Getting to Know Cotton
Historian Sven Beckert has written of cotton that it “is as familiar as it is unknown.”  Indeed, cotton is all around us, and yet what do we really know about it? Let’s take a closer look.
What is cotton?
Cotton is a natural, plant-based fiber. A cottonseed is planted in the soil, eventually growing and yielding a fluffy white protective case that surrounds the seed. This protective case is the cotton fiber that ends up in our clothing, towels, bed sheets, and more. Overall, cotton is found in 40% of our clothing.  It is the second most common fiber behind polyester, which is used in 52% of our clothes.  Among natural fibers, cotton is by far the most widely used, accounting for 90% of natural fibers in textiles. 4 In 2014, the world produced 28.5 million tons of cotton.  Even though the use of synthetic materials is expected to grow, cotton is still projected to be the second most commonly used fiber in 2030. 
It’s difficult to overstate the role that cotton has had in shaping much of both human endeavor and evil of the last few centuries. Cotton is threaded through the history of slavery, colonialism, the industrial revolution, the independence of nations, and many wars, including the American Civil War.
Evidence of the first cottonseeds (dating back to 7000 years ago) and the first use of cotton in textiles (roughly 5000 years ago) was discovered in what is present day Pakistan.  Although the first traces of cotton were found in South Asia, cotton was independently domesticated and used in textiles in both Central America and eastern Africa as well, spreading globally thereafter through trade routes. 
In the millennia that followed its first uses, cotton played a secondary role to linen, which was the world’s most common fiber for thousands of years. From 1600 through the late 1700s, fiber preference slowly started shifting from linen towards cotton. Then, in 1793, Eli Whitney invented a machine called the cotton gin, which could be used to separate the cottonseed from the fiber that grows around it. So while linen was still harvested manually, ( mechanization brought a dramatic increase in the speed with which cotton could be harvested. In the 19th century, cotton overtook linen as the dominant fiber in our clothing,  and it remained that way until 2007.  This time, instead of being replaced by another natural fiber, cotton was overtaken by a human-made material—polyester. Linen, which just a few hundred years ago was the world’s dominant fiber, today accounts for a mere 1% of the fibers we wear. 
Cotton and the environment
As your favorite worn in t-shirt suggests, cotton is soft on your skin, but is it soft on the environment? To answer this question, let’s take a closer look at how cotton is grown around the world.
the chemical production of cotton takes a heavy toll on the soil.
Contribution to water scarcity
Cotton is produced all over the world, primarily in regions with dry, warm climates, which provide the best conditions for the cotton plant to grow. In addition to requiring dry climates, cotton is a thirsty crop that requires a lot of water to grow.  How much water? It turns out that cotton alone is the biggest consumer of water in the entire apparel supply chain. 
Because cotton grows in dry regions and needs so much water to grow, rain alone does not usually supply cotton crops with enough water. Instead, irrigation is required. Irrigation involves applying water to the land or soil to help crops grow in dry areas and/or during periods of inadequate rainfall. A total of 73% of the world’s cotton is grown on irrigated land.  This double burden means that some of the world’s most water stressed environments are directing scarce water resources towards cotton production. Indeed, more than half of global cotton production occurs in areas experiencing high (13.5%) or extremely high (43%) levels of water-stress. ,
Use of synthetic agrochemicals
Almost all of the world’s cotton, 99.3% of it to be exact,  is grown chemically, through farming methods that rely on the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and/or genetically modified seeds.  Cotton is grown on 2.4% of the world’s cropland, yet it accounts for 10% of pesticide use and 25% of insecticide use globally.  In the developing world, cotton alone accounts for half of all insecticide use.  In the US, 90% of cotton crops receive nitrogen-based fertilizer, and cotton is the 4th largest pesticide-consuming crop, following corn, soybeans and potatoes.  This heavy chemical reliance implicates cotton in freshwater and ocean water pollution, harmful algae blooms, the loss of marine wildlife, and soil degradation.
Reliance on unhealthy farming methods for soil
Another way that cotton can tax the environment involves how it is grown, by being planted and re-planted on the same plot of land year over year, a cultivation method known as monoculture farming. While monoculture allows farmers to specialize in the production of a single crop, making it more lucrative in the short term, it negatively impacts the health of the soil over time. Why? When the same crop is planted over time, the soil looses the nutritional richness and biodiversity gained by planting different crops. Without nutrient-rich organic content in the soil, land under monoculture becomes weak. This makes the soil vulnerable first to erosion, which happens when soil no longer has the organic matter needed to hold itself together. Second, weak soil becomes vulnerable to attacks by insects and weeds. To combat these attacks, farmers often have to spray more synthetic pesticides, which in turn weakens the soil, creating a vicious cycle. In the US, 60% of cotton is grown under monoculture methods. 
