Cotton is one of the most popular fibers in the world and is used in nearly half of all clothing today. The use of cotton for fabric is known to date to prehistoric times; fragments of cotton fabric dated from 5000 BC have been excavated in Mexico and the Indus Valley Civilization in Ancient India. Although cultivated since antiquity, it was the invention of the cotton gin that lowered the cost of production that led to its widespread use.
Cotton is a natural and biodegradable fiber. If the soil is cared for properly, it’s also readily renewable and can be grown and regrown for years and years. In the consumer’s life, we know cotton to be extremely easy to care for. It doesn’t require dry cleaning and is easy to wash and remove stains. It also doesn’t pill or cling which makes it easy to wear in nearly any situation. You can even find formal evening gowns in cotton blend fabrics and most lace fabrics use cotton thread.
While cotton use is very simple and easy from the consumers’ point of view, the production of cotton is extremely taxing on water and land resources. It can take more than 20,000 liters or 5000 gallons of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans.
Cotton production also accounts for 18% of worldwide pesticide use and 25% of total insecticide use. While pesticide use isn’t as concerning in clothing as in food, our skin is the largest organ and these trace chemicals can be passed into the bloodstream of the people wearing these clothes. Worse, producers of conventional cotton are being poisoned by the heavy pesticide use: more than 10,000 US farmers die each year from cancers related to such chemicals. Even people who drink from water supplies near cotton farms run the risk of ingesting pesticides that have seeped into the ground. Pesticides have been shown to not only harm the earth and its natural resources, but to also cause severe health problems like ADHD, weakened immune systems, and birth defects.
It’s no secret that cotton production has a long history with slave labor especially the in the southern United States. What many people don’t realize is that this link with slave labor hasn’t remained in the past. Uzbekistan is the most infamous country for using forced child labor for picking cotton. Cotton's nickname in Uzbekistan is "white gold". While many companies have specific restrictions against the use of Uzbek cotton in their factory policies, there is so little transparency in fabric sourcing that many companies can honestly say they don’t know if it came from Uzbekistan or not.
In India, one of the biggest cotton exporters in the world, has also felt the ugly effects of cotton production. Since the mid-1990s, around 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide (about one every thirty minutes) which has been attributed to debt caused by expensive Monsanto cotton seeds and pesticides in conjunction with fluctuating cotton prices. In the Punjab region of India, the use of pesticides in cotton farming has also lead to a spike in cancer rates and significant birth defects in the children of farmers.
Better Cotton Initiative
BCI exists to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future, by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity. Better Cotton is based on six production principles:
- produced by farmers who minimize the harmful impact of crop protection practices.
- produced by farmers who use water efficiently and care for the availability of water.
- produced by farmers who care for the health of the soil.
- produced by farmers who conserve natural habitats.
- produced by farmers who care for and preserve the quality of the fibre.
- produced by farmers who promote Decent Work.
More information on the BCI website. Some companies are investing in Better Cotton including Levi Strauss, IKEA, and Adidas.
Organic cotton farmers do not use chemical pesticides at all. They use natural techniques to ward off insects and threats, including
- releasing beneficial insects into the crops
- covering them with natural materials to prevent invaders
- crop rotation, where crop types are switched in and out to avoid a large build up of cotton-specific pests
- mixed cultivation, which helpers reduce crop-specific invaders; the encouragement of bird species that feed on predatory insects
- creation of sustainable habitats for insects that like to feed on cotton pests, such as ladybugs, spiders, and ants.
Not only is organic cotton healthier than conventional cotton, but it also feels softer because the threads have not been broken down or damaged by chemicals used in their growing process. Organic cotton sheets are a great way to reduce your exposure to dangerous chemicals. Some organic clothing brands include Alternative Apparel, Noctu, and Study NY.
There have also been some exciting strides in man-made fibers such as modal and Tencel which mimic the feel of regular cotton (sometimes even softer!). But those come with their own pros and cons (post about those fibers to come).
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