Unravelling Cotton's Sustainability Status - Abbie James

Unravelling Cotton's Sustainability Status

Unravelling Cotton's Sustainability Status

Cotton was once the worlds most popular fabric until polyester came along. This quintessential natural fiber, offers both comfort and versatility in our everyday lives and if I were to take a look in your wardrobe, I'm sure I will see cotton being represented heavily. It's an easy option for those searching for a natural fabric, yet, is it as sustainable as we think? From its thirst for water to the shadow of exploitation that looms over its cultivation, the journey of cotton from field to fabric is one we all should know more about.

Cotton loves water

Cotton's demand for water is staggering, a reality made worse by its cultivation in arid, dry regions. Cotton's average irrigation requirement is 6.7 mega litres per hectare, or to put it plainly, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make just one cotton t-shirt.

Not only the irrigation but the chemical processing is effecting our planet's water. Each stage of cotton production takes a toll on our water reserves, it contributes to environmental degradation and adds to our problems of water scarcity. The repercussions of this water-intensive process extend beyond the confines of cotton fields, it seeps into our rivers and lakes. Wastewater from dyeing and processing facilities contaminates rivers and lakes, posing a significant environmental threat. In regions like China, where textile manufacturing is prolific, the majority of water bodies suffer from pollution linked to the fashion industry's activities. 

Human Rights in the Supply Chain

Despite strides towards eradicating forced labor and child slavery in cotton production, ethical concerns persist within the industry's global supply chain. From West Africa to Brazil, allegations of exploitation and labor abuses cast a shadow over cotton's ethical credentials. Cotton employs almost 7% of all labour in developing countries, it is the main source of income for over a billion people wordlwide.The legacy of slavery intertwined with cotton's history serves as a stark reminder of the enduring challenges facing the industry. While initiatives such as organic certification offer a glimmer of hope, ensuring ethical sourcing practices remains an ongoing imperative in the quest for sustainability.

There is a concerning amount of death by suicide by Indian cotton farmers. Land prices, the cost of seeds and chemicals plus the the cost of preparing the land (tillage) for growing is adding pressure to already marginalised communities. Many farmers use money lenders who force them to sell their cotton at a price lower than market value to pay off their debts. This has created a source of debt and stress which has ultimate in many suicides.

Genetically Modified Conundrum

The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in cotton farming heralds a new era fraught with economic and ecological implications. While touted as a solution to pest resistance, GMO cotton seeds have engendered a host of unforeseen challenges, from farmer indebtedness to environmental degradation. The entanglement of corporate interests and agricultural practices underscores the complex interplay between technology and sustainability in modern farming. The plight of Indian cotton farmers serves as a poignant reminder of the human cost underlying the adoption of GMOs, urging a reevaluation of our approach to agricultural innovation.

The introduction of GMO cotton seeds has led to a dependence on patented seeds and associated agrochemicals, resulting in a cycle of indebtedness among smallholder farmers. The inability to save seeds for replanting further increases their financial burden, as they must repurchase seeds annually at inflated prices. Moreover, there are major concerns about the environmental impact of GMO crops, including the development of pesticide-resistant pests and the loss of biodiversity.


Amidst the labyrinth of sustainability challenges, organic cotton emerges as a beacon of hope to many, but it is also not without it's concerns. Free from harmful pesticides and genetically modified seeds, organic cotton embodies a holistic approach to farming that prioritizes environmental stewardship and human well-being. Although there are no synthetics chemicals used in organic cotton growing, the fact that it still takes up a lot of land is an important consideration. The more land that is cleared for cotton production means less biodiversity and reduced natural habitats for wildlife. Organic cotton uses a substantially less amount of water than conventional cotton. but on the downside it does have less of a yield which means it takes more space to grow the same amount of cotton than it would do with conventional cotton farming.

The sustainability of cotton can be quite a confusing topic to digest. Organic cotton farming is by far a much more sustainable option than conventional, but as you can see, it is not without it's disadvantages. All textile farming and production have a some degree of negative effect on our planet so taking an intentional approach to our fashion choices is a powerful catalyst for change. Choosing your clothing for longevity, rather than a short lived trends, buying from sustainable and ethical brands and changing our shopping habits so we buy less is an important way we can support the environment and continue to enjoy fashion.