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Last updated: 14 May 2024

Is Cotton Bad for the Environment?

Fields of cotton plants under a clear blue sky, highlighting the natural environment where cotton is grown, while hinting at the underlying environmental concerns associated with its production.

Cotton's role as a key crop in global agriculture is undeniable. This natural fibre supports the livelihoods of over 250 million people and dominates half the world's textile market. At the heart of this issue lies conventional cotton farming practices. These practices are known for heavily relying on water, pesticides, and fertilisers.

These practices strain our natural resources and threaten biodiversity and human health. Cherished for its versatility, durability, and comfort, it has been a staple in the textile industry for centuries. However, its environmental footprint has come under scrutiny in recent years.

Fast fashion not only generates 92 million tons of clothing and textile waste yearly, equivalent to one and a half Empire State Buildings a year but produces more carbon emissions than aviation and shipping combined.

These factors underline the pressing need for sustainable cotton production initiatives. Initiatives spearheaded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Better Cotton Initiative aim to mitigate impacts on freshwater systems. They also seek to improve cultivation practices worldwide.

As we delve into the complexities of cotton's environmental footprint. This analysis will unpack critical issues such as water consumption, pollution, and the viability of cotton as a degradable and recyclable material. 

What do we Mean By Cotton Exactly?

Lifecycle from cultivation to consumer use, highlighting environmental impacts at each stage.

Cotton, a natural fibre, has been pivotal in the fashion industry since the fifth millennium B.C. Its origins trace back to ancient civilisations, showcasing its long-standing importance in human history. Cotton is a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions worldwide, including the Americas, Africa, and Asia. 

The versatility is evident in the array of items in a typical closet, including Plain cotton, Dyed cotton, and Cotton mix. The fibre is often spun into yarn or thread to make a soft, breathable textile. This is the basis for most clothing items we wear today.

Europeans encountered cotton production during the late Middle Ages through the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, marking a significant turning point in its global spread. 

Cotton fabric is highly valued for its breathability, lightness, softness, and heat retention, akin to a silk and wool blend. Despite being less durable than wool and more prone to pilling, rips, and tears, cotton remains popular. Its high tensile strength and moisture-wicking capabilities contribute to its extensive production worldwide.

The fabric drapes well on the body, withstands high-temperature washes, and comes in various types, including:

  1. Quilting Cotton (Craft Cotton, Patchwork Cotton, Printed Cotton)
  2. Brushed Cotton (Flannel, Flannelette)
  3. Pima Cotton
  4. Egyptian Cotton
  5. Cotton Twill
  6. Cotton Lawn
  7. Organic Cotton
  8. Knitted Fabric
  9. Levant Cotton
  10. Wool Blends 

The versatility is unmatched, but its production process and environmental impact are complex and multifaceted.

Environmental Impact of Cotton

Its environmental footprint is substantial. It's a crop that requires a lot of water to grow—about 2,700 litres for a single cotton t-shirt. This high water requirement can lead to significant stress on water resources, especially in areas that are already experiencing scarcity.

The Aral Sea crisis, primarily caused by the diversion of rivers for cotton irrigation, is a stark example of the environmental impact of cotton farming. This has shrunk to 10% of its original size due to water diversion for cotton irrigation.

The water footprint highlights a division into 42% blue water (surface and groundwater), 39% green water (rainwater), and 19% grey water (polluted water), underscoring the multifaceted impact of cultivation on water resources. Inefficient water management during irrigation can lead to substantial water loss, exacerbating the strain on freshwater resources.

Cotton farming is highly water-intensive, with estimates suggesting that producing one kilogram can require over 10,000 litres of water.

Moreover, conventional cotton farming uses many pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, which can lead to soil degradation and waterways pollution. Cotton farming consumes 16% of the world's insecticides and 6.8% of herbicides, contributing to soil salinisation and degradation of soil fertility. These chemicals harm the environment and pose health risks to the farmers and communities near the fields.

