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How Bad Is Cotton For The Environment?

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    Common belief about cotton production overlooks the fact that it is harmful to the environment. Cotton's biodegradability makes it a potentially more sustainable option than polyester. Just because cotton fibres break down into soil nutrients over time doesn't mean they're harmless to the planet.


    Evidence of human use of cotton as a textile stretches back to as early as 5,000 BC in locations as widely flung as Peru, Mexico and Pakistan. Cotton is still a widely traded material, although it is no longer the industry standard in clothing. Cotton is a natural fibre that may be woven or knitted into a robust, breathable, absorbent, and machine-washable fabric. You may spin old cotton into yarn and use it to create new fabrics.

    Cotton originated as a result of the cotton plant's fluffy fibres, or "bolls," which protected the seeds. After being processed through a cotton gin to remove the seeds, the fibres are washed, carded (to align the fibres), spun into cotton yarn, and finally woven into cloth. Cotton is gathered from fields, processed at gin yards to remove impurities, and then sent to textile mills where it will be spun, woven, or knitted. The manufactured yarn or fabric could be sent to a dye house, a printer, or a finishing facility before being shipped to garment factories.

    Effects of Cotton on the Environment

    Cotton is one of the most widely used raw materials in the textile industry. It's one of the world's most lucrative crops because it supplies 34% of all textile fibres. The natural fibre has been put to many different purposes by humans, including those in the fashion, home furnishings, and industrial sectors. More than 250 million people around the world are employed in cotton production. Although it only takes up around 2.5% of the world's arable land, the crop is the most popular, profitable, non-food crop in the world. An estimated seven percent of the labour force in emerging countries is involved in cotton production. While cotton production is vital to the economy, it comes at a high environmental cost. Several negative effects of the cotton plant on the environment are listed below.

    Global Warming

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    Producing cotton results in about 220 million metric tonnes of annual carbon emissions. Artificial fertilisers used in conventional cotton production produce significant amounts of nitrogen oxide gas. Nitrous oxide is 310 times more strong as a glasshouse gas than carbon dioxide.

    Water Consumption

    Cotton is moisture as a crop or in manufacturing. About 2,700 gallons of water are needed to make a single cotton t-shirt. That is enough drinking water for an individual for two and half years. Though the dyeing process produces beautiful results, it uses up about 5 trillion litres of water annually across the world. About 20,000 gallons of water is needed to manufacture a kilogramme of cotton fibre. Cotton has been rated as the most thirsty crop in terms of water usage. This level of consumption is typically unsustainable.

    Growing cotton well and harvesting a good crop requires a lot of water. Cotton cultivation accounts for around 69% of the textiles industry’s fibre production water footprint. In Central Asia, the Aral sea encountered a catastrophe that decreased its surface water reserves to approximately 10% of its original volume. This was caused in large part by the irrigation of cotton fields with seawater.

    Soil Degradation And Erosion 

    Most farms just grow cotton. Soil quality declines over time if monocultural systems are used for too long. Since 1945, the total area used for cotton production on a global scale has been relatively stable. However, this fatigue has prompted growth in previously unexplored regions. Deforestation and the displacement of wildlife are immediate consequences of the development.

    Cotton Farming Pollution

    Cotton farming, traditional methods rely heavily on toxic chemicals for pest control and crop enhancement. Over time, the ecology suffers from the overuse of pesticides and artificial fertilisers. The safety of humans, animals, water supplies, and soil is all at risk from these harmful substances.

    FAQs About Cotton

    As well as being a thirsty crop, cotton cultivation currently uses lots of chemicals – 4 percent of all world pesticides and 10 percent of insecticides are used in cotton-growing. These inputs can pollute local ecosystems and drinking water supplies.

