Is cotton sustainable?

We use cotton daily – it is the fabric of our clothes, t-shirts and jeans, cotton balls are used to clean off makeup, we sleep in cotton sheets, we dry our dishes with cotton cloths – but how often do we ask the question ‘is cotton sustainable’?

Where is cotton grown?

Around 75% of the world’s cotton is grown in India, China, the United States and Brazil. India recently surpassed China at around 40% of total global cotton area. China processes more cotton than India, at around one third of total cotton mill usage. 

GMO cotton & pesticides

Although India has an Environment Protection Act that prohibits the use of seeds that are not approved, Reuters reported in 2019 that Indian growers were defying the laws and planting genetically modified seeds that are herbicide tolerant. As much as 10% of the crop in India might be affected. 

In addition, Indian farmers are increasing use of glyphosate-based weed killers, which impact on biodiversity. The Cotton Corporation of India lobbies for fair prices for Indian farmers, who are paid much less than US farmers. 

Concerns about forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur region in China have resulted in a ban on imports into the United States. Called the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, from June 21, 2022 any goods that are wholly or partially made in labor camps in this region are banned. This includes up to 84% of the cotton that China produces, according to the Guardian.  

China has been producing GMO cotton they developed in their own labs since 1997 and all the eight provinces use it. It was introduced in order to reduce the use of pesticides. China uses four times more pesticides than the US and many of these pesticides are hazardous to farmers and the environment. The WHO estimates that up to 500 farmers die annually from exposure.

United States cotton is regulated to ensure quality and fair trade. The USDA regulates quality and grading and the National Cotton Council advocates for growers and the industry.

Genetically engineered cotton was introduced in the United States in 1995 and 96% of cotton acres were planted with GE cotton in 2020. Both herbicide tolerant (HT) and insect resistant (Bt) varieties are grown. Bt cotton in both India and the US was developed by Monsanto to obtain a caterpillar resistant variety, using the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis – hence the Bt.

Herbicides, including those with the active ingredient glyphosate, were applied to 93% of planted cotton in the U.S. in 2019 (NASS). Although glyphosate itself is low in toxicity, it can be mixed with other toxic substances. It can cause irritation in humans and can affect plants as it is a weedkiller. This can impact animals that use plants as a habitat (NPIC).

The Associação Brasileira dos Produtores de Algodão (ABRAPA) have their own sustainable cotton program called Responsible Brazilian Cotton and have also achieved a strategic partnership with Better Cotton. Farmers in the Responsible Brazilian Cotton program have to align with three pillars; social, environmental and economic. 

Brazilian farmers also use GM cotton and they are dependent on pesticides to produce their crops. However ABRAPA is promoting the use of alternative biological pesticides and fertilizers. Their members produced around 36% of Better Cotton volume in 2019.

Growing sustainable cotton

Cotton plants deplete the soil they are in, according to the WWF. The soil degradation results in soil erosion and soil washing away into nearby water resources. This can take chemicals used as pesticides and herbicides with it. 

Once a cotton plantation has used up the soil, a new area will need to be prepared and this can mean the loss of indigenous plants and habitats. Cotton processing is also very water intensive. 

The Better Cotton Initiative, which started out as a WWF project and is now a standalone organization, helps farmers reduce water and chemical use in their cotton growing and production processes. Despite expectations, their farmers have seen an increase in income too. 

Cotton farmed under the Better Cotton Initiative will have a Better Cotton label. Note that garments may have a mix of cotton in them and the on-product mark means a minimum 10% with a commitment to grow that to 50%. 

Is cotton organic?

There are two definitions of organic:

  1. relating to or derived from living matter.
  2. (of food or farming methods) produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.

All cotton is organic, in terms of the fact that it is organic matter that comes from a living plant. 

For the second definition to apply, organic cotton must be grown without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers. In the United States organic cotton must be certified by the National Organic Programme (NOP). 

Is cotton vegan?

If you are keen to avoid animal products, you can rest easy with cotton clothing. Cotton is plant based and vegan friendly. 

Is cotton non-toxic?

Cotton itself is non-toxic but as we have seen chemicals can be sprayed onto cotton while it is growing and cotton can be treated and dyed with toxic chemicals during the production process. GOTS certified and Oeko-Tex cotton is non-toxic. 

To be labeled organic by Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the product must have at least 95% certified organic fibers. GOTS organic cotton is not expected to contain any GMO.

Fabrics with the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 label have been tested for harmful substances. The Oeko-Tex Made in Green label has been tested for harmful substances and made in environmentally friendly facilities.

Is cotton sustainable?

The answer to the question ‘is cotton sustainable?’ is that it depends. It depends on how farmers grow their cotton and how manufacturers process the cotton afterwards. It depends on whether consumers are prepared to pay a little bit extra for clean cotton. 

Like most crops, cotton can be sustainably produced. It needs to be farmed without genetically modified seeds, using water resources carefully and without toxic fertilizers and pesticides. It needs to be grown without clearing forests and habitats. It needs to be processed without chemicals and without any toxic dyes added. 

You can identify sustainable cotton in fabrics and clothing when they have Better Cotton, GOTS and Oeko-Tex labels.