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Is your cotton shirt 'killing the earth'?

22 January 2016, 17:24Woolworths Sustainability Communications, additional research by Health24

It’s difficult to imagine life without cotton as the world uses more cotton than any other kind of fibre.

We dry ourselves with cotton towels, sleep between cotton sheets and wear cotton jeans. Cotton is used largely for clothing and household items but has many other uses.

Every part of the cotton plant is used. The long fibres are used to make cloth and the short fibres are used for paper; cottonseed oil is made from the seeds, and other parts of the plant are used as cattle feed. 

Cotton grows in subtropical areas and the biggest cotton-growing countries in the world are Australia, India, Pakistan, China and the USA.

A big polluter

Cotton, because it is a natural fibre has the image of being natural and pure. Nothing could be further from the truth, and cotton farming takes a tremendous toll on the environment, mainly because of its heavy use of pesticides.

According to Organic Authority, the cotton industry is the most pesticide-intensive crop grown on the planet and uses the most dangerous pesticides to human and animal health.

While cotton covers only 2.5 percent of the world’s cultivated land, it accounts for 24 percent of the world’s insecticide market and 11 percent of sale of global pesticides. The pesticide run-off also poisons our ground water, and cattle consume contaminated cotton straw and cottonseed. 

Aldicarb, one of the insecticides used on cotton, is so poisonous that it can kill a human with just one drop absorbed through the skin. Converting cotton into fabric and clothing also involves many toxic chemicals.

Going organic

A recently published report (Cool Cotton – Organic Cotton and Climate Change) by the Soil Association states that switching to organic could reduce the global warming impact of cotton production by 46 percent. It would also reduce consumption of fresh water by more than 90 percent and energy use by over 60 percent.

The organic cotton produced in 2013/14 saved the world the equivalent of nearly 95,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of freshwater compared to non-organic, and the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions was the equivalent of driving a car around the world over 14,000 times.

The report adds that the demand for organic cotton is growing, and that in 2014 the global market for organic cotton grew by more than 60 percent. It is estimated that global production of organic cotton increased by 15 to 20 percent in 2014/15. 

A study done in India found that organic cotton yielded just 14 percent less than non-organic, but that the costs involved were 38 percent lower. Organic cotton farms also have to grow other crops besides cotton, which means that they are more self-sufficient – in addition to enjoying better health because of the avoidance of pesticides.       

Image: Countries that grew organic cotton in 2014. Source: Aboutorganiccotton.org

organic cotton growers in the world

- Health24


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