    To grow cotton in a more environmentally friendly way, the first step must be to reduce the use of dangerous pesticides. This can be achieved through different means. Integrated Pest Management (IPM), for example, is an established, effective method of fighting pests which results in a net reduction of pesticides used. According to the World Wildlife Fund, using IPM decreased pesticide use for some of India’s cotton farmers by 60–80%. Genetically modified cotton can also help reduce pesticide application, but with many caveats. Growing cotton in a sustainable manner also means planting it where rainfall is sufficient, avoiding irrigation altogether. In areas with marginal irrigation needs, drip irrigation offers important water savings. Finally, organic farming takes into consideration all aspects of cotton production, leading to reduced environmental impacts and better health outcomes for both farmworkers and the surrounding community. A well-recognized organic certification program helps consumers make smart choices and protects them from greenwashing. One such third-party certification organization is the Global Organic Textile Standards.

    Since cotton is such a popular crop, it uses around 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of all insecticides, which is more than any other crop. Extremely harmful to the environment, they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and pollute thousands of litres of drinkable water. As found by the World Health Organization, the most common insecticides used in cotton production even include three of the most hazardous chemicals! These toxic substances result in health risks for cotton farmers and inhabitants of nearby villages, and their use has been causing an increase in miscarriages, malformations and cancer in those areas. Basically, not only is cotton bad for the environment: its production is also unethical.

    It would be extremely difficult and almost impossible to stop cotton production totally. That is why the world needs a better way to grow cotton. Many believe organic cotton is a more sustainable alternative to regular cotton. It appears to solve the environmental issues that are associated with conventional cotton. If the world switched to organic cotton, we could reduce the global warming potential of cotton by 46%. There could also be 70% less acidification and 26% less eutrophication potential. Also, genetic modification is not allowed in organic cotton cultivation. This makes it safer for workers and consumers. 

    Growing cotton organically involves practices like crop rotation, biological pest control, and water conservation.

    Knowing where cotton comes from is only half the story. At a time when the general population is moving toward greener practices, the bigger question asks about the environmental cost of growing cotton.

    Chemical Warfare

    There are over 35 million hectares dedicated to cotton farming around the world. Cotton growers have long relied on the widespread use of insecticides, which contaminate both surface and groundwater, to combat the countless bugs that feast on the plant. More than half of India's agricultural pesticides go towards cotton. By altering its genetic composition, cotton has become hazardous to a number of common pests thanks to recent technological advances. That's helped cut down on insecticide use, but it hasn't eliminated it. In less mechanised farms, farmworkers are still regularly exposed to potentially lethal toxins. Weeds that compete with cotton are another problem. Typically, weeds are suppressed using a mix of tilling and herbicides. Many farmers have switched to using GM cotton seeds treated with a gene that makes them resistant to glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. This allows the fields to be sprayed with the pesticide when the plant is still young, making short work of the weeds. Since glyphosate is so pervasive, our understanding of how it affects soil quality, water systems, and wildlife is by no means complete.

    The growth of plants resistant to the herbicide glyphosate is another concern. Particularly relevant is the preservation of soil structure and the prevention of erosion through no-till practises, which many farmers are considering. In the event that glyphosate resistance prevents effective weed management, destructive tilling tactics may once again be necessary.

    Artificial Fertilisers

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    Conventionally grown cotton makes extensive use of artificial fertilisers. Concentrated fertiliser use has serious negative consequences, including the disruption of aquatic ecosystems, the depletion of oxygen supplies, and the creation of lifeless "dead zones" in streams. In addition, the manufacturing and usage of artificial fertilisers generate a sizable amount of glasshouse gases.

