Cotton is a widely used natural fiber, but unfortunately, it’s far from ecologically friendly. To begin, whether cotton is organic or not, it requires a lot of water to produce. In fact, cotton farming is the largest consumer of water in the apparel supply chain. Making matters worse, nearly half of all clothing worldwide – 40 percent – is made with cotton.
It can take more than 5,300 gallons (20,000 liters) of water to produce 2 pounds (1 kilogram) of cotton. This is enough cotton to make only one t-shirt and a pair of jeans.
Through initiatives like the Better Cotton Initiative, the World Wildlife Fund is working with cotton farmers on ways to reduce their water usage.
While all cotton is water-intensive, organic cotton is far superior to non-organic cotton when it comes to human health, the health of animals, and the environment.
Here are the problems with non-organic cotton:
- Non-organic cotton uses a lot of insecticides and pesticides: 2.4% of the world’s crop land is planted with cotton, and yet cotton accounts for 24% of the insecticides and 11% of the pesticides used globally. Pesticides and insecticides not only destroy natural habitats and kill insects – like pollinating bees and butterflies – they also cause severe health impacts in field workers. (World Wildlife Fund)
- Use of genetically-modified (GM) cotton has increased dramatically in recent years. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 94% of the cotton now grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. (FDA)
- The list of how genetically modified seeds and crops are harming humans, animals, insects, and the environment is extensive. In the case of genetically modified cotton, it has caused farm workers to become ill with skin and respiratory problems, it has killed livestock that have ingested it, and it’s built resistance in the very pests that the genetic modification was meant to curtail, requiring farmers to further increase their use of pesticides. (Canadian Biotechnology Action Network)
- For additional information on why genetically modified crops are so dangerous, visit the Institute for Responsible Science.
Seeking Out the Best Options
It’s difficult to avoid cotton altogether, but there are some compelling alternatives that are growing in popularity. For one, buying used and vintage clothing is a great way to reduce the environmental footprint of what you wear. In addition, natural materials, like hemp, have a much lower water and pesticide footprint than cotton. Or, synthetics made with recycled materials are another alternative.
When you do buy cotton, opt for organic cotton whenever possible. Yes, it can be more expensive, but if more people buy products made with organic cotton, the increased demand can help to drive down the price. Plus, its superiority to non-organic cotton when it comes to human, animal, and environmental health is undeniable.