The fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar business and cotton represents almost half the fibre used in clothes and other textiles worldwide.

But what do people know, or even care, about how cotton is produced?  Most of us care a lot about the cut and colour of our jeans, and what’s on the label; but how many people actually stop to think about the environmental costs of what they’re wearing?  Not many.  Research from the UK suggests that the environmental impact of a garment is one of the least important considerations for most people when buying clothes.[1]

The facts of global cotton production are frightening.  Most of the world’s crop comes at a huge cost to the environment, mainly because of unsustainable use of water and harmful pesticides.  According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the situation is so serious that a "tremendous amount of work will be required to bring cotton production into line with even minimally acceptable environmental standards.” [2]

Cotton is one of the ‘thirstiest’ of all crops and uses a phenomenal amount of water to produce and process.  The Water Footprint Network estimates that, on average, over 10,000 litres is required to produce 1 kg of cotton fabric – enough for one pair of jeans.  Put another way, the fabric used to make a pair of jeans and T-shirt uses about the same amount of water as the average person needs to drink for 10 years(!) Add to that the water used to wash the finished products and you have a colossal water footprint.

To make matters worse, cotton is often grown in areas of the World where there’s not enough rainfall to produce the crops needed to feed the local population. This means that the water has to be transported to the cotton fields from rivers, dams and non-renewable underground lakes.  In many cases, leaky pipes and inefficient irrigation practices mean that only about 30% of the water taken actually reaches the plants.

Cotton farming is responsible for over half of all pesticides used in developing countries and of the 46 main compounds used on cotton, 5 are classified as extremely hazardous, 8 as highly hazardous, and 20 as moderately hazardous.[3] Exposure to pesticides has severe detrimental health impacts on farm workers.  The World Health Organisation estimates that 20,000 to 40,000 people die and millions more have health problems as a direct result of accidental pesticide poisoning each year.  Pesticides are also a leading cause of suicide amongst farmers worldwide.  Most cases of intentional poisoning appear to be impulsive acts undertaken during stressful events, such as crop failures.

Pesticides also cause harm to all the animals in the ecosystem, from organisms in the soil, to insects, birds, mammals and downstream freshwater fish.  In some of the world’s largest rivers, fish stocks have decreased by more than 90% and many species have become extinct.  The problem is particularly acute in poorer regions, where the local people depend on fish for protein and calcium.

The environmental costs of cotton are well recognised and documented, so what’s the clothing industry doing to tackle the problem? Over the past few years, some of the world’s biggest retailers have been working behind the scenes to make cotton production more sustainable. H&M, Adidas, IKEA, Levi’s and Marks & Spencer have joined forces with other stakeholders to form The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which aims to reduce the amount of water and chemicals used to grow cotton, conserve natural habitats and improve social and economic benefits for farmers.

In Pakistan, for example, BCI has established Farmer Field Schools to promote more sustainable growing methods.  The first Better Cotton crops were harvested in 2010 and initial results have shown that by using these practices, farmers can increase their output, keep pests under control and significantly reduce their water use.

“After one year we had water usage down by 38 per cent, pesticides down by 47 per cent, synthetic fertiliser usage down by 39 per cent, and farmers were earning more money.” says Guido Verijke, Director of IKEA’s Better Cotton Project.

Since then, confidence in the project has grown and BCI members have set ambitious targets to source sustainable cotton across their product ranges:

  • H&M is the second largest global clothing retailer and is considered by many to be synonymous with disposable attitudes towards fashion.  In recent years, however, the company appears to be showing a genuine commitment to environmental and social responsibility.   H&M is now the world’s biggest user of organic cotton[4] and has made commitments to source all of the cotton in its collections from sustainable sources by 2020.
  • Adidas has made commitments to use only sustainable cotton in all of its brands by 2018.  Last year, the company achieved its target of 5% and is confident that it can increase this to 40% by 2015 and 100% by 2018.  The company is also working with other leading brands and investors to help sustainable cotton production go mainstream.
  • IKEA uses cotton in many of its products, from sofas to curtains, bath towels and bedding. Today, 69% of the cotton used by the company is produced using sustainable farming practices and IKEA is confident of increasing this to 100% by 2015.
  • More than 95 per cent of Levi’s products are made with cotton.  In 2011, the company produced 2 million pairs of jeans made out of Better Cotton.  Other initiatives include incorporating plastic waste into its Waste<Less denim and reducing the amount of water used in the manufacturing process of its Water<Less jeans.

Sports retailer Puma and over 20 other companies in the clothing sector have shown their support for sustainable and ethically produced cotton by backing the Aid by Trade Foundation’s Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) project. This has a similar ethos to BCI and works to improve the conditions of life for 270,000 smallholder cotton farmers in Africa.

These pioneer projects are leading the way towards a better and more sustainable future for cotton… but there’s still a very long way to go.  Today, only about 2% of global cotton is produced using sustainable farming methods.

So what can we do to help? We need to show that we care about the health of the environment and of the people who work hard to produce what we wear.  The sad fact is that until we do, nothing will change. Undress has a information here about Sustainability in Fashion, and there also many ways that you personally can make a difference:

Support designers and retailers who value sustainability – how we dress has become a way of expressing who we are and what we stand for.  Show that you care for the environment by choosing clothes made out of durable and sustainable fabrics. Be prepared to pay more for items that are well made and will survive for at least 30 washes.

Extend the life of your clothes – one of the most effective ways to reduce your clothing footprint is to wear what’s already in your wardrobe for longer. This means looking after your clothes, washing them less frequently, patching your jeans and darning the holes in your T-shirts (if you don’t know how, ask a granny);

Choose second hand over new – trawl for treasures at vintage and retro markets, second-hand clothing stores and charity shops;

Upcycle, downcycle, recycle – at the end of its life, don’t throw your clothing away. Cotton can be upcycled to make any number of accessories, including jewellery, patches and bags. Those unwanted clothes? Why not send them to charity shops. Whatever state they’re in; even if they can’t be worn again, they’ll be sold for downcycling into cleaning rags and other non-clothing uses. Some wonderful examples by sustainable designers can be found on the Collaborators page.

Become active – write to the CEO of your favourite retailer to let them know that you care about how their clothes are produced and ask what they’re doing to ensure that the cotton they source is sustainable.

Want to know more?

[1]Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), Valuing our Clothes report, 2012.  Key purchase criteria were value for money, the look and feel of the material, the right fit, providing room to grow and something they would wear frequently.

[2]WWF: Agriculture and Environment: Cotton

[3]Pesticide Action Network UK: The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton

[4]Organic cotton is produced using ecologically sound growing methods, which care for the health of the soil and the ecosystem.  The use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides is not permitted, therefore many of the environmental problems associated with cotton production are avoided. However, organic standards don’t set limits on the water that can be used to grow the crop, so organic cotton isn’t necessarily sustainable.