There are many problems with conventional cotton. When brands use conventional cotton, they are likely to contribute to modern slavery, child labour, poverty, non-registered employment, pollution and health problems, excessive water usage, genetic modification of seeds and irresponsible production methods.
During growing, cotton plants consume approximately 10,700 m3 of water per tonne of fibre. One tonne of fibre is equivalent to making over 6,660 t-shirts. By comparison, a synthetic fibre such as conventional polyester consumes approximately 99% less water (84.1 m3 per tonne of fibre). The amount of water required for cotton production is particularly significant given that more than half of global cotton production happens in regions of high or extremely high water stress. Significant amounts of water are also used in the wet-processing stages of garment production, which includes dyeing, finishing and printing.
In many regions of the world, conventional cotton production relies heavily on petrochemical derived synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. These chemicals are energy intensive to produce, and the embedded carbon in these fertilisers and pesticides during their manufacture contributes significantly to cotton’s carbon footprint. Farmers use synthetic pesticides and nitrogen fertilisers to maximise yields, but there are a number of negative impacts associated with their heavy use. These include biodiversity loss, soil erosion and eutrophication, a process where fertiliser run off from land into surrounding waterways causes excessive algae growth, impacting on aquatic life by reducing the oxygen level in the water. The use of these chemicals not only impacts the environment, but can also affect the health of local workers and communities.
The wet-processing stages of cotton manufacturing use chemicals during the dyeing, finishing and printing process. Polluted water, if not properly treated before being discharged into the local water course, can damage the environment and pollute sources of drinking water. Cotton production and land use is significant; 2.4% of the world’s available crop land is planted with cotton, land that would otherwise be used for food crops. The global nature of cotton production means it is grown under a variety of conditions, and therefore, depending on the region, cotton yields vary. Cotton picking is a labour intensive process and poorly regulated. In some regions of the world, the use of forced and child labour has been widely publicised and continues to be an area of concern. The impact of cotton farming is further increased due to the intense use of chemicals such as pesticides and fertilisers that workers are exposed to. These concerns extend to the ginning process, which can release harmful dust that can be inhaled by unprotected workers.