There are a lot of simple changes we can make to our habits that can instantly make us more eco friendly, some of the things that we do might have an environmental impact far outside our immediate environment, effect a change we may never see or experience. But that does not make it any less worthy, infact it could arguably be even more worthy for that.
One such change would be the switch to organic instead of conventional cotton.
This may seem a bit picky, after all, cotton is already natural, it is a plant, it is white and pure looking and fluffy and most of us (at least in the UK) may never come into contact with it in its most natural state, so how could this possibly make a difference?
Generally speaking cotton is grown as a mono crop, which means there is no crop rotation just cotton cotton cotton. The knock on effect of this is that higher and higher levels of pesticides and insecticides are needed, in fact a few years ago 22% of all the worlds insecticides and 20% of the worlds pesticides were used on cotton alone. Some changes in recent years to the genetic makeup of cotton has reduced the need for some of these chemicals but not all that much.
When mono crop culture is used it causes heavy damage to the soil, meaning that the soil becomes poor quality, and so many chemical fertilizers are used to try and give the cotton enough nutrients to grow... but because the soil is in such poor condition, many of these fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides are just washed away and end up in the waterways. This is not only bad for the local aquatic environment (see more on this here) leading to dead zones but they also often make their way into drinking water meaning in some areas there is no safe drinking water for the people in the area.
But that is not the only toll on water that cotton can take. Cotton is a thirsty plant, and when grown in this way it becomes even more so. According to the WWF 20,000 litres of water is needed in order to produce one 1kg of cotton. Roughly the equivalent to 1 t-shirt and a pair of jeans! This thirst can, and has had the most devastating consequences. The Aral sea in Uzbekistan being a prime example, once the 4th largest fresh water lake in the world (about the size of Ireland) 85% of it is now a desert. Caused solely and completely by cotton farming. This video shows exactly what this has meant for the region and is a powerful watch if you can spare 10mins https://youtu.be/NC5UIEx83fo
And this report from the WWF also makes for interesting reading file:///C:/Users/Admin/Downloads/cotton_for_printing_long_report.pdf
But after all of that! All is not lost, there are things that can be done- There are organisations that are helping cotton growing communities to improve their practices, which not only helps the local environment but also their own health too in many cases.
Integrating things like integrated Pest Management has resulted in 60- 80% reduction in pesticide use and increased cotton yields. This has also seen a return of birds which are also helping to reduce pests.
At the moment organic cotton accounts for around 0.2% of world cotton production (WWF) It can take about 3 years for farmers to transition to organic practices and recover the yield they were previously getting, but experienced farmers in India, Paraguay, East Africa and Peru report yields which are broadly equivalent to conventional cotton.
In some areas production has remained lower, BUT due to less expenditure – in pesticides, insecticide and fertilizers the profits of the farmers still went up.
There are also practices that can be put into place to reduce the water needed, introducing sprinkler or drip irrigation can save 70% of the water, better rainwater harvesting, and recycling of the water can also be implemented to help improve yields.
But organic cotton is a fragile business, it is increasing in demand, but the future is uncertain, farmers want the assurity that the market will be there to support them, and that, dear reader is where we come in. By choosing organic cotton you are helping to prevent environmental disasters like the Aral sea (which you probably hadn’t heard of until now, right?) You are helping communities to have an industry that can support them and keep healthy. You are helping.
When you buy clothes try and make sure they have been responsibly grown, consider the environmental impact of what you are wearing.
We all have the power to make a difference, every day. Sometimes we don’t even know we are doing it!