Why Cotton Is Bad
Cotton is a popular fabric used for clothing, it’s easy to care for, strong, breathable, and hypoallergenic. It’s hard to find clothes that aren’t made with cotton in some way. It can be combined with almost any other kind of fiber to make a wide variety of fabrics. Cotton comes from the fluffy boll that surrounds cotton plant seeds. Bolls are processed and combed into yarn, that yarn goes on to be woven together to make various fabrics, which are then used to make clothing.
But cotton has several draw backs that are exacerbated by outdated government policies.
Machines + Chemicals > Slaves
Before cotton picking machines existed, slaves were used the world over to pick cotton. Machines were able to make slaves uneconomical once they were able to accurately pick the cotton bolls. But cotton leaves and other plant matter often got in the way, causing machines to break down and generally drove up costs. So cotton farmers started using defoliants to kill off all the unwanted plant matter and make it easier for machines to pick the bolls. The problem with defoliants is that they are very toxic, a famous example of a defoliant is Agent Orange, a chemical used by the US during the Vietnam war that ended up ruining millions of lives with huge spikes in cancer rates, birth deformities, and making thousands of square miles of land unusable.
Leave the Garden Hose On
Cotton is a thirsty plant, it requires more than 2000 litres of water to grow enough cotton for 1 pair of boxer briefs, and because it’s such a popular cash crop, using about 2.4% of the worlds arable farm land, farmers often plant cotton in areas that don’t get enough rain. This has resulted in 73% of cotton grown requiring irrigation, including the southern USA.
Poorly managed cotton production has had devastating effects on the environment, with the most visible example being the Aral Sea going from the 4th largest lake in the world to a desert because local governments since the 1960s diverted all the rivers and waterways into cotton production, letting the Aral Sea evaporate and give way to the Aralkum Desert, whose sands are so polluted with pesticides and herbicides from decades of cotton industry runoff, dust blown from the Aralkum Desert has infected animals as far away as Antarctica with its toxins.
Monocropping = Insect All-Inclusive
Monocropping / monoculture is when a farmer only plants one type of plant at a time, it makes planting and harvesting crops easier. But the major problem with monoculture is vast spans of farmland with only one type of crop growing. Insects, fungi, and other pests that only eat that one crop move in, and they can devastate a crop in days. Regular cotton is always a monocrop, and it has an especially long list of pests and parasites that can kill it.
Killing Cotton Is Easier
To prevent their crops from being completely destroyed by pests, cotton farmers use a lot of pesticide and herbicide. In fact, even though cotton only uses 2.4% of the worlds arable land, it uses 16% of pesticides. Pests and fungi are such a problem for farmers that they’ve had to result to drastic steps to ensure they can profitably grow cotton. One measure to minimize the impact of bugs has been to pull the plant out of the ground after it’s been harvested, even though cotton is a perennial. This ensures any eggs or spores have been completely removed from the field.
But pulling cotton plants out and exposing the soil to the air causes the soil to lose nutrients, which has lead to cotton farmers needing to put fertilizer in their soil for the next season’s crop. Farmers use around 35 kg of fertilizer per acre of cotton field every year. Much of that fertilizer is potash, which itself is typically mined intensively far away from cotton fields (leaving a giant carbon footprint).
Just Use Round Up
Another controversy surrounding cotton is the extensive use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Genetically modified cotton is able to withstand proprietary herbicides and pesticides without harming the cotton plant. GMO cotton was first used in 1995 and now accounts for 95% of all cotton grown in the US and India.
There are many other problems associated with cotton, including child slavery, cotton field workers dying from exposure to cotton’s various chemicals, to animals coming into deadly contact with the chemical aftermath of cotton farming.
Alms For Big Agra
But the worst part is that governments encourage the cotton status quo. In the US, cotton farmers get billions of dollars in cotton subsidies, China and other large cotton producers also subsidize their cotton industries, distorting the actual cost of cotton with governments around the world spending an estimated $6.5 billion on cotton subsidies in 2013.
