Materials series part I: Organic vs conventional cotton
Updated: Jan 29, 2020
Lately when talking to people, I notice there is a lot of confusion and lack of knowledge about materials, so I decided to do a mini-series about different materials and hope to give you a bit more background and the more common conventional and alternative materials. We will start with a comparison of organic cotton vs conventional cotton with all the pros&cons.
Cotton is arguably the world’s most important natural fibre with nearly everyone on earth coming into contact with cotton daily. To meet this demand, over 25 million tonnes of cotton are produced every year in over 80 countries, supporting 250 million people’s livelihoods in the production stages alone.
Cotton accounts for 3% of global agricultural water and approximately 70% of the world’s fresh water withdrawal is used by agriculture of which global cotton production accounts for 3%. 60% of the cotton is used for the fashion industry and the remaining 40% for other application such as interior fabrics.
There are different ways to farm cotton. We make a distinction between:
Conventional farming: has the fewest restrictions in the chemicals or seeds used, mostly synthetic agrochemicals for pest control and fertilisers;
Hybrid farming: REEL Cotton (Responsible Enhanced Environment Livelihood) farmers were trained to use agrochemicals in a more careful and efficient way than conventional farms;
Organic farming: uses techniques such as crop rotation, compost, and biological pest control, leading to improved ecosystem and soil health, forbids the use of synthetic chemicals.
India has become the largest producer of cotton in the world in the 2015/2016 growing season. India produces around 25% of the world’s cotton. It also has the largest area under cotton cultivation in the world, representing about 38% of the world area under cotton cultivation. The water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would be enough to supply 85% of India’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year. Meanwhile, more than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe drinking water.
The Numbers Game
A kilogram of cotton requires 10.000 liters of water and a pair of jeans requires on average 8.000 liters water to grow. To compare, 1kg of wheat needed for 1 bread requires 1.600 liters, 1kg of rice requires 2.500 liters and 1l of milk requires 1.020 liters.
So this is where it becomes interesting, challenging and potentially confusing! I want to keep this is as simple and concrete as possible so I am going to illustrate this with a research example from The Water Footprint Network. Data was collected from 702 cotton farms in 3 states in India:
• Gujarat – 350 farms (conventional)
• Maharashtra – 251 farms (mixed)
• Madhya Pradesh – 100 farms (mixed)
Analysis has been done across the different kinds of farming regarding what is called the Green, Blue and Gray water footprint:
Green water footprint: volume of rainwater evaporated or incorporated into product;
Blue water footprint: volume of surface or groundwater evaporated or incorporated into product, no re-use possible;
Grey water footprint: the amount of fresh water required to assimilate pollutants to meet specific water quality standards. (the higher the number, the more pollution in the affluent water).
Ok, so what do these number this say exactly - taking into consideration that a cotton plant needs the same amount of water independent of the farming method:
The Green water footprint is quite similar for the 3 types of farming;
Organic cotton actually requires more surface water compared to the other types of farming and in total it needs more water in general (Green and Blue together).
It will not come as a surprise that the conventional farming generates by far the highest levels of pollution (168x as much as Organic).
When we look at the yield, the hybrid farming is King, far preceding the conventional and the organic method.
The lowest average Green and Blue water footprint per tonne of cotton are also for the hybrid farming thanks to the high yield that is generated.
Based on the above mentioned research there is not such as thing as one winner.
Maybe you would have expected organic cotton to be lots better compared to regular cotton, however it generally requires more water and the yield is the lowest. Therefore more land is needed to generate the same amount of cotton and will therefore never be able to completely replace the regular and/or hybrid cotton farming. Some sources state that due to crop rotation and better care for the soil within organic farming, the higher average water need will be cancelled out after 2-3 years, however this obviously doesn't impact the yield. Of course you don't have all the negative effects of the pesticides and chemicals used in conventional cotton farming and generally you will see that organic farming is usually a more family run business where usually the price paid to the farmer is at a more fair level. Taking into consideration that most of the cotton is grown in countries where there already is a significant shortage of drinking water, you can argue that organic farming is not always the best method.
There is also a thing to be said for hybrid farming, even though water pollution is higher, the average blue and green water footprint per tonne cotton and yield is by far the best. Therefore, you could argue this is by far the best methodology. Paying attention to the chemicals used, clearly generates significant benefits both for the environment as well as for the yield. The other side is that we are still polluting water resulting in all the known the negative effects for man and nature. A counter argument here can be that being sustainable and move towards a circular economy, we want to do good and not just less bad, which is where the hybrid methodology doesn't really fit in.
So the conclusion could be that as long as you are aware of what is going on, you can make your choices accordingly.
"This doesn't help at all, there is basically no good choice to make", I can hear you think and, to be honest, I don't have the perfect answer.
Recycling cotton is definitely a path worth exploring since this saves a lot of water and pollution since you start from material that is already available and there is more than enough supply. We will investigate this further along the material series.