We Need To Talk About Cotton

Let's discuss the environmental impact of cotton and sustainable alternatives. See how Arbor's data can help your business make sustainability in-fashion.
Updated on
November 6, 2023
The Cotton Conversation: Sustainability Spotlight
Table of Contents

[Author’s note: This post was originally intended as a series of case studies on published statistics on organic cotton, polyester, and recycled materials. But then last week, Abdullah Choudhry–Arbor’s CBDO and co-founder– and I sat down as we normally do to scream into the ethical void. This article is a product of that conversation. Vulgarities not included.]

“Data on where fashion is made is better, but data on how fashion is made remains hidden.”

-Remake 2021 Fashion Accountability Report

Fashion, and by proxy textiles, is a commodity based industry.  At the end of the day, the industry doesn’t care about the source of its raw materials (those used to produce textiles) so long as there is sufficient input to meet and stimulate demand (and earn those $$).

UN Sustainable Development 2030 Sales Goals 2030

As is the case with most raw materials, the outputs from each are limited.  Take cotton: you have a limited choice of denim, flannel, and gauzy fabrics that regardless of where the cotton came from and how it was farmed. They are all produced to look and feel the same despite their varied environmental footprint and labor standards; however, thanks to the regurgitated PR campaigns surrounding sustainability, consumers have been trained to see “cotton” on a clothing tag and think, “Natural fibre? Must be sustainable.” We’re looking at you, linen-loving earth mama’s.

Note that the first bullet point in their Vision is “promote and scale innovation”

Not to plug Arbor too early in the post, but all of our stats show that greenwashing is caused by businesses misleading their sustainability claims. Take this article from the South China Morning Post about Better Cotton Initiative’s (BCI) connection to conflict cotton in Xinjiang.  BCI, which we have written about sustainability certifications on clothing, is a  non-profit creating systems for shifting to sustainable cotton. While this sounds great, it is unfortunately quite misleading as BCI cotton is neither organic nor traceable. Here is what the sustainability coordinator of Nudie Jeans Co., Kevin Gelsi, said about BCI back in July:

“The BCI label is a better alternative, [which] as you know, [misleads]the average consumer [to] perceive it as an organic claim. Within the BCI program the hazardous chemicals are still allowed, just smaller amounts of it.”

A Quick Look at the Environmental Impact of Textile Production

Textile production consumes vast quantities of water, land and raw materials. In the EU, the textile industry is the fourth largest consumer of raw materials and water after food, housing, and transport. With its hefty reliance on fossil fuel-based textiles like polyester, it’s impact is heavier than the finale of Euphoria.

It’s nothing new that the textile industry is accountable for a sizeable contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, sucks up a ton of water, flips it and reverses it with toxic chemicals back into local water supplies. Oh yeah, and waste – the fashion industry alone produces about 40 millions tons of textile waste per year.

“We can’t ask people to do their part when it comes to sustainability if the multi-billion-dollar companies responsible for promoting such unsustainable consumption habits are not being held to account. EU laws should focus on reducing the amount of resources used across supply chains. Fast fashion’s linear and exploitative business model must become a thing of the past.”

- Emily Macintosh, Policy Officer for Textiles at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB)

“Exploitative” is understatement here. In this article’s up close look at cotton, we are going to look at the claims around organic cotton and if the data backs it up.

Let’s get into it.

So what's the hype with organic cotton anyways and does it actually make a difference? The short answer to this long question is yes; however, there is a huge catch, and we will get to that soon. According to the 2021 Organic Cotton Market Report conducted by the Textile Exchange, organic farming can reduce energy consumption by 30-70% per unit of land.

A 70% reduction in energy is a bold claim, and as a bunch of number nerds, we confirmed this for ourselves. In the time that it took me to put together a Rihanna meme for this post, our stunning Research and Development team did the math and compared the impact of producing one kilogram of organic versus one kilogram of non-organic cotton.

Emissions of Organic vs Non-Organic for Producing 1kg of Cotton With Our Data

This activity starts at the “cradle” – this means the place where the carbon is first produced, like the farm – of the activities that produce cotton.

The data is taken from all over the world and ends with the “gate” – the moment the carbon-release product reaches the store –  connecting the cotton's activities from the suppliers with consumers. This data also included transportation, where a lot of carbon emissions are actually released.

Less sexy numbers: organic cotton 0.66891688 kg CO2-Eq, non-organic 4.1920925 kg CO2-Eq

Does our Data Confirm It?

Sure does. Organic cotton does have a lower impact and, if done correctly, can also foster an environment that is more supportive of its farmers. A comprehensive 14 year long study by Helvetas of organic and fairtrade cotton projects in West Africa and Central Asia found that organic cotton farmers have better access to land, improved food security from crop rotation, more independence from seed companies and improved local infrastructure.

Not so fast though. According to a recent investigative piece in the NYT, the organic cotton industry’s claim of authenticity and transparency makes even less sense than Kanye’s Instagram feed.

Putting the Fabric in Fabrication

From the NYT piece, That Organic Cotton T-Shirt May Not Be as Organic as You Think:

“The largest single producer of the world’s organic cotton supply is India, which accounts for half of the organic cotton sold globally, and where the organic cotton movement appears to be booming. According to Textile Exchange, a leading organic proponent, organic cotton production in India alone grew 48 percent in the last year, despite the pandemic. However, much of this growth is fake, say Indians who source, process and grow organic cotton.”

And this isn’t limited to production in India, nor is it even that controversial. Just ask our co-founder and CBDO, Adbullah Choudhry: “In my experience growing up [in Pakistan], I remember going to factories where they would have different kinds of factories within the factories. One of them would be tailored to Western standards with all the best advanced equipment with all the right people, of the right ages, and in all the right places.”

