Today was meant to be a Fashion Film Friday event, showcasing the 2013 THREAD documentary. We’ve tried in vain to find the full documentary, but thankfully the trailer still raises some important issues. The fashion industry and their consumers highly value cotton, however the production process makes it one of the world’s most highly pollutant industries.
Unlike polyester (as discussed in our previous article here), we are proud to own cotton products. Egyptian cotton sheets anyone? Nevertheless, this is a very water intensive crop, with over 50% of the world’s cotton fields requiring irrigation. To produce just one ton of cotton will need about 3,644 cubic metres of water. That’s 6400-15,500 litres per pound of cotton! By choosing to rely on irrigation instead of the rain-fed system, it contributes to the depletion of our water resources. You only have to look to the Aral Sea situated in Central Asia, between Northern Uzbekistan and the Southern part of Kazakhstan, to see the impacts of water abstractions for cotton irrigation. In the 1960s, the Soviet Government decided to divert the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers to irrigate desert region to promote agriculture; in particular cotton. Diverting these rivers deprived the Aral Sea of its main sources of water has resulted in the sea approximately 70% of its volume.
Conversely in the world of cotton lies the distinction of organic (OC) and conventional cotton (CC). The Organic Trade Association defines the former as ‘cotton grown without the use of toxic pesticides or fertilizers’. Instead, they focus on growth systems that will encourage agricultural biodiversity and replenish soil fertility. Thus, this type of cotton relies on methods such as strip cutting of alfalfa, crop rotation, cover crops and beneficial insect releases to reduce the cottons environmental impact. You can read more on some of these methods and materials here. Yet less than one percent of cotton produced is actually organic.
The latter, which takes up 3% of the global farmlands, requires a considerable amount of pesticides to thrive. We’re talking about 25% of the world’s Insecticides and over 10% of Pesticides (indulging Insecticides, Herbicides and Defoliants) are used to make conventional cotton farming boom. For just one t-shirt, you’re looking at a third of a pound of chemicals. These chemicals aren’t just absorbed by the plant, but make their way to the soil and waterways having huge environmental repercussions. In addition, their carcinogenic properties have been associated with numerous cases of cancer in adults and harmful and debilitating neurodevelopmental effects in children.
So what makes organic cotton better than the conventional type?
Seed Prep: Unlike the non-organic type, they never use Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds. In addition, they opt for untreated seeds while CC typically treat their seeds with fungicides and insecticides.
Weed and Pest Control: Its very hands on with OC, opting for physical removal as opposed to chemical destruction via herbicides. And when it comes to pests, insecticides and pesticides aren’t used due to their toxic nature. Instead, they work with biological and cultural practise, on top of beneficial insects, to control pests. They also dabble in the art of deception by planting trap crops to lure insects away from the OC. Therefore, the final product won’t expose your skin to persistent pesticides and toxins when you purchase an item. And your conscious will be clearer knowing farm workers work in improved organic conditions; protecting their health too.
Water and Soil: It’s all about building up and maintaining soil fertility. When the soil contains healthier organic matter, the better it is at water retention. Reducing the need for intense irrigation. CC on the other hand uses synthetic fertilizers and mono-crop culture, which strips the soil fertility and thus relies heavily on irrigation.
End Product: It’s naturally soft to the touch. Quality anyone can believe in if you ask us. (Shudders at the thought of scratchy, itchy sweaters). They’re more absorbent, and hypoallergenic- which is great for the human skin. No allergies or irritation here.
We are all consumers of textiles and our shopping habits can make a difference. By increasing the demand for safe, pure, organic products, the cotton industry will be forced to reply in kind. But this also means having organic regulation and standards boards who can verify that organic farmers are indeed playing by the rules, and that manufacturers aren’t getting toxin-happy in the production process. Considering we are a cotton-growing country as well, are these thoughts and channels being set in place? Are we preserving the organic way rather than scrambling to jump on the conventional cotton bandwagon? Maybe we need to start an Organic Cotton Directory for the continent to further push this agenda. Knowing the facts is one thing, knowing where to find the organically grown stuff is another. If you know of a designer or producer on the cotton on the continent, share in the comments below.