5 Reasons Why Cotton Could Be The Least-Sustainable Fabric on Earth – SANNA Conscious Concept

5 Reasons Why Cotton Could Be The Least-Sustainable Fabric on Earth

Cotton is a global industry worth some $3 trillion, yet the textile and garment industry faces a number of formidable sustainability challenges, many of which are rooted in the supply chain.

Every year, around 20 million tons of cotton is produced in 90 countries, including the United States, China, India, Pakistan and across West Africa. In fact, 2.5% of all available crop land is being used to grow cotton—that’s around 35 million hectares.

Although it is one of the most common fabrics on Earth, is it still the way forward? Is it sustainable? Here, we break down the social and environmental impacts of cotton, arguing it could actually be the least-sustainable fabric on the planet. 

01. High water consumption & pollution 

Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops on the planet, accounting for more than 3% of all of the world’s water consumption used in agriculture. It takes 10,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton, meaning it takes about 2,700 liters of water to make 1 cotton t-shirt. 

Irresponsible farming has led to over one third of the world’s land now being completely unusable – what was once fertile farmland is desolate wasteland. In Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea has been drained to provide sufficient irrigation for the country’s cotton production (see above). Where there was once a vast water reserve, the cotton farms that surrounded it used up all of this precious resource, leaving behind a toxic, barren wasteland that affected thousands of local habitants. Furthermore, the pesticide and chemical residues that were left behind were so deadly that many locals who were exposed to them contracted tuberculosis and cancer.

02. Soil degradation 

Another problem of cotton production is its extensive use of land, converting large habitats to agricultural use. Cotton cultivation also severely degrades soil quality; the use of such high quantities of water results in soil salinisation, meaning that other plants will struggle or fail to grow there.

Despite the global areas devoted to cotton cultivation remaining constant for the past 70 years, cotton production has depleted and degraded the soil in most locations. Cotton is often grown on well-established fields, but their exhaustion leads to expansion into new areas and the destruction of other habitats.

03. Greenhouse gas emissions 

Although the manufacture, distribution and consumer-use phases of the lifecycle of a cotton product account for the majority of its total greenhouse gas emissions, cotton production is responsible for approximately 12% the total. There are multiple reasons for this, including the water irrigation systems used in cotton production, which can be significant drivers of greenhouse gas emissions in certain areas where water must be pumped and moved across long distances, or where the electricity grid operates on high-emitting power sources like coal. Forests, wetlands and grasslands converted for cotton production can also eliminate natural vegetation that store carbon.

04. Use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers

Cotton production uses $2 billion worth of pesticides each year, and accounts for 16% of global insecticide use – more than any other single crop – a fact which has led to cotton being called the world’s ‘dirtiest’ agricultural commodity. 

According to the Global Fashion Agenda, regular cotton farming accounts for 16% of all insecticides, 7% of all herbicides, 4% of all nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers worldwide.

Cotton production is very chemical-intensive. Up to 3 kilograms of chemicals are required to produce 1 kilogram of raw cotton fibers.

Runoff of pesticides, fertilizers, and minerals from cotton fields contaminates rivers, lakes, wetlands, and underground aquifers. These pollutants affect biodiversity directly by immediate toxicity or indirectly through long-term accumulation.

05. Unhealthy physical and mental working conditions

With an estimated 100 million households dependent on cotton farming, the human cost of cotton production is significant. The cotton plants (and farmers) have become dependent on genetically modified cotton seeds and the pesticides needed to maintain the crop. Cotton farmers use highly toxic synthetic chemicals such as Glyphosate, Trifluralin, Diuron, and Parathion methyl to maintain and grow their cotton crop, but these chemicals are known to pollute nearby environments and have harmful effects on human health and ecosystems.

These modified seeds and chemicals not only deplete the land of its nutrients, but they also cost the farmers more money, leading to unhealthy physical and mental working conditions. Unfortunately, farmer suicide rate, especially in India, is on the rise due to the increased production prices for cotton.

Pesticide use leads to indebtedness, chronic ill-health and even death among cotton farmers in the world’s poorest countries. Contamination of water supplies and food chains is also a major concern, and presents a serious environmental and human health risk.

So, what now?

The global reach of cotton is wide, but current cotton production methods are environmentally unsustainable—ultimately undermining the industry’s ability to maintain future production. Moving forward, we can keep this information in mind and try to advocate for a safer and cleaner cotton production system. When purchasing new clothing, try to opt for organic cotton! Organic cotton ensures that the cotton that is being cultivated does not use genetically modified seeds, pesticides, or herbicides. This means the soil is healthier and less water is being used, keeping rivers, lakes and nearby drinking water free of toxic substances. Chez SANNA, we believe organic cotton is key to a more sustainable future because of the current footprint of cotton in the fashion industry. Discover SANNA’s collection of organic cotton products here


World Wildlife Foundation

The Sustainable Fashion Collective

Soil Association 

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