We only use certified, organically grown cotton for the production of our shirts. How do people and the environment benefit from the cultivation and use of organic cotton? I would like to highlight the advantages here in order to show what contribution we as consumers can make to a healthy environment by choosing organic cotton
The curse of the white gold
The textile and fashion industries are among the dirtiest sectors of the global economy. According to a Quantis study, the clothing and footwear industry was responsible for 5-10% of global pollution in 2016 (1).
The cultivation of raw materials, especially cotton, is still a major part of the pollution, which is still the most popular natural fiber for the manufacture of our clothing. Around 24 million tons of cotton are grown every year. This corresponds approximately to the weight of 100 cruise ships. As you know, you can find it not only in our T-shirts, shirts and trousers, but also in all kinds of textiles such as curtains and in medical or cosmetic articles. Cotton is an integral part of our everyday life.
Given the environmental impact associated with growing conventional cotton, it remains a mystery why organic cotton is not used more often. The proportion of organically grown cotton is still only about 0.5% of the world's cotton cultivation! According to the Organic Cotton Market Report, 117,525 tons of organic cotton were grown in 2016/17 (2).
100% natural - no pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, no synthetic fertilizers
Cotton is grown on 2.4% of the world's arable land, but is responsible for 11% of the global pesticide use and 24% of all insecticides (3). The pesticides and insecticides are intended to protect the cotton plants from pests, but not only pollute the actual pests of the cotton but also the entire animal and plant life in the cultivation area and pollute the groundwater. (4)
In addition, conventional cotton is mostly harvested by machine. Because the machines cannot distinguish between cotton, leaves and ripe and unripe cotton capsules, defoliants are often injected. These cause the leaves to wither before harvesting. The use of herbicides also forces ripening. The cotton plant perceives the herbicide as harmful, which leads to an "emergency maturity" of the capsules. Before the plant dies, it lets the fruit ripen as quickly as possible. (5)
The organic cultivation of cotton completely dispenses with the use of genetically modified seeds, the use of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and synthetic fertilizers. In most cases, organic cotton is grown in smallholder structures. The organic farmers have all the resources they need for fertilizing and protecting their crops on their farms.
Instead of chemicals, organic farmers use natural fertilizers such as cow manure or make their own biological preparations from plants that they use to protect against pests. Intermediate crops, such as sunflowers, are also planted in the cotton rows, which keep pests away in a natural way. By avoiding pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, the flora and fauna as well as the organic farmers themselves are not exposed to the dangerous poisons. (6)
Lower water consumption
Cotton is generally a water-intensive crop. Today it grows in countries such as Turkey, India, China, the USA, Pakistan or Uzbekistan. Globally, depending on the growing region, 10,000 to 20,000 liters of water are needed to grow one kg of cotton (7) In most cases, the plants must be artificially irrigated to cover water consumption.
One speaks here of the use of “blue water”, which means the amount of water that is taken from lakes, streams or rivers or from groundwater. The vanishingly small Aral Sea in Uzbekistan is evidence of where overuse of water sources by agriculture and especially cotton cultivation can lead. The lake has given way to a salt desert today.
In a comparative analysis of conventional and organic cotton, the organization Textile Exchange (8) found that although the use of water in organic cotton is also high, in the case of organic cotton the water is fed mainly by rain and therefore the consumption of groundwater («Blue water») is up to 91% less compared to conventional cotton.
In my opinion, this number should be treated with caution, since the possibility of rain irrigation certainly depends on the geographic location and not purely on whether it is organically grown or not. However, various sources show that the majority of organic cotton is grown in areas where rain irrigation is possible and is practiced. According to the Textile Exchange, 80% of the organic cotton fields are rain-irrigated. (9)
It is also a fact that the soil is less polluted when organic cotton is grown and natural fertilizers are used, pesticides are not used and crop rotation is used. Soil fertility increases, which is particularly reflected in a higher humus content. As a result, the water capacity is higher and the soils can store more water and are therefore more resistant to drought. (6)
In many cases we use organic cotton from bioRe® projects in India and Tanzania for our shirts. In Tanzania, the organic cotton is 100% rainwatered. In India, this share is 60%. The bioRe® Foundation also conducts research on a domestic cotton variety that is better used to the climate and can produce sufficient yields in both dry and wet conditions. It also supports farmers in India in financing drip irrigation systems that save water.
Less CO2 emissions when growing
If one measures the effects of cotton cultivation on climate change in the form of CO2 emitted, the Textile Exchange found that the cultivation of organic cotton emits 46% less CO2, which has to do with the absence of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides, which consequently do not have to be manufactured and do not have to be distributed (with vehicles). The study also takes into account the fact that smaller amounts of CO2 are generated because less irrigation is used and, accordingly, fewer water pumps have to be operated. (8)
978 kg of CO2 are emitted for 1 ton of organic cotton. For the same amount of conventional cotton, it is approx. 1’800 kg CO2. (8) For a shirt, we need around 200 g of cotton, which means about 0.2 kg of CO2 for cultivation. Notabene: This only affects the cultivation and says nothing about which emissions will be emitted later for the processing and transport of the materials and the finished goods.
No genetically modified seeds, more independence for the farmers
70% of the cotton acreage is cultivated with genetically modified cotton (3). Genetically modified cotton seeds were originally developed to guarantee protection against pests such as the cotton capsule drill. However, because the pests become resistant or populations of other insects harmful to cotton have increased, pesticides cannot be avoided. As a result, farmers have high expenses for the purchase of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They also have to buy the genetically modified seeds every year, which forces them to become dependent on the agrochemical companies. (4)
Organic farmers can reuse the cotton seeds of their harvest for the next sowing. This means that they have no expenses for genetically modified seeds, fertilizers and pesticides and do not have to take out loans for their procurement. Organic farming also prescribes crop rotations. Monocultures are not allowed. In addition to cotton, organic farmers also rely on other crops such as maize, soybeans, and wheat to compensate for possible losses and improve their livelihood. (6)
Advantages of organic cotton at a glance:
- The biodiversity of animals and plants in the growing areas is protected
- The soil is protected and remains fertile
- The health of the people in the growing areas is protected
- Organic cotton is mostly irrigated by rainwater and therefore uses less groundwater
- The CO2 emissions from cultivation are lower for organic cotton
- The independence of organic farmers is encouraged because they do not depend on chemistry and genetically modified seeds and, thanks to crop rotation, also rely on the cultivation of other crops
(1) Quantis, 2018, Measuring Fashion
(2) Textile Exchange, 2018, Organic Market Report
(3) www.fibl.org/de/themen/biobaumwolle/biobaumwolle-hintergrund.html, abgerufen am 29.01.20
(4) https://www.biore.ch/darum-biore/probleme/ abgerufen am 29.01.20
(6) https://www.biore.ch/darum-biore/leistungen/ abgerufen am 29.01.20
(7) Soil Association, 2019, Thirsty for fashion?
(8) Textile Exchange, 2014, The Life Cycle Assessment of Organic Cotton Fiber, Summary of Findings
(9) Textile Exchange, 2017, Organic Cotton Sustainability Assessment
Pictures by bioRe® India, bioRe® Tansania and CARPASUS