What is cotton?
It is a natural fibre which comes from plants. Cotton is mostly composed of cellulose which makes it a soft and fluffy material.
The cultivation and processing of this natural resource is used to convert it into a textile which is known for its versatility, performance and natural comfort. Cotton is commonly used in many industries and accounts for half of the fibre worn in the world.
Cotton production has been developed for decades and nowadays, 29 million tonnes of cotton are produced every year!
Where does cotton come from?
Research states that cotton was first cultivated in the Indus Delta and dates back to the fifth millennium B.C. Today, more than 100 countries are participating in cotton production.
The cotton plant grows in warm climates in over 20 countries around the globe. The largest cultivations are based in China, India, United States, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Australia, Turkey, Greece and Egypt.
According to the Environmental Justice Foundation report, the world’s largest producer is China, where farmers harvest 4.6 million tonnes of fibre annually.
How is it grown?
Farmers usually prepare the best fertile and well-drained soil for planting cotton seeds in spring.
Flower buds, called “squares”, appear on the cotton plants two months after the seeds were planted and it takes another three weeks until they blossom. The cotton flowers change their colours from creamy white to yellow, then pink and dark red.
After showing the nuances of their colours, the flowers fall and green pods (called cotton bolls) appear.
At this stage, fibres grow and push out from these newly formed seeds and under the warm sun they split the boll apart and the fluffy cotton comes out.
How is cotton harvested?
Hand labour is no longer used for harvesting cotton, the process is done by machines, called pickers or strippers. Every cotton picking machine replaces 50 hand-pickers.
A step before harvesting, plants are subjected to the defoliation, which consist of removing the leaves, often by spraying the plant with chemicals.
Harvesting machines differ in the way they pick the seed cotton out of the plant, however, they all use air to convey and collect the seed cottons.
Cotton crops get the most chemicals sprayed on
Unfortunately, cotton is the crop in the world that is sprayed with most chemicals. Chemicals in agriculture are called pesticides, used to kill fungus, bacteria, insects, plant diseases, snails, slugs or weeds. Inside the category of pesticides, insecticides are used to specifically target and kill insects.
The enormous amount of chemicals used for cotton account for the 16% of global insecticide releases even if it only grows on 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land.
Data shows that cotton farmers apply around US $ 1,310 million worth of insecticides to cotton each year which is far more than is applied to other crops like maize, rice, soybeans and wheat. As the mentioned crops are people’s daily food, the comparison can sound obvious but we should still consider that the earth absorbs large amounts of chemicals contaminating the natural resources available to us, as well as water.
The most critical data is that over US $ 819 million worth are toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation.
Ingredients of the main pesticides used by cotton farmers
Organophosphates are a group of insecticides. The most common uses for cotton of this category are Acephate, Chlorpyrifos, Monocrotophos and Profenofos. Due to these chemicals, there are nearly 3 million poisonings per year and it is lethal for 15% of people who are poisoned with it.
Pyrethroids is another insecticide which includes Cypermethrin, Deltamethrin and Cyhalothrin. This group constitutes the majority of the commercial household insecticides.
In addition to these, other chemical ingredients for cotton plants are neonicotinoids, including insecticides such as Imidacloprid, Thiamethoxam and acetamiprid. This category is famous for being of high risk for wild bees and honeybees, one of the most important insects for our planet.
Datas of farmers reporting signs and symptoms of pesticide poisoning reveal that occupational poisoning levels are up to 42%.
The use of chemical pesticides is harming humans, animals and of course the environment.
The overuse of pesticides has a significant impact on ecosystems as they do not eliminate only the target pests but rather they eliminate many other species which are not the farmers’ target. Their misuse causes loss of soil fertility, soil acidification and pollutes the waters of our planet.
Issues with conventional cotton production
Cotton is a renewable and sustainable resource on our planet. After being disrupted at high levels, cotton production presents challenges including the environmental issues discussed above, the overuse of water and other unethical conditions for workers and farmers.
