurred innovations, and its cultivation has been at the heart of some of the world's most significant historical events.

Today, cotton is under the spotlight for a completely different reason - its environmental impact. Leading to questions such as: How sustainable is cotton production? What impact does it have on our environment? And is organic cotton more eco-friendly? This article delves into these questions, exploring cotton’s journey through history and the effects that it has on the environment. 

👉 In this article we’ll cover everything you need to know about cotton, how it’s produced, and what kind of impact it has on the environment. 

What is cotton?

Cotton comes from the humble cotton plant - a plant that is extensively cultivated worldwide, so much so that it’s the most widespread and profitable non-food crop on Earth. With a huge variety of uses, the cotton market is estimated to be worth over USD 44926.88 million and growing every year. 

Cotton, a natural fibre, is predominantly composed of cellulose, a type of organic polymer. In fact, around 90% of cotton fibre is cellulose. The cotton fibres can reach lengths of up to 2 inches, the longest cells of any plant. It’s these fibres that make cotton so versatile. They can be easily twisted into thread and woven into cloth. 

When you think of cotton, you probably think of its role in the fashion industry. However, cotton's versatility extends to a diverse array of products. Its applications range from the production of sturdy denim and soft corduroy to practical items like fishing nets, absorbent towels, and even coffee filters. This hugely varied use underscores cotton's adaptability and the significance of its polymer content in shaping its utility.

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The history of cotton

The history of cotton is deeply entrenched in our own history. Cotton has been a fundamental part of our cultural and economic development for centuries. There is some debate around the earliest example of cotton use, with evidence of cotton cultivation dating back to as early as 6000 BC in Huaca Prieta, Peru. 

Irrespective of cotton's earliest application many regions across the world came to rely on the cotton plant over time. Native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, cotton played a vital role in many societies. These societies not only cultivated cotton but also advanced the art of textile making, weaving cotton into various fabrics that were prized for their comfort and durability.

As time progressed, cotton's influence gradually expanded across the globe, and by the mediaeval period the cotton trade was beginning to spread. Cotton fabric from India, known for its fine quality, was a highly sought-after commodity in Europe and the Middle East. Exploration further fuelled the spread of cotton, as explorers and merchants brought this valuable commodity to new lands.

The 18th and 19th centuries marked a significant turning point in the history of cotton with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Automated machines such as the cotton gin revolutionised the production of cotton textiles, making them more accessible and sparking a wave of economic and social change, especially in Britain and America.

Today, the story of cotton continues to evolve. India and China have emerged as the world's largest producers, with a staggering output of 6.7 million metric tons and 5.6 million metric tons respectively in 2022/2023. The United States, although ranking third in production, holds the title of the largest exporter of raw cotton globally.

💡 Within the US, cotton cultivation is a significant market, especially in the southern states. Stretching from California to Virginia, these 17 states have a climate that is highly favourable to cotton farming, with Texas being the country's top cotton producer.

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Cotton in the 21st century

In the 21st century, the cotton industry continues to be a vital component of the global economy, evolving with technological advancements, changing market demands, and an increasing focus on sustainability and ethical practices.

What is cotton used for?

Cotton's versatility remains unparalleled. While its most common use is in the textile industry for clothing, cotton’s applications extend far beyond this. It’s an important component in manufacturing home furnishings like bedding and curtains, medical supplies such as bandages and gauze, and even industrial products like tarpaulins and canvas. Innovations have led to the development of more specialised uses of cotton, including filtration systems and soundproofing materials.

Global spread

The cultivation of cotton is geographically widespread, with key production areas including India, China, the United States, Brazil, and Pakistan. Each of these countries has developed its unique methods and technologies for cotton farming, tailored to local climatic conditions and market demands. Advances in agricultural practices, such as genetically modified crops for pest resistance and improved irrigation techniques, have significantly increased yields and efficiency.

Economic impact

The economic significance of cotton cannot be overstated. It's an industry that supports millions of jobs worldwide, from farming and harvesting to processing, manufacturing, and retail. Cotton farming is particularly vital for the economies of many developing countries, where it can be a primary source of income for rural communities.

Technological advancements in cotton production

Technology plays a crucial role in the modern cotton industry. From precision agriculture that optimises planting and harvesting to advancements in textile manufacturing that reduce waste and improve efficiency, technology is helping to address some of the environmental and economic challenges facing the industry.

Sustainability and ethical practices

A growing concern in the 21st century is the environmental and social impact of cotton production. Issues such as water usage, pesticide application, and labour practices have led to increased scrutiny. This awareness has sparked a movement towards more sustainable and ethically produced cotton, such as organic cotton, which is grown without harmful chemicals, and fair-trade cotton, which ensures equitable trade practices and fair compensation for farmers.

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How are cotton products manufactured?

Before we get into the details on the environmental impact of cotton manufacturing it’s first important to understand how cotton is produced in the first place. 

