While cotton is an immensely popular fibre, not a lot of us know how it is actually produced. In this blog post, we’ll talk you through the production process of cotton, from field to finished garment, paying special attention to the differences between conventional and organic cotton.
History and general production process
Cotton is one of the oldest fabrics used by mankind. Historical evidence suggests that it was used over 7000 years ago in Mexico. Since the introduction of cotton to Western Europeans in the late Middle Ages, various innovations, such as spinning machinery, have made cotton one of the most popular fibres in the world today. Cotton production provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labour in developing countries. Approximately half of the world’s textiles are made of cotton!
Growing cotton begins in the green fields of countries within tropical climates, such as India, China, the U.S., Brazil or Pakistan. Optimal growth requires dry warmth, sunshine, regular irrigation and protection from pests and weeds.
The natural cotton fibre is obtained from fluffy cotton ‘bolls’ that surround the seeds of the cotton plant. After harvesting the crop from the fields either by hand or mechanically, the raw material is then fed to a machine called the ‘gin’. Here, the cotton seed is cleaned of dirt, stems and leaves and compressed into bales. Next, the cotton bales, each of which weighs about 500 pounds, are taken to textile mills to be converted into fabric. This is done by first combing and straightening the fibres into ‘slivers’ and then spinning the slivers to create yarn. Finally, looms weave the yarn into fabric by interlacing horizontal and vertical yarns. The fabric produced from the cotton may then be dyed, printed or finished before being sent to garment manufacturers for further use.
It is hard to imagine a world without cotton, as it is such a versatile, useful fabric. However, current production methods of conventional cotton are environmentally and socially unsustainable, ultimately harming our planet’s ecosystems and biodiversity. It is thus immensely important to consider carefully where cotton comes from and how it has been produced.
Negative impacts of conventional cotton
Globally, 35 million hectares of cotton are under cultivation and 90% of this is grown conventionally, meaning there are no rules or regulations that farmers have to adhere to in terms of how they grow their crops. To control the various pests that feed on the cotton plant, conventional cotton farmers rely heavily on synthetic, toxic chemicals. They use pesticides, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides to battle disease and harmful insects as well as synthetic fertilisers to enrich the soil. In developing countries, half of the pesticides used in all of agriculture are put toward cotton. The Environmental Justice Foundation even reports that cotton uses 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 24% of the world’s insecticides: more than any other single major crop. One of the most commonly used insecticides on cotton farms, Aldicarb, can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin, says the Organic Trade Association (OTA). Spraying cotton fields with these extremely hazardous chemicals has a harmful impact on farmers and families, causing them to suffer from short term as well as long term health problems, ranging from poisoning to birth defects and lung cancer. Conventional cotton farming exposes not only cotton growers to toxic carcinogenic chemicals but also consumers, as 80% of chemicals used in the dying process of conventional cotton garments still remain in the clothing long after the production process.
Another major problem with using these hazardous chemicals on the cotton fields is the pollution of ground and surface water. Researchers have found that fertilisers used on cotton are the most detrimental to the environment when they run off into freshwater habitats like rivers, lakes and wetlands or trickle into the groundwater, thus creating one of the worst nutrient-pollution problems globally. Aldicarb poisoning from agricultural water runoff has led to the destruction of healthy ecosystems and irreversible poisoning of fertile agricultural land. On top of that, the nitrogen oxides formed during the production and use of these fertilisers also create a major part of the cotton sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. And if this wasn’t enough damage, conventional cotton farming also ruins the topsoil as it becomes depleted of organic matter, decreasing its ability to hold water and leading to an overall decline in soil productivity. Plus, the constant need to create stronger, more harmful pesticides as pests become resistant to existing pesticides has impacted pollinators and beneficial species, reducing biodiversity and genetic diversity of other plant life.
