The Issue With Cotton and Climate Change
“Cotton is the most widespread profitable non-food crop in the world.” (1) The plant is found in basically every single article of clothing, from t-shirts to jeans to socks to flannel, and it has also made its way into towels, bedsheets, curtains, and cosmetics.
Unfortunately, the textile industry is not at all environmentally sustainable. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 3% of the water used for agriculture is used for growing cotton, despite the fact that nearly all the rest of the resource is allocated to growing produce. A single outfit, approximately 1 kilogram of cotton, takes a staggering 20,000 liters of water to produce. With millions of tons of cotton being produced each year, more sustainable methods must be implemented immediately.
The issue is not just the fast fashion industry spitting money and resources into the newest fads; the world population will exceed 9 billion by 2050, and with this comes a need for textiles far beyond the scope of fast fashion. Cotton differs greatly from plastic in that there is less of a demand for an environmental alternative and more of a push to optimize the growth and fabrication of cotton-based products. Current substitutes such as polyester, bamboo, and hemp all have their own drawbacks, and with the infrastructure built firmly around the cotton plant, it seems most reasonable to figure out measures to decrease the amount of water, chemicals, and land necessary.
With the development of newer technologies, farmers have attempted to grow more organic cotton without the use of pesticides and fertilizers, reducing the environmental impact of possible toxic runoff into nearby ecosystems. The amount of water needed for the growth of cotton has significantly decreased over the past few decades, and researchers are interested in developing more water-efficient and insect-resistant varieties that can further decrease its impact on the environment.
But the real question is not whether the industry can come up with solutions at some point in time–it is whether they can be discovered before it is too late. The increasingly obvious trend with any form of environmental policy is that there is a general lack of urgency as problems grow exponentially larger and larger–until the issue is so close at hand that it is impossible to ignore.
It’s hard to tell where this specific story–or the grander trajectory of climate change–will end, but the best we can do is hope that it will all work out.