Better Cotton is one of a number of initiatives being used by brands

Better Cotton is one of a number of initiatives being used by brands

A new report claims that moving to organic cotton production offers significant and far-reaching impacts such as reduced water consumption and preventing pollution from farm to fabric.

Published to highlight the environmental impact of apparel production and the benefit of switching to more organic materials, the 'Thirsty for Fashion' report from The Soil Association, says growing cotton accounts for 69% of the water footprint of textile fibre production. It also adds that one kilogram of cotton takes as much as 10,000-20,000 litres of water to produce.

Further, around 20% of all global water pollution results from the dyeing and finishing of textiles. The process, including that of cotton, can require as much as 200 tonnes of water for every tonne of textiles produced. The UK-based non-profit claims long-term or chronic exposure to some of the chemicals and dyes used in the manufacture of cotton have been found to cause cancer and disrupt hormones in both humans and animals.

The report details how cotton production uses 2.5% of the world's cultivated land, yet it accounts for 16% of all insecticides sold globally. It also accounts for 4% of artificial nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers used globally. It is estimated that growing cotton requires 200,000 tonnes of pesticides and 8m tonnes of synthetic fertilisers every year.

The majority of cotton is also produced in countries that are already facing severe water stress, including China, India, the US, Pakistan and Turkey. In China, 80%-90% of fabric, yarn and plastic-based fibres are made in water-scarce or water-stressed regions, according to the report.

"This situation is set to get worse as our changing climate results in unpredictable weather patterns," it notes. "The impacts of water scarcity exacerbated by cotton production, are particularly felt in low-income countries which are ill-equipped to adapt to the challenges posed by droughts."

As the report points out, there are some meaningful attempts being made to bring different farming methods closer together and improve agricultural practices across the globe. A growing number of initiatives are seeking to improve conventional practice in a number of ways, such as the Better Cotton Initiative, Cotton made in Africa, Fairtrade, and REEL. Other initiatives include: ABRAPA, BASF's e3 sustainable cotton programme, Cleaner Cotton, ISCC, and myBMP.

Also, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) ensures factories meet strict social and environmental criteria. This means that only low impact chemicals are used, water and energy is monitored, and wastewater is treated properly before being released. Also, working conditions are safe and workers' rights are protected.

Organic cotton

Organic cotton is grown using techniques that save significant amounts of water – a life cycle analysis found that organic cotton reduces water consumption by 91% compared to conventionally grown cotton, according to the Soil Association.

19 countries currently produce organic cotton, with 92% grown in the following countries: India (67%), China (12%), Turkey (6%), Kyrgyzstan (5%) and the US (2%).

Organic soils require less irrigation, the report claims. Around 80% of land producing organic cotton is located in areas that are predominantly rain-fed, requiring "considerably less blue water." In addition, organic farmers employ a wide range of techniques to conserve water, including rainwater harvesting, selecting seed varieties which are drought resistant, and good soil management. Overall this means that organic cotton requires up to 91% less water to produce (from farm to bale).

"Studies have shown that organically farmed crops often yield better than conventional crops in times of drought, something that will become increasingly important in our changing climate," the report notes.

"A growing number of brands and retailers realise that business-as-usual is not an option and have made a commitment to source 100% of their cotton from farmers involved in these initiatives (and organic and/or regenerative farming) by 2025," it adds.

"This commitment, known as the 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge, represents a cornerstone for change in the apparel and textile industry. Already 19% of the world's cotton is being grown more sustainably, and whilst much of this is still conventionally grown, some of the worst practices of conventional production – such as the use of the most dangerous pesticides – are being addressed."

As reported on just-style last week, one such initiative is the e3 sustainable cotton programme, which offers a way for brands and retailers to track and trace their supply chains back to the cotton fields and understand how cotton can be grown according to exacting sustainability standards.