Let’s talk about Conventional cotton
Cotton’s heritage as a textile, date from at least 5,000 BC, with evidence of human use found as far afield as Mexico, Pakistan and Peru. Still widely traded as a global commodity, cotton however no longer dominates the market for use in apparel.
Cotton is a natural fibre that when woven or knitted produces a soft, strong fabric that is breathable, absorbent and washable. Old cotton can also be recycled to make new yarn and garments.
Cotton comes from the fluffy fibres – known as ‘bolls’ – that surround the seeds of the cotton plant. The fibres are de-seeded using a cotton gin, cleaned, carded (to align the fibres), spun into cotton yarn and woven into fabric.
This process involves several locations – from harvesting in cotton fields, cleaning and compressing the cotton lint into bales at gin yards, to shipping the bales to textile mills for spinning and weaving or knitting. The yarn or fabric produced may then be dyed, printed or finished before being sent to garment manufacturers.
Cotton is the world’s largest non-food crop, grown for trade by more than 80 countries. However, production is concentrated in just six – China, India, Australia, Brazil, the US and Pakistan – that combined produce 80% of all cotton1.
Although the cotton plant grows wild in many dry tropical or sub-tropical areas, it is a labour-intensive crop. Optimal growth requires dry warmth, sunshine, regular irrigation and protection from pests and weeds.
The impact of conventional cotton
1. Cotton's water consumption
The cotton trade brings economic benefits to these regions – but also serious environmental and social problems.
Water usage is among the most dramatic. More than half of global cotton production – 57% – takes place in areas under high or extreme water stress, according to data compiled by the World Resources Institute.
Only 30% of the cotton produced comes from "rain-fed" farming. The rest relies on irrigation, mainly wasteful flood irrigation.
The Aral Sea in Central Asia vividly illustrates the effects of such stress. It shrank to just 10% of its former volume, through drought and decades of diverting water chiefly to irrigate cotton farms.
2. Cotton's chemical usage
As well as being a thirsty crop, cotton cultivation currently uses lots of chemicals – 4% of all world pesticides and 10% of insecticides are used in cotton-growing.
These inputs can pollute local ecosystems and drinking water supplies.
3. Social impacts of cotton farming
Cotton’s historic links to the slave trade are well known. In a miserable echo of that, rights groups have now documented evidence of the ongoing use of child and forced labour in cotton cultivation today, with children as young as five working in cotton fields or ginning factories in countries such as India, Egypt and Uzbekistan.
As a globally traded cash crop, cotton prices can fluctuate significantly. This hits poor cotton producers particularly badly, affecting their incomes, working conditions and quality of life.
We are very proud to announce that 80% of the cotton used in our first collection is organic and GOTS & BCI certified.
Organic cotton is most widely recognised as a method of growing without the use of toxic chemicals. The multiple stages of the supply chain must remain chemical-free in order to be organic, including land preparation, using non-Genetically Modified seeds, soil, and weed and pest management. Once it is harvested the crop’s manufacturing process from raw fibre to fabric must also remain free of toxins.
The World Economic Forum has identified water scarcity as a large global risk to society over the next decade, and conventional cotton production is not helping. Organic cotton has a much smaller impact on the water for a few reasons:
- Organic farmers usually have healthier soil, both due to lack of pesticides and herbicides and through using other soil building techniques. Healthy soil can hold more water, like a sponge, leading to less flooding and more resilient soil during droughts.
- Hazardous chemicals also can’t run off into waterways, so rivers, lakes and drinking water are kept cleaner.
- Most organic cotton is grown in rain-fed areas. Farmers rely on rain to water their crops, rather than extracting water from the ground which can negatively impact local water supplies for communities.
- Beyond water, organic methods don’t result in toxic chemicals contaminating land, air and food supplies, instead of supporting biodiversity that these chemicals destroy, and they don’t use fossil-fuel-based fertilisers. Organic farmers are also less likely to use monoculture practices, by growing other crops alongside cotton. This keeps soil healthier and protect crops, but also provides farming families and their communities with more stable and diverse food supplies and extra sources of income.
This standard stipulates requirements throughout the supply chain for both ecological and labour conditions in textile and apparel manufacturing using organically produced raw materials.
Organic production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic, persistent pesticides or synthetic fertilisers. In addition, it includes welfare standards for animal husbandry and prohibits genetically modified organisms.
The Better Cotton Standard System is a holistic approach to sustainable cotton production which covers all three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic. Each of the elements – from the Principles and Criteria to the monitoring mechanisms which show results and impact – work together to support the Better Cotton Standard System, and the credibility of Better Cotton and BCI.
The system is designed to ensure the exchange of good practices and to encourage the scaling up of collective action to establish Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.