There’s nothing better than pulling on that old comfy t-shirt you wear to bed and crawling in between clean sheets, but the cotton we love to snuggle in can be anything but safe for the planet.
Cotton is the oldest commercial crop in the world and it makes up a significant part of the global textile industry, not to mention providing livelihoods for about 100 million households – or some 350 million people – up to 90 percent of them in developing countries.
Like so many agricultural markets, cotton can fluctuate wildly, creating uncertainty and instability for farmers, especially when some rich cotton-growing countries subsidise farmers’ crops.
It’s the environmental impact of growing cotton, however, that is one of the largest threats to the industry’s sustainability.
Cotton production and processing is hugely water intensive – it takes about 2,720 litres of water to make just one t-shirt and 10,850 litres for a pair of jeans. In comparison, for example, an ongoing water-saving campaign in Australia encourages households to limit their water use to 155 litres a person per day.
Areas with high natural rainfall or wet seasons, such as in India and southern Africa, have been able to rely on nature’s irrigation in the past, but changing climates and weather patterns may force smallholders to find new ways to source their water.
A number of major cotton producing regions, such as Pakistan, China, Uzbekistan and the US, already use artificial irrigation, and while it tends to produce higher yields, it can also be devastating on local water supplies. Traditional flood irrigation techniques not only waste water, but the chemical run-off returns to the eco-system.
And cotton growing uses a lot of chemicals, roughly $US2 billion worth of them a year, in fact.
Cotton farmers rely heavily on those agrochemicals, including herbicides to eradicate weeds, and pesticides to control the many bugs that destroy around 15 percent of world production each year. But $US819m – or almost half those used by farmers – are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization.
And the consequences of intense chemical use can affect both people and the planet. They include a deterioration in soil quality and productivity; contamination of groundwater – the main source of drinking water for most rural populations in developing countries; increasing resistance of pests to pesticides; negative effects on biodiversity; potential health risks of cooking oil and animal feed made from cottonseed; while poor storage, inadequate or unused personal protective equipment and lack of training in safely handling hazardous chemicals results in widespread pesticide poisoning among cotton workers, ranging from headaches, nausea and vomiting to loss of consciousness and seizures.
In Madhya Pradesh, India, Kailash grows Fairtrade certified cotton, and he believes that using natural methods of fertilizing a crop doesn’t only save the earth, it saves him money that can be better spent investing in his future.
“I have learnt good agricultural practices. I have big ambitions for my farm,” he said.
“I take wastage from my farm and make a tonic used as a fertilizer… It is a significant saving, previously that money went to dealers, distributors… and now that money’s saved.”
Buying Fairtrade cotton helps farmers like Kailash produce sustainable, more environmentally-friendly cotton, and means your t-shirt or sheets won’t literally cost the earth.