The true impact your cotton clothes are having on the planet:

What are the most common clothing materials?
Currently, the main clothing materials used are synthetic (polyester, nylon and elastane), cotton, wool and silk. These materials can be used in many clothing products and even outside of the clothing industry. However, in this blog, we are going to look at specifically cotton clothing and how much of an impact this industry really has on the planet. While a single piece of cotton clothing may seem fairly innocent, the impacts are huge providing grim statistics on how concerning the cotton clothing industry really is.

Where is cotton mainly sourced from?
Cottons main producers are the United States of America, China and India. In 2020, the United States produced 4.25 million metric tons of cotton with an estimated value of around $7 billion. This made up 35% of all cotton produced. China produced 6.42 billion metric tons and India produced 6.16 billion metric tons. Currently, China is the world’s biggest producer of cotton followed shortly by India and then the United States of America. These figures are soon set to increase as cotton production is estimated to rise by around 1.5% from now to 2029.

How much water and chemicals are used for growing 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 which equates to around 454 billion litres of water used for simply cotton shirts annually! The cotton industry currently uses $3.5 billion AUD ($2.6 billion USD) worth of pesticides which makes up more than 10% of all pesticides used worldwide. In the United States alone, 84 million pounds of pesticides were applied to just the American cotton plants in 2000, since then the cotton industry has certainly increased suggesting those statistics are very much undermining the true amount used now in the United States specifically.

The issue with pesticides:
With the tremendous amount of pesticides produced worldwide for cotton growing, this has obviously had a detrimental impact on the local environment but also the farmers themselves. According to the United Nations (UN), pesticide poisoning kills around 200,000 people globally each year. Along with the human fatality figures, around 67 million birds also die due to pesticide exposure each year. Other species like fish can also be greatly affected when the pesticides drain through the soil and eventually slip out into lakes, dams, etc.
Exposure to pesticides kills lots of people but can also leave those alive with serious neurological issues like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and more. Many large agriculture companies have been on the receiving end of complaints from cases of brain damage even in young children. The huge amount of pesticides used for cotton growing certainly raises red flags and must be drastically reduced with thousands of people and animals dying annually. Spraying weeds and other pests on farms is certainly important, but not when it costs the lives of millions of living organisms annually.

The damaging process of cotton plants into cotton shirts:
As mentioned before, the majority of cotton plants are produced in China, the United States of America or India. Cotton growing consumes around 111 million acres of land. As the plants grow, they are provided with gigantic amounts of water and sprayed with the largest quantity of pesticides of any plant in the world. Then, once the cotton plants have fully grown, the cotton balls are collected using large trucks which are then transported to a factory where the machine separates the cotton balls from the seeds. The cotton 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 factories then use specific machines to turn the bales into a final product of thin ropes called ‘slivers’. To get to this point, they go through many stages including blend, card, comb, pull, stretch and then twist which helps give the cotton the end shape of slivers.

These ‘slivers’ are sent to large mills where large knitting machines convert the current shape into rugged grey/white fabric. These sheets are heated using more energy as well as sprayed with additional chemicals to create the product of white and soft sheets. The cotton transformation stage is now complete and can be dipped into large amounts of bleach and colour dyes (more chemicals). This process helps create the colouring for the clothing. The sheets are then transported again to factories most commonly in Bangladesh, China, Turkey or India where they are stitched into clothing by humans. The cotton piece is now ready.

As you can probably see throughout this process, the production of cotton clothing is very harmful to the planet with the excessive use of water, pesticides and other chemicals hurting the environment. Not to forget the constant transportation needs and the significant energy and large land usage to grow cotton in the first place. When the cotton is going through the stages of turning into colourful sheets in factories, the colourings used can be very harmful to human and animal life often containing cadmium, lead, chromium and mercury which can all lead to a drastic increase in the development of cancer and serious issues with reproductive and neurological systems. If these chemicals aren’t properly disposed of, they can accidentally spill out of factories and leak into waterways or contaminate the air, both leading to catastrophic consequences.

How many emissions come from the clothing industry?
The production of clothing worldwide makes up over 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions annually. While cotton isn’t the only culprit in this problem, it certainly plays one of the larger roles in the tremendous issue. The current statistics don’t reflect the impact the clothing industry could have in future years as the emissions continue to rise. With the products becoming increasingly cheap, rising consumerism and the increasing population, the issue is only going to get much worse. To show the drastic increase in demand for clothing, studies have shown that from 1994 to 2014 the demand increased by 400%. Currently, the world is producing around 80 billion garments annually! Today, the clothing industry is the second largest polluter of greenhouse gases just behind oil.

Other factors helping make clothing even more damaging:
This again isn’t a problem that cotton battles alone, but more of a problem the clothing industry as a whole face. When clothing is purchased, it needs to be washed and dried quite 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 each time. That equates to around 16,000 gallons of water per family and around 1.96 trillion gallons of water consumed annually for just the United State’s washing machines! Let’s not forget the driers millions of people use annually which are 5 times to 6 times more energy-intense than washing machines. Clothing has its major issues when being produced, but this is a prime example of how even when the product is produced, the issues are not yet over.

Ways to reduce your impact when purchasing cotton clothing:
While the statistics may seem confronting and overwhelming, there are simple things you can do to help minimise the potential impact of cotton clothing.

  • Try and reduce the number of times you wash your clothes and only wash the clothes in large loads rather than throwing just one hoodie in the wash.
  • Only purchasing certified organic cotton clothing. By doing this you help drastically reduce the number of pesticides and chemicals used to grow cotton.
  • Purchasing cotton clothing from charity shops to be reused over and over again.
  • Dry clothing on a clothesline outside instead of placing them into a dryer to consume more resources.
  • Once the clothing has reached its end for you (taste, size etc), donate the clothes to charity stores, send to specialised recycling facilities and/or reuse them for cleaning purposes. You could maybe use a shirt as a cloth to wipe furniture down.

Conclusion:
The cotton clothing industry is one that is commonly overlooked and is not considered a large issue. The truth is that cotton clothing has gigantic issues that must be addressed now. The huge amounts of water and pesticides must be drastically slashed for the benefit of farmers, animals and almost all other living organisms. Organically grown cotton must increase and large clothing companies must move to this alternative to help encourage others to do the same. With cotton being the largest recipient of pesticides in the world, requiring incredible amounts of water and transportation, something must be done soon to help combat this issue. Farmers and animals aren’t provided with second lives and climate change isn’t coming slowly, so why isn’t the cotton clothing industry worried and taking action?

Released on the 29th of October 2021. -KJDJ
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