Cotton, An Ugly Truth?

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Back in 2010 I did a big year long research project (as part of my year 12 graduating assessment) on how cotton fabric is made, looking at both standard production and organic production. As part of this I visited local cotton farms and gins that process cotton. I also grew my own small crop of cotton plants, harvested the cotton, processed it and then spun and wove it. It was really a great experience that I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to have. 

Today I am revisiting that research and sharing with you more about cotton growing practices and some really wonderful ways people are creating change and pushing the industry towards more sustainable practices. I will be focussing mainly on Australia and Australian research, but will include some global information and statistics to keep a broad view.

Australia ranks in the top ten producers of cotton in the world, ranking 7th behind India, China, United States, Pakistan, Brazil and Uzbekistan. Approximately 27 million tons of cotton are produced each year, ad is grown on 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land. 

Unfortunately cotton has quite a few unsustainable and unethical practices that plague its production, including extreme pesticide and chemical usage, forced child labour (including government enforced labour in some countries), a reputation for high water usage and soil quality degradation issues.

Some of these issues are tied together, with the pesticide use causing insect resistance, there has been a switch to genetically modified crops which contain toxins that deter the pests. This has had an unexpected side effect of the toxins being found in the roots, soil and decomposing leaves which is leaving a residual effect on the soil – potentially impacting soil biodiversity and the function of its organisms. The research into this is still quite new, so we will only find out as we progress. 

Our water usage in Australia for cotton crops is one of the best in the world, with the average usage sitting around 6-7 megalitres per hectare. In saying this, in the 2018-2019 growing year 32% of the crops were grown exclusively using rain water, with the remainder receiving some irrigation. Our leading producers are able to produce almost two 227kg bales of cotton for every megalitre. This equates to approximately 2200 litres of water per kg, while the world average is 10,000 litres per kg. 

There has been movement on the child labour front, with some european unions going in to educate farmers of the benefits of their child receiving education over labour, and with some countries removing forced labour, but sadly there is still a long way to go. 

But what about organic cotton? We know they don’t use petroleum pesticides, chemicals and synthetic fertilisers – but how do they manage the pests then.
Organic cotton farmers use a few different methods such as planting trap crops to draw pests away, natural pesticides such as neem, crop rotation and intercropping are used to reduce weeds and maintain soil health (which they also use application of manures, composting, mineral powders and reduced tillage to improve).

Organic cotton prioritises soil health and managing water sustainably; but it is also great for farmers and workers health – not exposing them to harsh chemicals. On top of this, at least 65% of organic cotton producers have fair trade policies in place, and if they are GOTS certified then they also have safe and financially stable working conditions in place for all workers.  

They have strict conditions on processing around which dyes and bleaches are permitted to be used, and that there will be no cross contamination from non-organic cotton. As you can imagine the process to get certified can be challenging and take up to 3 years.

Sadly in Australia there doesn’t seem to be any organic cotton farms, it is deemed uneconomical and our environment and weather conditions are not conducive to organic cotton growing methods.

We do however have Full Circle Fibres, an incredible company working to bring us cotton fabrics that have fully traceable stories, so we can know the story of where the fabric and fibre came from, creating a transparent supply chain. Meriel Chambers, the founder of Full Circle Fibres, has a mission to make the circular economy the new normal. Something I think we can all appreciate is fast becoming a desperate need rather than an idealistic dream.

The good news around cotton fabrics and fibres is that, regardless of whether it starts out as an organic or non-organic crop, it can be broken down and reused to make new fabric and garments, and it can also be composted. There are a few companies working towards closing the loop in this industry which is so awesome to see, places such as WornUp and Upparel are doing great work in this sector.

There is a most wonderful experiment happening right here in Queensland. Sam Coulton, a farmer in Goondiwindi has turned shredded cotton into the fields of his cotton farms, to see if the waste can help grow the next crop. The experiment started in 2020 with research and has concluded with the harvest of the crop earlier this year (2022). 

There is a Worm Tech farm in southern New South Wales that collects the cotton waste from the fields (commonly called cotton trash) and uses it as a key component of the composting business; and much of it returns to the cotton fields in the form of granular worm castings. Adrian Raccanello is the founder and he uses the cotton trash, combined with domestic organic waste to feed earth worms. The earth worms process the waste in about 8 weeks, turning it into a nutrient rich organic fertiliser. 

I am a real fan of cotton, but reading some of these truths and facts makes it hard to love something that causes so much pain to people and the planet. However, there is so much great work being done by innovative and creative individuals in the field, it gives me hope that we are moving to a more sustainable cotton industry, and that maybe cotton isn’t really as bad as the name it has learnt itself in recent years, and that it has a future possibility of a second chance as a more sustainable and ethical fashion fibre.

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