By Raminder Chowdhary
Cotton fiber reigns supreme. Grown increasingly in low-wage countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mali, India and China, cotton accounts for nearly 40 percent of global textile production -- providing livelihood opportunities to over 280 million people in developing countries. It touches the lives of the poverty-stricken small farmers in remote parts of Bangladesh, as well as the haute couture consumers in New York. Yes, the world depends on cotton and yet we remain ignorant about the highly unsustainable nature of its production fueled by our consumption patterns.
Grasp this: There is no other commodity grown on the farms of our planet that is more polluting than cotton. The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) estimates that more than 10 percent of all chemicals used in the agricultural sector are for the production of cotton. The World Wildlife Fund states that more than 5,000 gallons of water are needed to grow 2.2 pounds of cotton, which produces one T-shirt and a pair of jeans. To put in perspective: Over 450 million pairs of jeans are sold annually in the U.S. alone, and the average woman has eight pairs in her closet. Not only was the cotton crop drenched in pesticides that damaged our soil, but the fibers and yarns were also stained in toxic dyestuff, the final fabric was chemically softened and stonewashed using pumice stones that polluted our ground water – all just to give us discerning consumers the 'weathered' look!
In the face of high environmental impact and low wages in the growing areas, the calls for fair trade and organic cotton have been rapidly rising. The organic cotton market is predicted to remain relatively small. Keeping in mind the immense scale of global production and consumption, there is need for mass market transformation making sustainable cotton the norm.
An initiative that focuses on making sustainable cotton production the mainstream standard is the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). This initiative has been formed to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in, and better for the sector’s future. International brands and retailers – such as Ikea, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Adidas, and Levi Strauss & Co., among others -- have joined the BCI.
In its 2014 Sustainability Report, Adidas reported that it was sourcing over 30 percent of its cotton from sustainable sources under the BCI. It aims to source 100 percent sustainable cotton by 2018. The lifecycle assessment conducted by Levi’s on its two iconic brands – 501 and Dockers -- showed that the greatest opportunities for reducing the environmental impact were at the beginning of the lifecycle -- i.e., the agricultural stage of the products.
Major apparel and textile brands and retailers need to incorporate sustainable cotton sourcing and communicate the benefits of this to their customers in their corporate responsibility efforts to drive demand. Increased demand is the obvious path toward mainstream acceptance.
Image credits: 1) Flickr/David Stanley 2) & 3) Levi Strauss & Co.
Raminder Chowdhary: With 20+ years in managerial roles around the World he founded One Earth Foundation - an NGO focusing on conservation of natural eco-systems, preservation of traditional wisdom and environmental education in remote hill communities. He is a regular speaker on various regional and national forums promoting the need for higher levels of corporate social and environmental participation and responsibility. In 2014 he was awarded the Metro AG Community Silver Star (India) for his efforts. He has initiated and successfully implemented numerous projects in the sectors of traditional wisdom preservation, special needs groups, soil conservation, large scale forest and lakes clean up campaigns, Students for environment initiatives at a national level, etc.