    Heavy Irrigation

    The cotton crop suffers from insufficient precipitation in several areas. But the shortfall can be made up by watering the fields from wells or neighbouring rivers. It doesn't matter where the water is coming from; huge withdrawals can dramatically reduce river flows and deplete aquifers. You can foresee the repercussions, as much of India's cotton production relies on groundwater irrigation. Western American cotton farmers in the US also rely heavily on irrigation. During the current multi-year drought, it's reasonable to question the wisdom of cultivating a non-food crop in the state's driest regions, such as parts of Arizona and California. The Ogallala Aquifer provides water for irrigation of cotton farms in the Texas Panhandle. This ancient underground sea, which stretches from South Dakota to Texas, is being drained for agricultural use at a much faster rate than it can be replenished. Irrigation in the Ogallala Aquifer has caused groundwater levels to plummet by more than 15 feet. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are responsible for 80% of the Aral Sea's surface area loss due to excessive irrigation. Fish stocks have crashed along with the local economy and natural areas. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the pesticide residues and now-dry salt from the old fields and lake bed are blown away by the wind, causing miscarriages and deformities to rise in the communities located downwind.

    The salinization of soil is another detrimental effect of excessive watering. Salt builds up near the surface of fields that are repeatedly drenched with irrigation water. The land is no longer suitable for farming because nothing will grow in the soil. This is a major problem in the areas of Uzbekistan that were once cotton farms.

    Pick Organic Cotton That Has Been Verified

    Organic cotton uses less water and pesticides than conventional cotton. The energy and water use decrease by 62% and 88%, respectively. Because 80 percent of organic cotton is grown with only rain water, it has no impact on water supplies. Natural fertilisers and pesticides are not used on organic cotton farms. Instead, it employs non-chemical strategies for controlling pests. The soil will be healthier and there will be less pollution in the environment as a result. Organic cotton is certified by Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS), Fairtrade cotton, and REEL Cotton Programme, all of which are independent, third-party organisations. Cleaner Cotton, Cotton produced in Africa, the International Sustainable Cotton Council (ISCC), and myBMP are just some of the other certification agencies that focus on cotton. The certifying bodies differ in the criteria they use to determine whether a cotton product meets their standards. The consumer should take note of any variations in these characteristics. That way, they can select products that have been certified as meeting their standards for environmentally friendly cotton.

    Influences On Society Caused By Cotton Production

    It's common knowledge that cotton was heavily involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Sadly, this practise is still in use today, with children as young as five working in cotton fields or ginning factories in countries like India, Egypt, and Uzbekistan, according to information gathered by rights groups. Cotton is a highly traded cash crop around the world, thus its price is subject to wide swings. In particular, this has a negative impact on the earnings, working conditions, and quality of life for poor cotton producers.

    Pick a Manufacturer with a Good Track Record

    Consumers may make a difference by insisting on ethical cotton. To be considered "sustainable," a company must consider not only where its materials come from, but also how they were made. The apparel sector can benefit from a change in customer mindset from mindlessly buying whatever is on sale to making informed, sustainable purchases. Cotton's negative effects on society and the environment can be mitigated.

    Pick Eco-Friendly Products

    The fast fashion industry function in a way that is harmful to the environment, even natural textiles like cotton are starting to feel the effects. Organic cotton still requires energy and some resources to produce, despite the reduced water and pesticide use. Efficient utilisation is the best strategy to prevent energy and resources from being wasted. You should get the most mileage out of your cotton products.

    Both the environment and human health suffer from the widespread use of conventional cotton

    Moreover, conventional cotton farming uses up to a quarter of the world's insecticides and 18 percent of all pesticides. Our skin is the greatest organ and it is covered in microscopic pores, so we practically consume what we wear, even though pesticide use in clothing isn't as worrying as in food. That implies that every time we wear conventional cotton clothes, we risk absorbing trace amounts of toxins via our skin and into our circulation.

    People who get their drinking water from wells in close proximity to cotton farms may be exposed to pesticides that have leached into the ground. Pesticides have been linked to a wide range of negative health outcomes, including but not limited to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), impaired immunological function, and foetal malformations, in addition to environmental damage and waste of natural resources.

    In India, the number of farmer suicides since 1997 exceeds 200 thousand. About 300,000 Indian farmers have taken their own lives (about one every thirty minutes) since the mid-1990s, and the country is one of the world's largest cotton exporters. This age-old way of life for farmers has undergone radical change due to two main factors: increasing production costs and declining global cotton prices. The policies of free trade and the corporate globalisation of fast fashion are at the heart of both of these issues. Since cotton prices have dropped, many farmers are drowning their sorrows with toxic pesticides because they are too ashamed to seek help.

