When you think of cotton - nothing could be more natural, right? After all, it's so widespread that about half of all textiles are made from cotton. From your basic white t-shirt, to designer clothing to traditional saris, they can all feature cotton.

The production of conventional cotton provides income for over 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labour in developing countries. There's no doubt the global reach of cotton is wide but traditional methods of producing cotton are environmentally devastating.

The environmental impact are as a result of the use of agrochemicals (pesticides), heavy use of water resources and conversion of habitat to to agricultural use. In fact diversion of water and its pollution by cotton production has had huge impacts to ecosystems in Aral Sea in Central Asia, the Indus River in Pakistan and the Murray-Darling river system in Australia. It's estimated that 97% of the water in the Indus River goes towards producing crops like cotton.

Water Usage

It's staggering to think that approximately 2,700 litres of water is needed to grow the cotton to produce just 1 basic T-Shirt. To put that staggering amount into perspective - 2,700 litres is enough water for 1 person for 2.5 years! And worse still, it can take up to 10,000 litres to produce the cotton to make one pair of jeans. Some expert believe that cotton is the largest user of water in comparison to other agricultural commodities.

Because of its heavy requirement of water, surface and ground water is diverted to irrigate cotton fields which lead to fresh water loss through evaporation and inefficient water management.

Cotton Farming Pollution

Traditional methods of farming cotton uses a lot of chemicals to control pests and boost production. The toxic chemicals are harmful to human health, wildlife, waterways and soil. Cotton uses 24% of the world's insecticides and 11% of the world's pesticides. Farmers and people who live close by to cotton fields suffer health problems due to the toxicity. It's also been found that clothing made from chemical intensive cotton has traces of pesticides thereby posing potential health hazard, especially to those with sensitive skin.

Polluted Waterways and Soil degradation

Due to the heavy use of toxic chemicals, runoff of pesticides, fertilisers and minerals pollute waterways, river systems, streams and underground aquifers. These pollutants directly impact biodiversity.

Cotton production causes soil degradation. As it's a heavily sprayed crop, this ruins the soil and deprives it of its natural replenishing nutrients. Furthermore, trees are felled to make room for cotton growing and as such there is a high risk of topsoil erosion as tree cover is absent in those farms.

How to consume cotton sustainably

Choose Organic Cotton

Cotton grown organically does not use chemicals or pesticides which translates to less environmental damage and soil degradation. Organic cotton uses 91% less water, uses 62% less energy, produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and provides a safer work environment as workers are not exposed to harmful chemicals. It does not put a strain on our rivers and seas as 80% of cotton is rain-fed.

Choose Ethical Production

Your choice has power. A shift in consumer attitude from picking whatever is on the rack to carefully choosing what is purchased is made ethically will go a long way to positively influencing brands and the fashion industry. 

Approximately 90% of cotton farmers live in low income countries. Fairtrade practices ensure that they get appropriate rewards for their labor. 

Children as young five have already been sent to work in cotton fields Uzbekistan, India, and Egypt. Sustainable clothing choices can help to curb child and forced labor in the cotton industry.

All change begins with you. You have choice and you have power. Vote with your wallet and choose to buy sustainable, ethical fashion.