The Effects of the Cotton Industry on the Water Supply
“Cotton is the most widespread profitable non-food crop in the world.” (1) The plant is found in nearly every 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 in its present form is far from 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.