What's wrong with our cotton?

We all know cotton, do we really?

It is most common natural fibre used [1], and the second most common fibre (40%) after polyester (which we know is shit when we wash it – refer to my previous IG post!) [2]. It’s breathable, soft on skin, plant-based fibre so you’re not wearing plastics or using petroleum-made stuff. But do you know you’re fueling a different kind of hell when you wear cotton?

(*Note: this post is adapted from my IG post dated August 8, 2017.)

(*Note: this post is adapted from my IG post dated August 8, 2017.)

(1) Cotton is extremely water-intensive to make.

Cotton only grows in dry climates [3], but it requires a lot of water to grow (this already sounds super ironic) [4]. Cotton doesn't like prolonged dry or wet weather, it also is sensitive to excessive water [5]. Another tricky thing is - it loves prolonged sunshine [5]! So it is not difficult to imagine why farmers then choose to plant cotton in dryer climate and use irrigation methods to produce consistent cotton output.

As a result, more than half of global cotton production occurs in areas experiencing high or extremely high levels of water-stress [6].


(2) Cotton is extremely chemical-intensive to make.

Almost all of the world’s cotton is grown relying on the use of synthetic pesticides and genetically modified seeds. Cotton is grown on 2.4% of agriculture land, but it accounts for 10% of pesticide use and 25% of insecticide use globally [4].

Genetically modified cotton was developed to reduce the heavy reliance on pesticides. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) inserted into cotton produces a chemical harmful only to a small fraction of insects, however, it is ineffective against many other cotton pests [3]. There are debates to whether the pests that GM seeds has no resistance to had seen an increase after the use of regular pesticide/insecticides [3], but what remains to be absolutely true is that cotton is still very chemical-intensive to grow.



What’s more, there’re sad stories behind cotton and how it is related to the suicide of more than 270,000 Indian cotton farmers between 1995 and 2014, and forced labour in Uzbekistan, and many more...

If you’re a cotton farmer in India:


You buy genetically modified cotton seeds from large corporations (because this is pretty much what’s available).


You plant the GM seeds which are more expensive, only to find that they don’t live up to the expectation of resistance against pests, and need even more fertilizers. (or in nature you need lots of chemicals for cotton anyway)

STEP 2: 

You buy pesticides, insecticides & fertilizers from those large corporations, which are sometimes banned in Western countries.


You're still poor, so you don't have enough protection against all those chemicals


You and your family develops cancer or other diseases.


You buy medicines from large corporations and need lots of money to treat disease.


You go bankrupt and you need to sell your land.


You commit suicide.


I’m not asking you to throw away your cotton pieces. In fact, keep them. They are worth someone’s blood and sweat. You not buying cotton certainly doesn’t directly help resurrecting dead farmers. You buying ORGANIC COTTON and/or LINEN (a good alternative to cotton that is less chemical & water-intensive, although it also generate wastewater during the production process – but a good lesser-evil option) can create more demand for other fibres and hence alleviate the pressure for developing countries to produce so much cotton… A bit far-fetched but the solution must start somewhere, and it has to start from us.


There are no easy solutions, but there are lesser evil options and they have to start from us.


Extended reading / watching:

Guardian (India's farmer suicides: are deaths linked to GM cotton? – in pictures)

CNN (Youtube: “Why India’s cotton farmers are killing themselves”)



I took the lazy way and referenced a lot of information from Zady.com, but I have made sure the info that I've cited is backed by the original source that Zady has cited from. This means that I've gone to the original source and search for the exact info that I've cited and make sure it's accurate. In parts where I've added on top of my IG posts, I've also listed the references below.

Citing the original references below:

[1] http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report18.pdf - page 10

[2] http://www.tedresearch.net/media/files/Polyester_Recycling.pdf - page 1 first point under FACTS

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton#Harvesting - It says that "Successful cultivation of cotton requires a long frost-free period, plenty of sunshine, and a moderate rainfall, usually from 60 to 120 cm (24 to 47 in).... In general, these conditions are met within the seasonally dry tropics and subtropics in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, but a large proportion of the cotton grown today is cultivated in areas with less rainfall that obtain the water from irrigation."  

[4] http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/about_freshwater/freshwater_problems/thirsty_crops/cotton/

[5] https://www.hunker.com/12459242/what-kind-of-climate-does-the-cotton-plant-require

[6] http://wri.org/applications/maps/agriculturemap/#x=0.00&y=-0.00&l=2&v=home&d=cotton

FabricsKammie Lau