According to the Sustainable Cotton Ranking, the production of conventional cotton can drain water aquifers and river systems, limiting water for people and nature. Moreover, behind the cotton production lie many socio-economic problems as well as child labour, poor working conditions and low incomes for farmers.
Sustainable and organic cotton
The bad habits of capitalism, such as overproduction and disruption of natural and human resources have motivated eco-friendly movements to address some of the challenges that conventional cotton presents.
Organic cotton is the production of a more sustainable cotton in all senses. Organic farming for instance takes a different approach to the use of pesticides, to address the concern of consumers and of the environment both for their quantity and the way they are used. According to PAN UK, it is estimated that if all farming was organic, the amount of pesticides sprayed would decrease by 98%.
What are the differences between organic and conventional cotton?
The differences between organic and conventional cotton are many, beginning from a less intensive and unique production of a plant with a greater diversity of weeds and other plants which create a good habitat and food for birds, bees and other species. The soil is much more fertile and it requires less water during cultivation. To produce organic cotton crops, it is estimated that the farming process needs about 71% less water. Another important result is that organic cotton production utilizes up to 62% less energy than conventional cotton.
In their totality, all the benefits of organic cotton production make cotton products safer than the non-organic cheaper and unethical ones.
To become a certified organic cotton producer, proof of the process must be provided to the certifying organization. The sustainable cotton ranking provides some reliable standards and a ranking of brands which are encouraging the usage of sustainable cotton.
For a wider knowledge of organic cotton, check out the production principles and criteria provided by Better Cotton Initiatives.
How does cotton turn into textile?
Cotton fibre is subjected to a long process before it becomes textile and then clothes. The cotton value chain entails large transportation routes from the source to reach the next processing stage, as they are often located in different regions of the world.
If you are curious to learn more, you can watch the following video about how cotton is processed.
What is it used for?
From clothing to bed linens, cotton is an extremely versatile textile. We find cotton also in papers, mosquito nets, fish nets, coffee filters, book binding etc. Cotton fibre can be used to create many different fabric types like wool and synthetic fibres like polyester. It can be knitted into fabrics like velvet, corduroy, chambray, velour, jersey and flannel.
Seeds of cotton are also used for the production of a cholesterol free oil used for cooking and in products like soap, margarine, emulsifiers, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, rubber and plastics.
Cotton Australia provides a nice estimation of what can be produced with a bale containing 227 kg of cotton lint, exactly 215 pairs of denim jeans or 750 t-shirts.
If you’re interested in learning which companies use organic cotton, check out our past blog post, about the companies that rank highest for the use of sustainable cotton.
Properties of the textile
Cotton is a soft, absorbent and breathable natural fibre which makes it a perfect material for clothing. The material has good heat conducting properties and keeps the body cool in summer and warm in winter. The textile is not very flexible and tends to crease after the first washing.
Furthermore, it is non allergenic and contains no chemicals when it is produced in best conditions, which makes organic cotton products the best choice for your skin and our community.
How can it be recycled
Recycling cotton usually entails the conversion of cotton fabric into cotton fibre that can be reused in textile products. More often, recycled cotton is produced by using scraps created by yarn and fabric left by production while is less common to recycle second-hand clothes as it is more labour intensive.
Moreover, as a natural source, organic cotton is biodegradable. If an item of clothing is made entirely of natural cotton, you can give it back to earth. Check out this guide about how to compost your clothes.
How long do cotton textiles survive in landfill?
The decomposition time depends on how the fabric has been constructed and on the environmental conditions. The decomposition of a very fine cotton in a warm, damp, mold and mildew rich area can take from 1 to 5 months.
Being aware about what our clothes are made from helps to make the best decisions when you’re shopping, not only for our wardrobes, houses and family, but for the entire world.
Stay tuned on our blog for the next post in the fabric series!