    The conventional cotton industry receives substantial state subsidies, which result in absurdly low costs. Because standard cotton prices don't account for the toll on the environment and the farmers who cultivate the cotton, they don't reflect the full cost of the cloth.

    Conventional cotton fabric uses chlorine bleach in its processing. Fabrics are treated with hydrogen peroxide and formaldehyde during processing as well. One ordinary cotton T-shirt and two pairs of traditional men's boxer shorts both require a quarter pound of chemicals to make. You have a lot of filth in your underwear. To add insult to injury, bleach-derived carcinogens are almost guaranteed to be employed in the dyeing process if you buy any fabric that has been coloured.


    Cotton evolved from the cotton plant's fluffy fibres, often known as "bolls," which served to safeguard the seeds. Once harvested, cotton is transferred to gin yards where it is cleaned of any remaining impurities before being sent on to textile mills to be spun, woven, or knitted. More than 35 million acres (about the size of Switzerland) are used for growing cotton worldwide. Sixty-nine percent of the total water footprint of the textile industry's fibre output comes from cotton agriculture. For pest control and improving crop quality, conventional approaches typically employ hazardous chemicals.

    The misuse of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers has a negative impact on ecosystems. In some regions, the cotton crop fails because of a lack of rain, but this problem can be solved by pumping water from nearby rivers or wells. Disruption of aquatic habitats and oxygen depletion are just two of the many harmful outcomes of intensive fertiliser use. Salt buildup in the soil is another negative consequence of watering too much. Pesticides and water are saved when using organic cotton instead of conventional cotton.

    There is a 62% drop in energy use and an 88% drop in water consumption. Since 80% of organic cotton requires no supplemental water because it is cultivated entirely from rainwater, there is no threat to existing supplies. The pests are kept at bay without the use of any chemicals. Although less water and pesticides are needed to cultivate organic cotton, the process still consumes a lot of resources. Up to 18% of all pesticides and up to 25% of the world's insecticides are used in organic cotton farming.

    Numerous adverse health effects, such as ADHD and weakened immune systems, have been connected to pesticide exposure. Since they are too embarrassed to ask for aid, Indian farmers are instead drowning their sorrows in poisonous chemicals. Large amounts of public subsidies are given to the conventional cotton business, which leads to ridiculously cheap prices. About a quarter pound of chemicals are needed to produce one standard cotton T-shirt or two pairs of classic men's boxer shorts.