For instance, in 2017, pesticide poisoning led to the death of dozens of farmers in India's central cotton belt. Additionally, around a thousand were hospitalized, highlighting the acute risks to human health.

Its production also contributes to climate change. Its carbon emissions amount to around 220 million metric tons yearly. Additionally, the heavy use of chemicals in farming can affect the soil's ability to sequester carbon effectively.

Cotton cultivation is a source of environmental degradation, including water scarcity and pollution. Sustainable practices are not just optional; they are essential for the future of cotton.

What is so bad about the environment?

Cotton's environmental impact is multifaceted, involving excessive water usage, pollution, and its contribution to climate change. It's a crop that demands a lot of resources and exerts considerable pressure on our planet.

  • Water Consumption: Cotton is notoriously water-intensive. It takes about 2,700 litres of water to produce just one cotton t-shirt, roughly the amount of water an average person drinks in 2.5 years. This immense water requirement contributes to water scarcity in cotton-growing regions.
  • Chemical Use: Farming is responsible for 16% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides used globally despite occupying only 3% of the world's arable land. These chemicals pollute soil and water, harming ecosystems and human health.
  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Production is also linked to significant greenhouse gas emissions. The carbon footprint of a cotton garment ranges from 3 to 62 kilograms of CO2. For instance, polyester, a synthetic alternative to cotton, has a lower water footprint but results in more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram. 
  • Soil Degradation: Continuous cotton farming leads to soil degradation and erosion, reducing soil fertility and increasing the risk of desertification.

What is the impact?

To understand the scale of the environmental impact, it's helpful to break it down into total impact per year, impact per day, and impact per usage.

  • Total Impact Per Year: The global cotton industry contributes to millions of tons of CO2 emissions annually. For example, textile polyester production released about 706 billion kg of greenhouse gases in 2015, equivalent to the annual emissions of 185 coal-fired power plants.
  • Impact Per Day: Daily, the cotton industry uses 5 trillion litres of water for fabric dyeing alone, enough to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.
  • Impact Per Usage: Every cotton t-shirt made consumes 2,700 litres of water and contributes to the extensive use of harmful chemicals. For instance, a 5-minute shower uses approximately 40-60 litres of water, meaning the water used to produce one T-shirt could sustain about 45-67 days of daily showers. Moreover,  Every cotton garment has a hidden environmental cost. A polyester shirt may have a lower water footprint than a cotton shirt (5.5 kg CO2 vs. 4.3 kg CO2), but cotton's reliance on water and chemicals makes it less sustainable.

This data underscores the urgent need for sustainable production and processing practices. Consumers and manufacturers can make informed decisions to mitigate these effects by understanding environmental impact.

Top Largest Cotton-Producing Countries

A few key players dominate the global production landscape, each contributing significantly to the world's supply. 

The leading cotton-producing countries face the challenge of balancing economic benefits with sustainable practices to ensure the long-term viability of cultivation.

Cotton is more than just an agricultural commodity. It is the livelihood for millions of people and, in many countries, a significant part of the GDP.

China remains the largest consumer, with a forecasted consumption of 36.5 million bales, followed by India, which consumes 23.7 million bales. However, countries like Vietnam (7.5) and Bangladesh (7.5) are increasing their consumption, reflecting shifts in the global textile industry. In contrast, Mexico's consumption of 1.6 million bales is declining due to competition from Asian textile imports and macroeconomic factors.

RankCountryAnnual Production (Million Tonnes)Global Share
3United States3,963,000~17%

This data table provides a snapshot of the global production landscape, emphasising these countries' significant role in the industry. Their collective efforts in cultivation support millions of livelihoods and fuel the global textile market, underscoring the importance of sustainable practices in this sector.

CountryWater Usage (litres/kg)Pesticide Use (%)Organic Cotton Production (%)
United States10,000251

Fast Fashion Footprint

Both brands have committed to increasing the use of sustainable and recycled materials in their products.