Cotton manufacturing begins in the fields where cotton shrubs are grown. This journey from plant to product encompasses several critical stages: 

Cultivation and harvesting

The process starts with the growing of the cotton crop, which thrives in warm climates with well-drained, fertile soils. Once the plants mature, their white, fluffy tufts or ‘cotton bolls’ (the protective capsules around the seeds) are ready for harvest. 

The timing of this harvest is key - it needs to happen when the bolls are open but before any wet weather, which can damage the quality of the cotton.

Ginning

Post-harvest, the collected cotton is known as 'seed cotton' because each fluffy fibre is entangled with cotton seeds. The next phase of the process is ginning, a mechanical process that separates the cotton fibres from the seeds. This separation is vital, as the seeds can be processed into various by-products like cottonseed oil, animal feed, and even planting seeds for the next crop cycle.

Cleaning and baling

Once the seeds are removed, the remaining fibre, now called lint, undergoes thorough cleaning to remove any remaining debris. This cleaned cotton is then methodically compressed into large bales. Each bale, weighing approximately 500 pounds, represents a significant volume of cotton - enough to produce 215 denim jeans, 750 shirts, 3,000 nappies, or 680,000 cotton balls!   

Transportation and further processing

These bales are then ready for shipment to various destinations, both domestic and international. Upon reaching textile mills, the bales undergo further processing. This involves carding (aligning the fibres), combing (refining and straightening the fibres), and spinning (twisting the fibres into yarn). The cotton yarn is then woven or knitted into fabric, forming the basis for a multitude of cotton-based products.

Quality control and diversification

Throughout this process, quality control is important and ensures that the cotton meets industry standards. Moreover, in recent years, there has been a significant push towards diversification in the manufacturing process to include more sustainable practices. These include organic farming methods, water-efficient technologies, and eco-friendly processing techniques.

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Why is cotton so popular?

Cotton's enduring popularity can be attributed to a variety of factors: 

Versatility in usage

One of the key reasons for cotton's popularity is its versatile nature. It can be transformed into a wide variety of products: cotton fabrics are used in everything from blue jeans to Egyptian cotton bedsheets to medical supplies and even industrial materials. This versatility stems from cotton's ability to blend with other fibres (including synthetic fibres), its dye-friendly nature, and the varied textures it can achieve, ranging from delicate cotton voile to tough denim.

Comfort and adaptability

Cotton's popularity is also due to its exceptional comfort and adaptability to different weather conditions. Cotton clothing can provide insulation, keeping the body warm in colder temperatures. At the same time, its breathability and ability to absorb sweat make it ideal for hot climates, offering a cooling effect as the moisture evaporates from the fabric. This year-round suitability makes cotton a preferred choice for a variety of clothing and bedding products.

Ease of care

Cotton is well-loved for its ease of maintenance. It is generally machine washable, durable, and, with proper care, can maintain its appearance and texture over time. This user-friendly aspect adds to its appeal for both consumers and manufacturers.

Environmental adaptability of the plant

The cotton plant itself contributes to the fabric's popularity. It is a relatively hardy shrub, capable of thriving in a variety of soil types. Its preference for hot, dry climates, with minimal water requirements, makes it well-suited for cultivation in many parts of the world, particularly in the southern U.S., which has become a hub for cotton production.

Challenges in cultivation

However, it’s important to note that cotton cultivation does face challenges, particularly in terms of susceptibility to pests and diseases. These challenges require careful management, often involving integrated pest management practices and the development of more resilient cotton varieties.

Additionally, in recent years, the plant has come under fire for its environmental impact, something we’ll explore in more detail in the next section. 

Is cotton bad for the environment?

Cotton's widespread use and cultivation bring with them significant environmental challenges, particularly in terms of pesticide and fertiliser usage, soil degradation, and water consumption:

Pesticide and fertiliser pollution

Cotton plants are susceptible to a variety of pests and diseases, leading to heavy reliance on pesticides. Additionally, fertilisers are extensively used to enhance growth and yield. However, both these substances pose substantial environmental risks. 

Pesticides and fertilisers can contaminate soil, water, and air, affecting the quality and health of ecosystems surrounding cotton fields. One of the most significant impacts is the contamination of waterways (streams, rivers, wetlands, and lakes) near cotton plantations. This contamination can lead to harmful effects on aquatic life and the long-term accumulation of harmful chemicals in ecosystems.

Soil degradation from monoculture farming

Crop rotation is a fundamental agricultural practice that maintains soil health, as different crops contribute various nutrients and have unique root structures that balance soil use. However, the high demand for cotton has led to its continuous cultivation on the same plots of land, creating monocultures. This practice depletes soil nutrients and structure, leading to soil exhaustion. In turn, this often results in the expansion of cotton fields into previously untouched habitats, causing further environmental degradation.

