Is cotton a really ecological fiber?

We often associate the word “natural” with the word “ecological” and nothing could be further from the truth. That a product is of natural origin only indicates that its raw material has not been synthesized in an industry. But that does not rule out that for its “natural” production the processes are not so “ecological”.

One of the most iconic examples is cotton. There is a general belief that any product made with this fiber will not produce adverse reactions when used because it is natural … but it does produce a great environmental damage during its production and manufacture of the garments!

Cotton production

It is estimated that production from this fiber to world level for this 2019 it will be located in something more than 26 million of tons. These are data provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, which considers a decrease of close to 3% compared to previous years. Countries with greater production are India, China, U.S, Brazil Y Pakistan; at the European level they stand out Spain, Greece and Italy. Among the Spanish provinces, Andalusia produces 99.9% of the product nationwide.

Requirements of cotton production by conventional methods

  • Climate requirements. They are plants that require a lot of sun, since it is a crop in warm areas. The temperatures must be high, an average of 28 ° C and it does not support frost.
  • Soil requirements. These plants require deep, permeable soils for good root development. They are tolerant to salinity, but are affected by excess nitrogen or soil compaction.
  • Irrigation requirements. This crop is one of those with the highest water requirements, especially since it is done in the summer months.
  • Pesticide and herbicide requirements. Cotton cultivation is affected by a large number of pests and the invasion of weeds. For its control, up to 50 products with different active ingredients can be used.

Environmental impact of cotton cultivation

A study carried out by the Made by organization used six variables to measure the impact of the production of different fibers.

These variables included: greenhouse gas emission, human toxicity, eco-toxicity, energy consumption, water consumption and land needed for crops. With these results, they built an environmental ranking, from A to E, of respect for the environment. Surprisingly –or not–, cotton grown by conventional methods was placed in categories D and E. They point out that the specific location depends on the provenance, but, in any case, its poor ranking in environmental terms is striking.

Breaking down the environmental impact of this crop

The Water footprint, that is, the water consumption required for the manufacture of a cotton t-shirt 250 gr is 2,900 liters. For its part, a cowboy pants 1 kg requires about 11,800 liters of water.

These values ​​include the cultivation of the necessary amount of raw material as well as the manufacturing processes. But is that a lot or a little? Judge for yourself.

In average values, 1,230 liters come from irrigation water, 1,110 liters come from rainwater and 600 liters are as contaminated waste water. As you can see, the higher proportion of water used is irrigation and cultivation occurs mostly in countries where water is scarce. To this is added the considerable proportion of wastewater.

Use of agrochemicals and transgenics

The use of herbicides, fungicides, pesticides Y fertilizers is another of the factors of greater environmental impact with respect to this crop. To this is added the occupation of large tracts of land with monocultures leading to the loss of diversity of possible biocontroller agents. More recently, transgenic plants have been developed for pest control. The problem is that the introduction of a pest insect toxicity gene is killing other natural biocontroller insects as well.

Other more cryptic factors

To our regret, there are other factors that produce a higher carbon footprint associated with a cotton garment. If the emission of CO2 is considered from when it is planted until the garment becomes waste, the values ​​may surprise us. The highest emission is associated with the user’s habits related to their hygiene and their washing practices.

This means that the greatest energy expenditure, and therefore the greatest ecological footprint, is made in washing and drying clothes. A calculation of carbon emissions during the life cycle of a garment indicates the following:

  • twenty% of emission occurs during production of the raw material
  • 9% of the emission occurs during the process of manufacturing
  • 2% of the emission occurs during the transport
  • 60% of the emission occurs by its everyday use

Is organic cotton the solution?

Organic or organic cotton is produced without the use of pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers. Also, it is not bleached before dyeing. This means that no additional chemicals such as chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, dioxin, and formaldehyde are used.

Dyeing with natural colorants also eliminates the use of heavy metals. The only drawback is still the need for large amounts of water for cultivation. However, it is still the fiber with the lowest CO2 emissions during its production and manufacture of garments.

Despite the lesser damage it causes to the environment, the cultivation of organic cotton represents only 1% of world production. However, wearing a garment made from certified organic cotton represents a social and environmental commitment.

We help preserve the health of producers and are paid a fair price for their work. In addition, natural resources and ecosystems are preserved and we obtain healthier products for our own.

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