Did you know the fashion industry is the world's second-largest polluter after the oil industry? Fast fashion giants like Zara and H&M are under increasing scrutiny for contributing to this environmental damage, particularly in Brazil. The country's cotton production reached a historic high in the 2022-23 season, driven by expanded cultivation.

Zara and H&M have been sourcing cotton from areas in Brazil's Cerrado savanna, which is involved in severe environmental and ethical controversies. Reports have highlighted that this "tainted cotton" has been falsely labelled as ethical by certifications such as Better Cotton despite being linked to land grabbing, corruption, and violence. These practices have not only led to significant environmental degradation but also impacted local communities adversely through the dispossession of land and associated social injustices.

Zara, for instance, produces approximately 840 million garments annually for its global network of stores, contributing to significant environmental degradation in cotton-producing regions. Similarly, H&M, which sells around three billion garments annually, has been criticized for its environmental impact.

This is a significant acceleration in destroying the Cerrado, one of the world's most biodiverse savannas.

Is Cotton Toxic?

Cotton is not inherently toxic. However, the conventional methods used in its cultivation and processing can introduce various toxic substances into the environment and the final products. The toxicity of cotton can be considered from several angles, including the environmental impact of its cultivation. The health effects on those involved in its farming and processing, and the potential for chemical residues in the final products.

The Environmental Justice Foundation reports that farmers spend around £1.6 billion annually on agricultural pesticides, of which a significant portion is highly toxic. Moreover, the production has been linked to substantial water pollution due to the runoff of pesticides and fertilisers. 

Furthermore, toxic chemicals in farming have been linked to numerous health problems among farmers and workers. Pesticides used in production, such as organophosphates, pyrethroids, and neonicotinoids, have been associated with harmful impacts on human health, including neurological and reproductive issues. 

Instances of pesticide poisoning, resulting in symptoms like vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, and dizziness, have been reported among farmers. The heavy use of these chemicals affects those directly involved in cultivation and poses risks to consumers through residues in the final products.

Is Cotton Biodegradable?

Yes, cotton is biodegradable. The natural fibre breaks down over time with the help of microorganisms, water, and oxygen. It biodegrades faster than oak leaves, with purified cotton fibres showing 100% average mass loss in septic and sewer systems over a 28-day test period

It readily biodegrades in commercial compost and degrades anaerobically (without oxygen) and aerobically (with oxygen). However, the biodegradation process varies depending on environmental conditions and treatments applied to the fabric.

In modern landfills, it degrades more slowly due to the lack of oxygen and water. 

Factors Affecting Cotton Biodegradability

  • Aerobic Conditions: It decomposes relatively quickly in the presence of oxygen. Under ideal conditions, a cotton T-shirt buried in a garden can degrade within a few months.
  • Anaerobic Conditions: In landfills, where oxygen is scarce, it degrades much slower, producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Chemical Treatments: Finishes and dyes can affect the rate of biodegradation. Studies show that even treated cotton fabrics degrade significantly, although the rate may be slower than untreated cotton.
  • Synthetic Blends: Pure cotton biodegrades faster than cotton blended with synthetic fibres like polyester.

Comparison with Synthetic Fibers:

  • Cotton vs Synthetic Fibers: Research consistently shows that cotton fibres biodegrade faster and more thoroughly than synthetic fibres in aquatic (wastewater, freshwater, and saltwater) and terrestrial (compost and soil) environments.
  • Impact on Microplastics: Textiles account for 35% of the microplastics found in our oceans. Unlike cotton textiles, which shed natural and quickly biodegradable microfibers, synthetic textiles shed microplastics that persist in the environment.
  • Degradation in Wastewater and Compost: It degrades 95% more than synthetic fibre in a cotton/polyester blend after 243 days in wastewater. In a compost environment, the biodegradability is 99% greater than synthetics, with cotton degrading 89% in 12 weeks versus synthetics’ mere 0.8%

Biodegradability Comparison

MaterialBiodegradation TimeEnvironmental Impact
CottonA few months to yearsLow with organic farming
PolyesterSeveral decades to centuriesHigh microplastic pollution
Wool1-5 yearsModerate, depends on farming practices
Plastic Bags500 years to indefiniteHigh, persistent pollution

Can Cotton be Recycled?