    Content Summary

    1. The environmental impact caused by cotton farming is often overlooked.
    2. Since cotton may decompose, it may be a greener choice than polyester.
    3. Even while cotton fibres decompose into beneficial soil components over time, this does not indicate that they are environmentally benign.
    4. Cotton is a versatile natural fibre that may be woven or knitted into a fabric that is strong, lightweight, airy, absorbent, and easily cleaned in the washing machine.
    5. Cotton's Impact on the Planet Cotton is a major staple in the textile industry and is used in a wide variety of products.
    6. Given that it accounts for 34 percent of the world's textile fibre production, it is one of the most lucrative crops.
    7. It is estimated that more than 250 million people around the world are directly or indirectly involved in the cotton industry.
    8. The crop is the most popular and profitable non-food crop in the world, but it only uses around 2.5% of the world's arable land.
    9. Cotton is essential to the economy, yet its production has a significant negative impact on the environment.
    10. The cotton plant has several detrimental consequences on the environment, some of which are listed here.
    11. Cotton has been identified as the most water-intensive crop.
    12. It takes a lot of water to grow cotton successfully and to have a good harvest.
    13. Industrial Cotton Production and Environmental Degradation Conventional cotton cultivation heavily utilises hazardous pesticides for pest management and crop improvement.
    14. The overapplication of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers has a negative impact on ecosystem health.
    15. Nuclear Warfare More than 35 million acres (about the size of Switzerland) are used for growing cotton worldwide.
    16. Growers of cotton have traditionally relied on the extensive use of insecticides, which pollute both surface and groundwater, to protect their crops from the myriad insects that feed on cotton.
    17. Since glyphosate is so prevalent, we still don't know everything there is to know about its effects on soil quality, water systems, and wildlife.
    18. An other worry is the spread of weeds that are immune to the herbicide glyphosate.
    19. Many farmers are thinking about switching to no-till methods in order to protect their soil from erosion and maintain its natural structure.
    20. The use of fertilisers in large quantities has disastrous effects, such as the destruction of aquatic ecosystems, the depletion of oxygen sources, and the formation of "dead zones" in streams.
    21. Intense Watering Too little rain has fallen in a number of regions, damaging the cotton crop.
    22. To a similar extent, irrigation is crucial for western American cotton farmers.
    23. Growing a non-food crop in Arizona's and California's harshest regions during the current multi-year drought seems questionable at best.
    24. The cotton fields in the Texas Panhandle rely on water from the Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation.
    25. The Ogallala Aquifer has seen a drop of more than 15 feet in groundwater levels as a result of irrigation.
    26. As a result of over-irrigation, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are responsible for the loss of 80 percent of the Aral Sea's surface area.
    27. Select Certified Organic Cotton. Pesticides and water are saved when using organic cotton instead of conventional cotton.
    28. Due to the fact that 80% of organic cotton is grown using just rain water, there is zero impact on water supplies.
    29. On organic cotton farms, natural fertilisers and pesticides are not employed.
    30. As a result, soil quality will improve and pollution levels will drop.
    31. This will allow them to choose items that have been verified to contain cotton that has been grown in a sustainable manner.
    32. The Social Effects of Cotton Farming Cotton was widely known to have an important role in the transatlantic slave trade.
    33. Specifically, this hurts the incomes, working conditions, and quality of life of low-income people who grow cotton.
    34. Make sure the manufacturer you choose has a solid reputation. If shoppers demand only ethically produced cotton, change may come about.
    35. If consumers would stop blindly buying whatever is on sale and start making educated, sustainable selections, the clothing industry would benefit.
    36. Although water and pesticide use are decreased during the production of organic cotton, additional energy and resources are still required.
    37. Maximizing productivity is the most effective method for reducing wastage of time, money, and other valuable resources.
    38. You need to stretch the life of your cotton goods as far as possible.
    39. Conventional cotton production has serious negative effects on both the environment and human health. In addition, conventional cotton growing accounts for up to 25% of global insecticide use and 18% of total pesticide use.
    40. Despite the fact that pesticide use in clothing isn't as concerning as in food, we literally swallow what we wear because our skin is the largest organ and is covered in minute pores.
    41. As a result, we run the risk of ingesting minute quantities of pollutants through our skin and bloodstream every time we dress in ordinary cotton.
    42. People who live near cotton plantations and rely on nearby wells for drinking water may be at risk of exposure to pesticides.
    43. Negative health effects from pesticides include, but are not limited to, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reduced immunological function, and foetal abnormalities, in addition to environmental damage and resource waste.
    44. Over 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1997.
    45. India is one of the world's top cotton exporters, yet the country has seen a high rate of farmer suicides (about one every thirty minutes) since the mid-1990s.
    46. Due mostly to rising production costs and falling global cotton prices, farmers' traditional way of life has experienced profound transformation.
    47. Both problems may be traced back to free trade policies and the corporate globalisation of fast fashion.
    48. Many farmers are drowning their sorrows about the decline in cotton prices in poisonous chemicals rather than admit they need assistance.
    49. Large amounts of public subsidies are given to the conventional cotton business, which leads to ridiculously cheap prices.
    50. The true cost of cotton isn't reflected in market prices because of the toll it takes on the environment and the farmers who grow it.
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