Why do governments subsidize cotton? The short answer is extensive lobbying. The cotton industry has been around for a long time and is famously resistant to change. The few large cotton producers in the US seem to get a the majority of the cotton subsidies. Large agriculture corporations spend a lot on lobbying the US government, more than $32 billion in 2016. Monsanto spent more than any other organization lobbying the US government, it is also the largest seller of (GMO) cotton seeds.
Looking Beyond Cotton
There is no single fabric that has a zero carbon footprint supply chain. But there are alternative crops that can be used to make fabric more sustainably than cotton.
Wool isn’t a crop, it comes from sheep. But it is a natural yarn and if done right, sustainable. Wool makes a very breathable fabric that is hypoallergenic and very warm to wear. When you look at the the entire supply chain of wool, however, you run into familiar problems. The biggest problem is monoculture. Vast swaths of land full of sheep attract mites and other pests that prey on sheep. Lots of pesticides is used on any large scale sheep farm. Then there is the question of the feed for the sheep. Is it GMO feed? What hormones are used? Was the feed harvested sustainably?
Organic cotton has become popular in recent years. Cotton is called organic when it doesn’t use any irrigation water, synthetic fertilizer, or pesticides. All US organic cotton is GMO free. Though increasingly popular, only 0.7% of cotton grown around the world is organic. One of the problems with cotton is that it simply doesn’t produce as much fabric material per acre of land as other crops can.
Hemp fabric became a thing around 10 000 years ago, it was one of the first plants to be woven into cloth and has played a major role in human history. Hemp fabric is made from soft fibers in the stems of the plants and is very strong and quick to grow. It was for thousands of years the most cultivated plant on the planet, its use was so widespread that the British Empire made it a law that all colonies must grow hemp.
Hemp takes about 90 days to grow, yields roughly 3x more yarn per acre of land than cotton, and requires less pesticides, fertilizer, and irrigation than cotton. Its biggest drawback is its association with marijuana, meaning that it has been outlawed in North America for most of the 1900s.
Rayon / Viscose / Modal
Rayon, viscose, and modal are artificial fabrics made of plant cells. Some viscose yarn manufacturing processes use chemicals that are harmful if not disposed of properly. But the ecological benefits of this fabric can be huge. Consider Tencel modal yarn made from eucalyptus trees, eucalyptus trees are one of the largest trees in the world, you get 10x as much fabric per acre of land with eucalyptus trees than cotton, and eucalyptus trees don’t need any pesticides.
But Lenzing (the company that makes Tencel) ships the eucalyptus wood to its facilities in Europe to make the yarn, and then ships the yarn to another facility (usually in China) to be made into a fabric. In addition to an extensive global supply chain that leaves a giant carbon footprint, eucalyptus trees require a lot of water, making them only profitable in marginal land that gets a lot of rain.
Bamboo is another plant that is used to make viscose and it is even more productive than Eucalyptus trees. Because it is the fastest growing plant on earth, and it is a grass that doesn’t need to be replanted after it’s harvested, bamboo can yield up to 4x more fabric per acre than eucalpytus trees. It doesn’t need any pesticides or fertilizers, nor does it need irrigation water. What’s more, most bamboo used in textiles is grown in China, where it is also processed and goes through it’s life cycle to end up being a garment. It has a much smaller carbon footprint than any other fabric crop when you consider its local supply chain, and bamboo absorbs up to 4x CO2 than other trees, one hectare can absorb more than 60 tonnes of CO2, further minimizing its carbon footprint.
The biggest criticism of rayon/viscose/modal is that fabric production usually requires harmful chemicals that aren’t always reused or recycled.
There isn’t a perfect fabric or supply chain that is able to sustainably meet the needs of 7 billion people, but there are a lot of alternatives to traditional cotton that are becoming more and more common. As humanity begins to appreciate and understand the problems involved in sustainably clothing everyone, more good ideas are being discussed and more solutions are being explored. Fingers crossed we’ll figure something out that doesn’t make creating or buying clothes guilt-wrenching.