The recycling process is possible and is increasingly becoming a critical component of efforts to create a more sustainable textile industry. It can be recycled from both pre-consumer and post-consumer waste. Pre-consumer waste includes scraps and clippings from the manufacturing process. Post-consumer waste consists of used garments and textiles that consumers have discarded. 

Graphical representation comparing the environmental impact of recycling cotton versus polyester

Recycling is crucial in promoting a more sustainable textile industry by reducing waste and conserving resources. 

The recycled market is rising, with projections indicating substantial growth. By 2028, the market value is expected to reach approximately £165 million. This growth is driven by innovations in recycling technology, such as improved mechanical and chemical processes that enhance fibre strength, making recycled cotton comparable to virgin cotton.

Recycling can significantly reduce CO2 and fossil fuel emissions by offsetting the production of new materials. In contrast, it can save up to 20,000 litres of water per kilogram, reducing the need for dyes and minimising waste.

Despite its benefits, recycling faces challenges. High-quality, recyclable cotton waste is limited, and the logistics of collecting and sorting post-consumer waste are complex and costly. For instance, mechanical recycling turns fibres into new yarns, while chemical recycling strengthens the recycled fibres. 

Another concern is the availability of cotton waste suitable for recycling. While pre-consumer waste is relatively easy to collect and recycle, post-consumer waste is more challenging to manage due to issues with collection and sorting. Moreover, post-consumer waste dyes, finishes, and contaminants can further complicate recycling.

Is Cotton Sustainable?

There is a growing movement towards more sustainable farming practices. Organic cotton, for example, is grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, and it typically has a lower environmental impact due to reduced chemical inputs. However, it's important to note that organic cotton still requires significant water to grow.

Innovation in cotton technology and farming practices promises a more sustainable and profitable future for cotton.

Genetically modified seeds have also been introduced to reduce pesticide use, which has led to other environmental concerns. Initiatives like the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and Fairtrade are working to improve production's socioeconomic and environmental aspects. Moreover, upcoming EU due diligence rules will push for more sustainable sourcing and better environmental and social risk mitigation.

The industry is exploring eco-friendly processing methods, water-efficient irrigation systems, and developing varieties requiring fewer inputs. 

Environmental Impact Compared to Everyday Things

The impact becomes startlingly clear when we compare the CO2 levels associated with production to everyday items and activities. Organic cotton, while better, still emits 78% fewer CO2 emissions than polyester and 91% fewer than nylon.

Its production emits 2-4 tons of CO2 per hectare annually, contributing to 220 million tons of CO2 emissions worldwide. This is equivalent to the CO2 emissions from approximately 47 million cars driven for a year.

This figure is startling compared to the carbon footprint of other everyday items and activities. For a more precise understanding, let's look at the data table below to compare cotton's CO2 levels to those of other everyday things:

Item/ActivityCO2 Emissions (kg CO2)Comparison to Cotton
Cotton T-shirt8.41 T-shirt
Polyester T-shirt (per kg)10.2Slightly higher than one cotton T-shirt
Driving a car (per mile)0.40420 miles equals the emissions from 1 cotton T-shirt
Flight (London to New York) per passenger12214.5 cotton T-shirts equal the emissions from one flight
Household Electricity (per year)2.7One hectare of cotton production can surpass the annual electricity-related emissions of a home.

What Are Alternatives?

