The true impact your cotton clothes have on the planet.

What are the most common clothing materials?
The main clothing materials used are synthetics (polyester, nylon and elastane), cotton, wool and silk. These materials can be used in clothing products and beyond the clothing industry. However, this text will specifically explore the cotton industry and the humanitarian and planetary effects associated. Whilst a cotton shirt would appear innocent, the impacts are truly startling.

Where is cotton mainly sourced from?
Cotton’s main producers are in the United States, China and India. In 2020, the United States produced 4.25 million metric tons of cotton with an estimated value of $7 billion. China, on the other hand, produced 6.42 billion metric tons and India produced 6.16 billion metric tons. These figures will soon increase as cotton production is estimated to rise by around 1.5% from now to 2029.

How much water and chemicals are used for cotton?
The average amount of cotton needed to create a shirt requires 227 litres of water to grow. To put that into perspective, that’s enough to fill 30 bathtubs. Currently, two billion shirts are sold each year globally; equating to 454 billion litres of water used for simply cotton shirts.

The cotton industry currently uses $3.5 billion AUD ($2.6 billion USD) worth of pesticides; making up more than 10% of all pesticide usage worldwide. In the United States alone, 84 million pounds of pesticides were applied to cotton plants in 2000. However, that data very much undermines current statistics in 2021 as cotton production increases.

What’s the issue with pesticides?
The tremendous amount of pesticides produced worldwide for growing cotton has immense implications on the ecology of the surrounding landscape and the health of residents and farmers nearby. According to the UN (United Nations), pesticide poisoning kills around 200,000 people each year. Coupled with the 67 million bird fatalities due to pesticide exposure each year. Other species like fish can also be affected when pesticide runoff seeps out into lakes, dams, etc.

Exposure to pesticides not only kills people but can also leave those alive with serious impairments from neurotoxicity like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. Large agribusinesses (the most infamous being Monsanto) have received lawsuits, find millions, and battered by the media due to cases of neurodegeneration and even nervous system failures in young children.

The unsustainable use of pesticides for cotton raises red flags and ought to be amongst the most urgent discussions on the environmental and health front of agriculture.

From cotton plants to cotton shirts:
The majority of cotton plants are produced in China, the United States and India. Cotton growing consumes around 111 million acres of land. As the plants grow, they are nurtured with water and sprayed with the largest quantity of pesticides of any crop globally. Once the cotton plants have grown, the cotton balls are collected using large trucks which are later transported to a factory. In the factories, the cotton balls and separated from the seeds, and the balls are condensed into multiple 225-kilogram bales. These bales are transported via textile mills to a spinning facility (these are usually located in China or India). The spinning facilities use machines to turn the bales into a product of thin ropes called “slivers”. To go from bales to slivers, the cotton undergoes blending, carding, combing, pulling, stretching and twisting.

The slivers are delivered to mills where industrial knitting machines convert the slivers into rugged grey/white fabric. The sheets are heated using energy and soaked in synthetic chemicals to create the product of soft, white sheets.

Once the transformation stage is complete, the products are dipped in chemicals like bleach and colour dye. During the colouring stage, the colourings used often contain cadmium, lead, chromium and mercury which all increase the likelihood of cancer and impair our reproductive and neurological health. If these chemicals aren’t adequately disposed of, they leak into waterways or contaminate the air; both of which disrupt the ecology of the local environment.
After colouring, the sheets are sent to factories in Bangladesh, China, Turkey or India to be stitched into clothing.

Understanding the many stages of how cotton becomes clothing allows us – as consumers – to better acknowledge how it is these products were made and the environmental implications. Namely, the excessive use of water, pesticides and other chemicals, transportation, energy consumption, and land usage.

How much emissions come from the clothing industry?
The production of clothing worldwide makes up over 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions annually. Whilst cotton isn’t the only clothing fabric, it has the most profound impact of all. Between the increasingly cheap cost, rising consumeristic lifestyle and population boom, the impacts of cotton may only worsen if little ingenuity is adopted. To illustrate the increase in demand for clothing, studies show that from 1994 to 2014 clothing consumption increased by 400%. Today, the world produces around 80 billion garments annually, and the clothing industry is the second largest emissions producer; behind oil.

Other damaging factors:
This again isn’t a problem that cotton battles alone, but a problem the clothing industry as a whole must confront. When clothing is purchased, it needs to be washed and dried regularly. In the United States, the average family does around 400 loads of laundry each year with the washing machine consuming around 40 gallons of water per use. That equates to 16,000 gallons of water per family, and 1.96 trillion gallons of water consumed annually in U.S. washing machines. Moreover, driers use 5 – 6 times more energy than washing machines.

Ways to minimise the damage
Reduce the number of times you wash your clothes and only wash them in large loads.
Only purchasing certified organic cotton clothing. Doing so eliminates pesticide application on the farm.
Purchasing cotton clothing from charity shops to be reused.
Once the clothing has reached its end (taste, size etc), donate the clothes to charity stores, send to specialised recycling facilities and/or reuse them for cleaning purposes (e.g., a shirt as a cloth to wipe down furniture).
If you have any further recommendations, be sure to leave them in the comments section below.

Conclusion:
The sheer amount of water and pesticide application must be slashed, organic farmers ought to be financially supported (and incentives must be introduced), and clothing companies must transition towards sustainable means of manufacturing their goods. With cotton being the greatest pesticide recipient in the world, requiring vast amounts of water, land, and transportation, something must be done to combat cotton. This issue isn’t lurking in the atmosphere, or out in the distant deserts; instead it literally lies on us and only we – as a collect – can do something about it.

Released on the 29th of October 2021. -KJDJ
To view bibliography, click here.

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