Cotton’s origin can’t exactly be traced back to a certain point in history because of how widely it was grown and used by so many different regions across the world. But today, we are able to look at the lasting harmful effects that this crop has had over time, from the devastation of environments to contributing to human rights abuses — it is far from ethical.
Cotton is known for its comfort, breathability, and ease of wear, which is why at least 75% of the world’s clothing products contain cotton. Cotton can be used in virtually any clothing item and blended with other textiles in countless ways. It is a versatile fiber and its production increases year after year in various regions across the world. But the production and maintenance of the cotton crop has caused the environment to be stripped of its resources, while providing to the ever-growing fashion industry.
It takes roughly 713 gallons of water (2,700 liters) to produce just a single cotton t-shirt, that is enough water to sustain one person for 900 days. If we calculate the water needed to grow the cotton fiber, to sustain it, and even to wash it once it's been made into our favorite t-shirt, then that makes cotton a very thirsty crop. At one point, cotton’s water consumption proved to be too great for even the largest body of water to withstand.
The Aral Sea region was developed in the 1960’s specifically for cotton production in Central Asia. At the time, it was the fourth largest body of water in the world and was a hub for local fishing and traditional irrigation methods. However, it only took 40 years for the Sea to dry up due to cotton’s excessive need for water and became nothing but desert. Wildlife was wiped out, the water was completely gone, and the communities in that area suffered from the consequences. How can an industry be okay with such large consumption of a resource like water when its access is already limited to so many?
Water scarcity becomes an even larger issue when harmful chemicals like pesticides are involved and pollute the water that is left. An estimated 18 percent of worldwide pesticide use is all because of cotton. Pesticides then run off into groundwater, polluting local communities’ drinking water and poisoning the farmers who grow this crop. In the US alone, more than 100,000 farmers die from cancers caused by the chemicals found in pesticides.
The cotton industry has most of its producers in India, China, and the United States, providing incomes for 250 million people worldwide. Nevertheless, there are countless amounts of adults and children who are forced into labor at some point in the cotton production process. In 2016, The US Department of Labor found that forced and child labor was found in 18 different countries, some of those countries being top producers of cotton to the largest fashion brands. Today, some of the most well known fashion retailers are sourcing their cotton from places like Xinjiang, China, where we know forced labor camps exist.
Fashion supply chain transparency is already needed, but I believe it is also important that as consumers we ask where the raw materials are coming from. If the production process already starts with forced-labor cotton, then it doesn’t matter how transparent or ethical the rest of the supply chain claims to be. Brands need to be aware and make the purchaser aware of every part of the process.
It is also important for cotton farmers to be given the resources in order to produce their cotton in a more sustainable way, so themselves and their environment can be less at risk. The Better Cotton Initiative is an organization that collaborates with these farmers to develop better practices and create a better future for cotton’s production. As of 2017, they’ve gotten 1,039 suppliers and manufacturers and 85 brands and retailers to become members of The Better Cotton Initiative.
The best thing that we as consumers can do is look into alternatives for our cotton clothing. Asking questions about its origins is a good start, but we can also research brands who are transparent about their cotton production and even have certifications that prove their ethical practices. If you see certifications from Fair Trade, The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), or The Organic Content Standard (OCS), then these fashion brands are worth looking into. Even purchasing sustainable fabric alternatives like hemp and bamboo can make a difference.
If the need for cotton decreases because people are demanding more ethical fabrics, then brands would have no choice but to pay attention. Then they would have to start taking the time to really look at this fabric’s production from the very beginning.
Cotton has always been a staple fabric in everyone’s clothing, but we no longer should accept the dirty practices that go into its production.