Cotton is often called a “thirsty crop”, indicating the massive amounts of water it needs to grow. Some experts contend that cotton is the largest user of water among all agricultural commodities. To grow one tonne of cotton, an average of 3,644 cubic metres water is needed, the equivalent of nearly 1.5 Olympic swimming pools. In many regions, rainfall is insufficient to grow cotton and 57% of global cotton production takes place in areas under high or extreme water stress. To obtain enough water for their cotton crops, farmers usually divert surface water (from rivers or lakes) and groundwater to irrigate their fields by repeatedly flooding them. It is estimated that 97% of the Indus River (located in Pakistan and Northern India) goes towards producing crops like cotton and two-thirds of India’s cotton production is irrigated with groundwater. This inefficient usage leads to freshwater loss through evaporation and major impacts on ecosystems such as the Aral Sea in Central Asia or the Indus Delta. The Aral Sea, for example, shrank to a shocking 10% of its former volume through decades of diverting water chiefly to irrigate cotton farms. Particularly in water stressed regions, conventional cotton farming depletes freshwater resources and the use of fertilisers can cause eutrophication (enrichment of water with nitrogen) which impacts drinking water sources for people, animals and aquatic life. Another damaging ramification of heavy irrigation is soil salination. Repeatedly flooding fields with irrigation water leads salt to concentrate near the surface. As a result of that, plants can no longer grow on these soils and agriculture has to be abandoned.
Conventional cotton agriculture thus harms the environment as well as the people who live in cotton growing areas and non-organic cotton is plainly one of the most unsustainable crops in the world. Luckily, more and more farmers and consumers are catching on to organic cotton. However, as of now, only 10% of the world’s cotton is produced organically, meaning that there is still a lot of awareness to raise and a lot of change that needs to happen to make cotton production more sustainable, protect the environment and the people who work in the cotton industry.
Conventional cotton farming used up so much water from the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan that it dried up within 50 years. [Source: NASA]
Benefits of organic cotton
An important factor to keep in mind when purchasing cotton is whether it is organic. Organic cotton is a sustainable, renewable and biodegradable fibre that is ideal for eco-fashion products.
In contrast to conventional cotton, no pesticides or chemical fertilisers are used throughout the entire growing and production process of organic cotton. This is not only saving farmers money and protecting their health, but it is also beneficial for consumers as toxic chemicals in conventional cotton garments can stay within the clothes long after leaving the factory. Organic certified factories only use natural dyes, meaning that the end garments are free of residues from toxic substances often used in conventional cotton production.
So, what exactly do organic cotton farmers do differently?
Instead of polluting the soil, water and air with hazardous, synthetic chemicals, organic cotton farmers remove any pests by hand and use a rich compost (often made from cow manure) to grow and fertilise the cotton crop. On top of that, organic farmers use beneficial insects to control unwanted pests, thus enriching biodiversity! Some farmers also apply methods such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to fight off pests, which can reduce their use of pesticides by 60-80%. Sustainable cotton production can even improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions through more sustainable practices.
As mentioned before, growing and harvesting cotton requires huge amounts of water and energy. Therefore, growing cotton in a sustainable way also means planting it where rainfall is sufficient, thus avoiding irrigation altogether. The fields that grow the organic cotton for Helz Defined products, for example, are in the North of India, where the monsoons fill reservoirs that supply almost all the water needed. On top of that, wastewater from the dyehouse is recovered, cleaned and recirculated, creating a closed loop system. More and more organic cotton producers also rely on renewable energy for their factories, such as wind or solar farms. All in all, organic cotton produces roughly 46% less CO2e compared to conventional cotton.
Last but not least, organic agriculture is also socially more sustainable, as organic cotton farming is more regulated, enables fair wages, spares workers from health problems and improves working conditions for farmers and workers overall. Sustainable, organic cotton thus has the potential to lift millions of workers out of poverty by providing a more stable income and better working conditions.
A study from 2016 revealed that organic cotton had half the global warming potential of conventional cotton, 91% less use of fresh water from lakes and streams and approximately a third of the demand for energy!
This means that looking out for organic certified clothes, such as all our Helz Defined garments, is a fantastic way to reduce your environmental impact and encourage more sustainable organic cotton growing!
A certified organic cotton farmer in India shows his crops to a Teemill employee. [Source: teemill.com/the-journey]