Cotton, it’s truly the fabric of our lives. This natural fiber is beloved by pretty much everyone as it is breathable, soft, and can be woven or knit into any number of different fabrics. It’s no wonder that cotton shows up everywhere from our undergarments and t-shirts to our jeans and couch cushions. It is one of the most widely grown crops in the world.
Approximately 29 million tonnes of cotton are grown around the world each year, but only .7% of that is certified organic. Why does it matter that most cotton is not organic? There is a major difference between the environmental impact of conventionally grown cotton versus organic cotton, and if we are to reverse the impending climate catastrophe, organic farming is key.
How is conventional cotton grown?
Conventional cotton is grown in a monoculture, where one type of cotton plant is grown across the entire field. Monocultures are a problem because they deplete the soil of vital nutrients that plants depend on to grow healthily. When only one type of plant is living on a patch of Earth, that plant sucks up all of the nutrients it needs, but there are no other plants around to replenish those nutrients and put them back into the soil.
Farmers therefore have to depend on fertilizer in order to put nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous back into their soils in order to continue growing a monoculture crop. Those fertilizers may help the plants grow big and strong, but they do not incorporate into the soil or feed it for the long term. Fertilized soils are weakened, and when there are heavy rains, a great deal of that soil ends up washing away into nearby rivers and waterways. Along with the soil, fertilizer and any pesticides or herbicides on the plants are also washed downstream. This kind of chemical agricultural runoff has been the cause of algae blooms that choke oxygen from the water and create dead zones where no marine life can live.
The pesticides that are used on conventional cotton crops harm not only the aquatic environments downstream, but the people who work in the fields, too. In India, where most of the world’s cotton is farmed, there are countless stories of cotton farmers who suffer from health issues like skin problems, headaches, chronic coughing, fever, eye irritation, and sleeplessness. Some farmers seek to reduce their pesticide use in the cotton fields by purchasing Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds, which are engineered to be resistant to one of the most destructive cotton pests, the boll weevil. Unfortunately, many of these farmers find themselves deep in debt to Monsanto, a trend which has resulted in outrageous numbers of farmer suicides in India.
Conventional cotton that is grown with the use of monocultures, fertilizers, and pesticides may look and feel just as soft and comfy as organic cotton alternatives, but many worry about the potential harm that all of those chemicals are doing to our bodies. When we wear cotton it is right up against our skin (and in the case of undergarments, it is right up against our sensitive parts where the skin barrier is thinner), which is known to be an absorbent organ. The effects of wearing conventional cotton is not yet known, but many worry that their pores are absorbing toxic chemical residue left over from pesticides.
How is organic, regenerative cotton better for people & planet?
Where conventional cotton is responsible for approximately 16% of the world’s pesticide use, organic cotton aims to use none. Much of today’s organic cotton is still grown in monoculture crops, but they rely on fertilizers and approved sprays that are deemed to be safer for the natural habitat and people that come into contact with them. Organic cotton as it is produced today is not a sustainable solution, but it is a step in the right direction.
Organic farming principles are rooted in the idea that Mother Nature knows best when it comes to growing plants and maintaining a natural balance in the land. While organic certifications today do not go this far, there are some farmers looking ahead to the future of organic, regenerative farming. Regenerative farming is inherently organic, as it employs the use of other plants and animals to eliminate the need for pesticides, fungicides, or fertilizers.
In a regenerative cotton field, cotton plants would be interspersed amongst other kinds of plants that either grow alongside the cotton plants, or grow on the same land after the cotton has been harvested and before the next season’s crop is planted. Certain plants have characteristics that will naturally deter pests and diseases, while others provide precious nutrients to the soil. These supporting plants breathe in carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the Earth, therefore providing an essential building block for other organisms in the soil to utilize while reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere at the same time. The fixation of carbon and other nutrients back into the soil (as well as the growth of healthy plant roots) makes the soil more absorbent, allowing it to soak up rainfall and have more resilience during times of drought.
Cotton is an incredible fiber that has played a huge role in human history, and it likely will not be going away any time soon. But in order for the human species to survive on this planet for generations to come, we must turn away from conventional farming methods and begin implementing organic, regenerative practices instead. Our climate crisis is vast and complex, and will require all different efforts to reverse it. Switching to organic, regenerative farming for the fashion industry’s most prevalent crop could make a huge difference when it comes to saving our planet.