High water consumption

Cotton's water footprint is another major concern. The production of just one kg of cotton requires over 10,000 litres of water! This encompasses the entire lifecycle of cotton production: planting, nurturing, harvesting, processing, and dyeing. In regions where water is scarce, this extensive water usage exacerbates local water shortages, impacting both the environment and the communities that rely on these water sources.

The need for sustainable practices

Recognising these environmental challenges, there is a growing movement within the cotton industry towards more sustainable farming and manufacturing practices. This includes integrated pest management to reduce pesticide use, organic farming that avoids synthetic fertilisers and pesticides altogether, improved irrigation techniques for water efficiency, and exploring eco-friendly alternatives for processing and dyeing.

While cotton remains a globally important and versatile commodity, its cultivation and production come with significant environmental costs. Addressing these impacts is crucial for the sustainability of the cotton industry and the health of our planet. This necessitates a collaborative effort among farmers, manufacturers, policymakers, and consumers to adopt and support practices that mitigate the environmental footprint of cotton production.
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Making cotton culture more sustainable

Despite its environmental challenges, cotton remains a crucial commodity in our global society. Recognising this, it is essential to explore and implement sustainable practices to mitigate cotton's ecological impact. This responsibility extends from individual consumers to large-scale producers and encompasses a range of strategies, from improving personal habits to innovating agricultural and manufacturing techniques:

Individual actions

Individual actions can collectively make a significant difference in reducing the environmental impact of cotton. Consumers can adopt various sustainable habits, including:

  • Recycling and upcycling clothing - Selling, trading, or donating clothes that are no longer needed helps extend the life of cotton products and reduces waste. Learning basic sewing skills to repair clothing can further prolong their usability.
  • Buying second-hand clothes - Opting for pre-owned clothing reduces the demand for new cotton production, contributing to a decrease in the overall environmental impact.
  • Creative reuse - Transforming unwearable clothes into quilts or other crafts is a creative way to recycle cotton, limiting the need for new cotton production.

Improving irrigation and water use in cotton production

Addressing the water-intensive nature of cotton cultivation is critical for its sustainability. Some strategies include:

  • Rainfed cultivation - Where feasible, relying solely on rainwater for irrigation can significantly reduce water usage.
  • Drip irrigation - Implementing drip irrigation systems, which release water in controlled, small amounts directly to the plant roots, minimises overwatering, and reduces evaporation.

Innovations in cotton processing

Technological advancements in cotton processing and manufacturing can also play a role in reducing environmental impacts:

  • Waterless dyeing technologies - Waterless dyeing technology represents a significant leap forward in reducing water consumption during the cotton dyeing process. The widespread adoption of such technologies could have a substantial positive impact on the industry's water use.
  • Collaborative efforts for sustainability - For maximum impact, it is essential for companies throughout the cotton industry to collaborate, sharing technologies and best practices to collectively reduce the environmental footprint of cotton production.

👉 By adopting sustainable habits, improving agricultural practices, and embracing technological innovations, it is possible to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of cotton while continuing to rely on this vital resource. This integrated approach is key to ensuring that cotton remains a sustainable commodity for future generations.

‍Organic cotton vs traditional cotton

The distinction between organic and conventional cotton is a topic that comes up often in discussions about sustainable agriculture and eco-friendly consumer choices. While organic cotton offers certain environmental benefits, understanding its nuances is crucial for informed decision-making.

Criteria for organic cotton

Organic cotton is distinguished from its traditional cotton through specific agricultural standards:

  • No genetic modification - Organic cotton must be grown from non-genetically modified seeds. This preserves the natural genetic diversity and avoids potential ecological risks associated with GMO crops.
  • Absence of synthetic chemicals - The cultivation of organic cotton prohibits the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Instead, organic farming relies on natural alternatives and physical, mechanical, or biological pest control methods.

Sustainability of organic cotton

Organically grown cotton tends to have less of an impact on the environment compared to conventional cotton. By avoiding harmful chemicals, organic cotton farming can improve soil health, reduce water contamination, and protect biodiversity. However, it is important to recognise that organic cotton farming may still face challenges in terms of yield and disease control compared to traditional methods.

Misconceptions and loopholes

The "organic" label, while intended to signify sustainability, is not without its complications. There are concerns about loopholes and varying standards that can lead to misunderstandings about what the label truly represents.

Certain substances permitted under organic certification may still raise environmental concerns. It's crucial to scrutinise the specific practices and inputs used in organic cotton farming to assess their true environmental impact.

Comparative sustainability

Despite these concerns, organic cotton generally remains a more sustainable option than conventional cotton. It typically has a lower environmental impact due to its reduced reliance on chemical inputs and more eco-friendly cultivation practices. However, the degree of sustainability can vary, and consumers need to be aware that "organic" does not automatically equate to maximum sustainability.

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What about Greenly?

At Greenly, we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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