Cotton is threaded through human history. Domesticated thousands of years ago in India, South and Central America and Southern Africa, it showcases the best and the worst of humanity – from innovation and creativity to slavery and environmental degradation.
Enough cotton is grown annually to provide each person on the planet with 18 t-shirts
The cotton plant is grown in some 80 countries by 50-100 million farmers, providing jobs to a further 250 million people in farm labour, transport and primary processing. The farms range from very small (five hectares or less in India or Africa) to giant sites covering thousands of hectares in the US, Brazil or Australia. Enough cotton is grown annually (27.8 million tonnes in 2011/12) on an area the size of Switzerland and the UK combined (2.5% of the world’s arable land) to provide each person on the planet with 18 t-shirts. Cotton also provides edible oil, and residues can be used as animal feed or fertilisers.
But cotton does not just clothe and feed us: it is the stuff of livelihoods. For many resource-poor farmers from the global South, it is a gateway to organised markets, cash, and hopes for a better future. Cotton is an important part of the global economy, but if it is to remain so in a resource constrained, heavily populated world, its production and distribution must become more sustainable and efficient. This is no niche view: it is a sentiment widely backed across the industry.
Industry-wide change is no less than an economic imperative
For Terry Townsend, Executive Director of the International Cotton Advisory Committee, industry-wide change is no less than an economic imperative: “Increasing input costs, inefficient use of fertiliser, poor water management, unscientific use of insecticides, and absentee ownership of farms are the most common factors limiting cotton productivity”, he declared at the organisation’s 70th Plenary in Argentina, back in September 2011.
Cotton gained a bad reputation in the 1980s, after decades of intensification culminated in its using 22.5% of all agricultural insecticides and 11% of pesticides. These figures are still cited in textbooks and online articles, although today cotton production accounts for 14.1% and 6.2%, respectively. Campaigns to minimise the environmental and health impacts, by groups such as the Pesticide Action Network, led to organic cotton trials – and also to the use of integrated pest management (IPM), which emphasises the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agro-ecosystems.
The challenges the industry faces today are well documented. Townsend and others list population and consumption growth, land degradation, water shortages, pollution, poverty and environmental damage. The cotton market is volatile, farmer revenues are declining and productivity stagnating. Although absolute volumes of cotton sold are rising, it is losing market share to synthetic fibres like polyester, which benefited from a spike in cotton prices during 2010-2011. (The US Department of Agriculture estimates that a pound of cotton in China costs 76% more than polyester.)
Millions of small farmers still work with the most basic tools, and low incomes and lack of collateral constrain their access to credit. Pressure on land is so acute that farmers in Northern Benin told me (during a research trip in February 2013) that they fear going away to find temporary work, because the land will have been snapped up before they return.
However, these considerable challenges are no argument against cotton. When the crops do succeed, the results can be transformative. For instance, some organic cotton farmers in Benin have used their income to diversify, by becoming property developers. Other smallholders grow cotton with food crops, which often cover most of the farm area. This diversity builds resilience against volatile weather. Cotton’s added value is that it is a cash crop, allowing farmers to invest in the land, in their children’s education, in family health, and in their community.
Many supply chain solutions have been developed (by Better Cotton Initiative, Cotton made in Africa and others) to help farmers tackle the environmental challenges while boosting their income. Most of these draw on IPM principles: from preventative measures such as crop-rotation and selecting pest-resistant varieties to pest control through weeding or a highly targeted use of chemicals.
Investing in such solutions can help to improve cotton’s sustainability and productivity. For example, protecting farmers from market volatility can stabilise production and help brands secure their supplies. Reducing the dependence on pesticides can cut production costs, and using water more wisely can increase production, too (cotton is relatively drought-tolerant). Managing pests using ecosystem services can prevent them becoming resistant to insecticides. And investing in cotton research and development, as with all agricultural research, pays off massively in the long term.
Three areas may be critical to cotton’s future. One is soil, which holds the key to productivity, but can also act as a carbon sink, absorbing more carbon than it releases. Another is water, where there is still much to do in increasing irrigation efficiency, and reducing pollution from pesticide and fertiliser run-off. Finally, climate change mitigation deserves attention, as some areas become unsuitable for cotton and others more vulnerable to drought and flooding. Cotton already contributes 0.3-1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee. It will take bold action now – from industry regulators, smallholder farmers and commercial buyers alike – to ensure healthy crops and thriving markets in years to come. But there are many rewards to be won.
Life of cotton
Cotton is produced across the globe under many different conditions – in arid, humid, tropical or temperate climates, in a variety of soil types, and on farms of different sizes and degrees of sophistication. This means any claims about water use, pollution or poverty are meaningless unless applied to a specific context.
Until recently there was no single point of reference for any of these claims. But now, a comprehensive dataset released by the not-for-profit industry organisation Cotton Incorporated, as part of its Life Cycle Inventory Assessment (LCIA) for cotton, provides one. It examines both the fibre and aspects of the supply chain, such as dyeing and finishing. Results include impacts on acidification, eutrophication, global warming, ozone depletion, smog creation, energy, and water use, with textile manufacturing and consumer use contributing most impacts. While Cotton Incorporated considers the exercise a ‘snapshot’, it is an important tool for considering the environmental impacts of a cotton-based product.
Janet Reed, Associate Director for Environmental Science and Sustainability at Cotton Incorporated, explains: “The obvious value of the cotton LCIA is long term, as a benchmark to measure cotton’s future environmental gains. But the LCIA has immediate and practical value for brands and retailers. There is no shortage of measurement models for textile sustainability, but there is a dearth of accurate data sets to use in those models. The cotton LCIA fills that void, providing current and accurate cotton data that can be plugged into any measurement tool a brand or retailer chooses to use.”
Simon Ferrigno is an independent researcher and writer on cotton and sustainability, and the author of ‘An Insider’s Guide to Cotton and Sustainability’.
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