Cotton’s human touch
Cotton production provides income for 250 million people around the world.  How does cotton impact them? To understand, we must first consider where cotton is produced around the world.
99% of the world’s cotton farmers live and work in developing countries,  where they very often grow cotton on small plots of land, sometimes less than an acre in size. Because cotton production is highly concentrated amongst poor, rural populations in developing countries, labor regulations and health and safety standards are not strong enough to protect growers. Child and forced labor in cotton farming are widely documented. One of the most notable of these is in the case of Uzbekistan, where the government forces millions of citizens, children and adults alike, to harvest cotton each year. Uzbekistan is not alone. Child and forced labor has been documented in may of the world’s top cotton producing countries, including India, China, Brazil, and Turkey. , 
Pesticide poisoning due to lack of training and poor equipment poses another threat to the health of millions of farmers. The risks are particularly serious for children and for women, who make up more than 40% of the global workforce of farmers,  as exposure to chemicals poses a maternal health and safety risk.
Cotton is so widespread for good reason—it has many great characteristics that make it well suited for use in our clothing. It is soft, strong, comfortable, and absorbent. It looks goods, washes well, and retains color over time. How can we reconcile the things we love about cotton with its environmental and social impact?
The most conscious cotton option available at the moment is certified organic cotton. Our .02 The T-Shirt is made from USDA certified organic cotton. This means that the cotton is grown without synthetic chemical inputs- starting with seeds that are not genetically modified and then without using chemical pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers in the farming process. Instead, organic farmers rely on traditional farming methods that have been used for thousands of years to help plants grow, including mixed farming, crop rotation, no-till or conservation till farming. Additionally, organic farming practices are centered on promoting soil health, and healthy soil is able to retain water and sequester carbon at a much greater rate than unhealthy soil. In the process of all of this, cotton farmers aren’t exposed to toxic chemicals.
Compared with chemical cotton, on average, organic cotton uses less water, has a lower carbon footprint, uses significantly less energy, and doesn’t pollute water with synthetic chemicals. Although when it comes to water consumption, many factors bear on whether and how much water organic cotton really saves. And a lot of that depends on factors specific to the farm, including how much rain falls on the cotton crops, the health of the soil, and the farmers’ understanding of water management techniques.
It’s important to note that organic cotton isn’t the end all solution to chemicals in your clothes. The dyeing and finishing processes used in the fashion industry relies heavily on toxic chemicals, including hazardous dyes and heavy metals, among others. , It’s no use having an organic cotton t-shirt that’s been subjected to a chemical bath. For this reason, certifications, like the Global Organic Textile Standard provide an important way to ensure that the chemical processes your cotton has been exposed to after the farm are safe for your health.
Finally, we always recommend supporting companies that are transparent about the source of their cotton. If you are buying from a brand that doesn’t mention anything about where their cotton comes from, ask them!
What do you think? Can we wear our cotton and feel good about it too?
- Beckert, S. (2014). Empire of cotton: A global history. Knopf. p. xii
- The Water Footprint of Cotton Consumption pg. 10
- Black S, Eco Chic 2008 via http://www.tedresearch.net/media/files/Polyester_Recycling.pdf
- How can we stop water from becoming a fashion victim?
- Man-Made Fibers Continue to Grow
- Beckert, S. (2014). Empire of cotton: A global history. Knopf. p. 7
- Beckert, S. (2014). Empire of cotton: A global history. Knopf. p. 10.
- Flax/linen, a long history as humanity
- Berg, L. (2007). Introductory botany: plants, people, and the environment. Cengage Learning. p. 100.
- If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic, they will be
- Masters of Linen: Linen Assets
- Thirsty crops cause water shortages and pollution
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- One-Quarter of World’s Agriculture Grows in Highly Water-Stressed Areas
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- Organic Cotton: Questions and Answers
- Organic Cotton: Questions and Answers
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- Woodburn, 1995 via http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4170e.pdf page 14
- Pesticide Use in U.S. Agriculture: 21 Selected Crops, 1960-2008
- Crop Rotations
- World Wildlife Federation: Cotton
- The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton p. 5
- Apparel Industry Trends: From Farm to Factory
- Fact Sheet: Child labour in the textile & garment industry p. 2
- The Role of Women in Agriculture pg. 1
- Muthu, S. S. (2015). Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production. CRC Press. p. 272
- Eleven hazardous chemicals which should be eliminated