Image of Lahore, one of the top 10 most polluted city on the planet.

“It is about looking for the conflict within sustainability” he continues. “You can look at the sustainable development data that a company posts on their sustainability page for a particular region and it doesn’t add up. The city that I'm from, Lahore, is one of the most polluted city in the world, right? All these major manufacturing hubs are in the most polluted cities of the world. Take one look at the communities and tell me how they are doing something sustainable?”

And what about the sustainability standards that multinational brands list on their websites about factories?

“If you look it up, it’s clear that the information [brands] provide doesn’t correspond at all to what is happening at the factory level, and how it is benefiting the surrounding community [with give-back schemes]” he continues “Because the ecosystem is still shit and the community is still suffering. It is similar in Pakistan as it is in the Xinjiang province of China. If an independent sustainability verifier is sent in to review the factory and only sees [what is behind curtain number one], and talks to a few workers who say they aren’t beaten, they consider that good enough and give the factory the needed green certification for better level or something similarly arbitrary.”

A Big Problem: The Disconnect of Environmental Impact

“60% of fashion and textile companies ranked sustainability as the second most important strategic objective behind improving customers’ experience.”

- US Cotton Trust Protocol and Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)

Those who make up the 60% of the fashion and textile companies that rank sustainability as a strategic objective do so for very different strategic reasons. The chief sustainability officer of a multinational brand like Nike for example, prioritizes sustainability not just because they only drink fairtrade oat milk lattes and Moonjuice, but because it’s what their customer is demanding. The garment manufacturer in Lahore, Pakistan ranks sustainability high not because of their choice of alternative milk lattes, but because if they don’t shift to a more sustainable model of production, they risk losing out on major brands contracting their factory.

“The only way for the manufacturers to be able to compete and turn a profit is to use the same practices as everyone else,” says Abdullah, “and that usually means that they can’t afford to be fully transparent by a western definition.” And to be very clear here, this is not the fault of the textile manufacturers but the fault of the companies based in the US, Europe, and other countries in the Global North that employ these factories. “They do business this way because that’s how they were led to do business,” he continues. “This is the only way they [can] win in the free market.”

A Bigger Problem: The disconnect of industrial impact

From the NYT piece:

“At the heart of the problem is an opaque certification system rife with opportunities for fraud. Consumers are assured of “organic” material by brands, which rely on official stamps of approval from external organizations. Those in turn rely on reports from opaque local inspection agencies that base their conclusions on a single planned yearly inspection (in the case of the facilities) or a few random visits (for farms).”

Same goes for Pakistan. “In so many cases there's a person [from the brand] who comes down to the unit every three years. For the business owners it's a gamification system. They don't have to ever face any of the consequences other than losing business, right? It all depends on the context of how regulations are implemented or monitored. The people who live there –like the business owners and manufacturers– don’t have to adhere to the local laws. And that is because they might answer to an office in Copenhagen where the EU laws are structured differently. Or, they don't have to really follow the international standards because those don’t apply to them in the same way.”

From the NYT: "In November, the European Union voted to no longer accept Indian organic exports certified by the main companies responsible for organic cotton: Control Union, EcoCert and OneCert. In January, the international agency that provides accreditation to organic inspection agencies, IOAS, withdrew OneCert’s ability to inspect and certify cotton processors for these labels."

This is not unlike how the US just recently suspended the import of avocados from Mexico’s Michoacán state. This was done in retaliation after a U.S. official was threatened while carrying out inspection work. Which causes us to question, what is the point that the suspension? And who does it help/hurt?

As Michoacán is currently the only state in Mexico that is authorized to export avocados to the US the people who are likely to get hurt the most weren't the ones buying avocados for their Super Bowl guacamole. It's the Michoacán farmers who just lost their biggest exporter.

Businesses and consumers of the Global North have a big ask for the producers and farmers in the Global South. They are expecting the South to stick to their Northern brand transparent and sustainability.  “But the thing is,” says Abdullah, “the first world countries have never been sustainable. Nor have they ever been transparent and to be honest with you, it is because they continue to exploit the global south to produce for the lowest dollar value.”

When that happens, this is where we find conflict and competition. The people of Pakistan, India, and other manufacturing hubs, will only win if they continue to offer goods at the lowest cost. Otherwise, they run the risk of losing out to another supplier. One who will do those practices needed to get cheap goods but still with the “sustainable” tag.

The Biggest Problem: The Disconnect of Racialized Impact

The disconnect of impact is the crux of why we demand transparency. It matters and adds to the broader issue of social sustainability. As the climate crisis continues to reach critical mass, sustainability is diluted to a buzzword. When brands make the switch to organic cotton, many are clearly neglecting to acknowledge the disparities and abuses in the manufacturing backbone of their industry. Really puts into perspective as to why countries in the global south are still called “developing nations.”, huh?

Image via @1percentftp

This is Intersectional Environmentalism. It identifies where marginalized people of colour are often left out of the conversation yet are the most vulnerable to negative environmental impacts. Within the fashion industry, the current systems in place primarily benefit the elite while disproportionately harming disadvantaged communities. Who are the ones most at risk to the effects of climate change and pollution.

"We don't live in a 'broken system'. We live in a system that has been specifically designed to benefit some people and harm others. Calling it a 'broken system' just allows those in power to evade responsibility and blame. It just holds us back from creating real change."

- Mikaela Loach, climate justice activist

As a data science company that is driven by sustainability and ethics, how companies conduct their operations from cradle-to-grave matters a whole heck of a lot to us. From farm to fashion, there is a seedy underbelly to the textile industry that is greedy, corrupt, and aberrantly exploitative. Less unsustainable isn’t sustainable, regardless of how they spin it on a tag.

Thanks for reading!
We Need To Talk About Cotton