Exploring sustainable alternatives to conventional cotton is crucial in mitigating the environmental impact associated with its production. Here's a list of eco-friendlier options that are gaining popularity:

  1. Organic Cotton: Grown without toxic pesticides and uses less water.
  2. Recycled Cotton: Reduces waste and energy consumption by reusing existing cotton fibre and saving old textiles from landfills.
  3. Hemp requires about 80% less water to cultivate and process into textiles than cotton, returning 60-70% of nutrients to the soil.
  4. Organic Linen: Made from flax, linen uses less water and pesticides than cotton. It is also highly breathable, making it ideal for humid climates.
  5. Organic Bamboo grows rapidly without irrigation, making it a sustainable choice. Bamboo fabric is soft, durable, and antimicrobial.
  6. Lyocell (Tencel) is made from wood pulp, using less water and non-toxic solvents in a closed-loop process.
  7. Flax (Linen) requires significantly less water than cotton. It is known for its antimicrobial properties and is the most breathable fabric, making it ideal for temperature regulation. It needs fewer chemical fertilisers and less water and is biodegradable.
  8. Piñatex: A leather alternative made from pineapple leaf fibres, reducing waste.
  9. Econyl: Recycled nylon made from ocean plastic and fabric waste, reducing water use and offering a sustainable option for swimwear.
  10. Recycled Polyester: Made from recycled plastics, reducing plastic waste

Is It Better Than Alternatives?

Cotton is not necessarily better than its alternatives. While it's a natural fibre, conventional cotton farming is resource-intensive, using significant amounts of water and chemicals. Alternatives like organic cotton and hemp offer similar benefits without the harsh environmental impact. 

Materials like bamboo and lyocell are more sustainable and often provide additional benefits such as biodegradability and closed-loop production.

MaterialWater Use (litres/kg)PesticidesBiodegradabilityEnergy Consumption
Organic CottonLowerNoneYesLower
Recycled CottonVery LowNoneYesVery Low
Hemp300 - 500NoneYesLow
Bamboo1/3 of CottonNoneYesLow
Recycled PolyesterLowNoneNoLow
This table illustrates the environmental benefits of alternatives, showcasing their lower water and pesticide use, durability, and biodegradability.

Statistics, Facts and Figures About Cotton

Cotton, often hailed as the "white gold," is pivotal in the global textile industry. Its journey from the fields to fabric encapsulates innovation, economic significance, and environmental impact. 

Data was sourced from USDA, FAO, WWF, and environmental research reports.

  • Cotton thrives in over 75 countries across five continents, with India, China, and the United States leading as the top producers.
    • The top cotton-producing countries include India, China, the United States, and Brazil, collectively accounting for a substantial portion of the world's cotton supply.
      • In 2015-2016, the world consumed 24.2 million metric tons, highlighting its significant role in the global textile industry.
        • The current year saw a global production of 6,382,445 tons of cotton, underscoring the crop's vast scale and importance.
          • Japan's cotton consumption has a significant water footprint, with 95% located outside Japan, mainly in China, Pakistan, and India.
            • The industry provides income for over 250 million people globally and employs 7% of all labour in developing countries, despite many farmers selling it below production cost.
              • Soil erosion and degradation are common in cultivation, often leading to expansion into new areas and habitat destruction.
                • The industry is notorious for employing child labour and slavery, with 75,859,936 hours of child labour reported this year. And profits generated by enslaved people amounted to approximately £27,4 billion.
                  • Approximately 80% of cotton is used in apparel manufacturing, with the remaining 20% used in home furnishings and industrial applications.
                    • Only 1% of used cotton garments are recycled into new clothes, highlighting the need for improved recycling technologies and sustainable consumption practices.
                      • The global production hovers around 25 million tonnes annually, making it a staple in the world's textile needs.
                        • It meets 27% of the world's textile requirements, underscoring its indispensability.
                          • The industry generates an annual revenue of approximately £13.5 billion in exports, benefiting over 100 million families worldwide.
                            • BCI-trained farmers produced 5.6 million metric tonnes of Better Cotton in the 2018-2019 crop year, accounting for 22% of global production.
                              • With cotton at its core, the fashion industry accounts for an estimated 10% of global carbon emissions.

                                Cotton Production and Consumption by Region

                                RegionProduction (million tonnes)Consumption (million tonnes)Carbon Emissions (Million Tonnes CO2)

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