Is Cotton Sustainable? Find about about Cotton's Dark side
Cotton clothing would mostly form most of your wardrobe. We know that it is comfortable on the skin & is relatively inexpensive. But how much do we actually know about this fibre?
Let’s find out.
What is Cotton?
Cotton is a natural, soft fibre that grows in a boll around its seeds. This fibre is separated from the boll and their seeds are removed. It is then spun into yarns and then into fabrics which are then converted into garments, beddings, etc.
Types of Cotton
Main types of Cotton are:
Short Staple Cotton (aka Upland Cotton) – It has relatively short fibres and is perfect for quality daily use products. It is affordable too. This type consists 90% of total Cotton production.
Extra Long Staple cotton (aka Egyptian, Pima, Supima Cotton) – These are considered as the finest cotton. The long fibres make it extra soft and strong.
Uses of Cotton
Cotton has a wide variety of applications – Garments (Formal wear, T-shirts, Jeans, Dresses, Sarees, Warm-weather clothing, etc), Bath linen (Towels are made of TerryCot), Bed Linen (Bedsheets, Blankets) and Medicine (Gauze, Bandages).
So, Cotton wins the award for the Best All-Rounder fabric!
Characteristics of Cotton as a Fabric
Cotton is breathable which means air can flow freely through the fabric making you feel comfortable. It has good heat retention capability.
Cotton is water absorbent. It can absorb water 27 times its weight but dries quickly too. No wonder it is used in towels too.
Cotton is an Non-Moisture wicking* fabric and hence it gets used less in outdoor wear.
It gets wrinkled easily. Nowadays, many cotton items are treated with a finish to prevent wrinkles.
Cotton is prone to shrinkage.
It is bio-degradable.
*What is Moisture wicking?
A moisture-wicking fabric has two jobs: one is quickly moving (wicking) sweat to the fabric’s outer surface and the other is drying rapidly so that your sweat doesn’t saturate the fabric. The result is that you’re more comfortable because your body can regulate its temperature efficiently and the fabric touching your skin has a dry, non-sticky feel.
Now that we have understood the properties and the positives of cotton, let’s look at the dark side now.
Cotton Cultivation – The Dark Side
Cotton even though a natural fibre is not environmentally friendly. Cotton if produced naturally doesn’t harm the environment. But because of our increasingly huge demand for cotton & the practices used for cotton cultivation, cotton has become disastrous for the environment.
Cotton requires a lot of water to grow. It takes around 2700 litres of water just to grow cotton for a T-Shirt. That’s a lot, isn’t it?
Let’s look at the Aral Sea disaster as an Example. The Soviet Government wanted itself to be the biggest exporter of Cotton. Due to this, lot of water from the rivers flowing into Aral Sea was directed for irrigation of ‘White Gold’. The result was disastrous – water levels reduced by 75%, salinity increased, chemicals (pesticides & fertilizers) mixed into water and biodiversity lost. The fishing industry was ruined completely.
Figure 1: Aral Sea in 1989 (Left) and in 2014 (Right) By NASA
Let’s come closer to our home and look at the state in India. India has become the leading cotton producing country in the world.
In India, 1 kg cotton uses 22,500 litres of water in India whereas the world average is 10,000 litres. This is due to inefficient irrigation methods and water pollution. Most of India’s cotton is grown in drier regions. The Government subsidises the costs of farmers’ electric pumps & hence groundwater is exploited for cultivation. This has created a widespread pattern of unsustainable water use and strained electrical grids.
We all know that India is facing acute water shortages. The main culprit is prioritising and incentivising the wrong crops. It begs understanding why cotton should grow in arid regions of Vidarbha in Maharashtra!
Cotton is susceptible to a lot of diseases and pests and hence, requires a lot of pesticides. Around 50% of total pesticide used in India is for Cotton cultivation. These pesticides mix with air and water polluting them. Farmers in India do not even take adequate protection while spraying pesticides. In 2017, at least 50 farmers died in Maharashtra due to pesticide poisoning in their cotton farms.
The water and pesticide problems are taken cognizance of, slowly leading to the rise of Organic Cotton.
Organic Cotton – A better version of the water monster
These problems associated with Cotton cultivation are coming to fore now and there is a movement towards Organic Cotton. Organic Cotton is cultivated without using Genetically modified seeds, synthetic pesticides, and fertilizers. It also uses less irrigated water since it is mainly grown where there is good rainfall. Although, the drawback is that the yield of the crop is lower, and the cost of organic cotton is higher as compared to regular cotton.
Most of us have been brought up thinking that Cotton is a supreme fabric. It is comfortable and relatively inexpensive due to which it’s extensively used in Fast Fashion. Cotton has thus become an irreplaceable part of our life. But there are alternatives available like linen, hemp, etc which are equally if not more comfortable than cotton. Additionally, these alternatives are not as destructible to the environment as cotton is. But due to a lack of demand, these alternatives are not widely available.
So what is in our hand today is to be mindful about the environmental impact of Cotton consumption and wherever possible, seek alternative fabrics.