Is Cotton Sustainable? The Ethical and Environmental Impact of Using Cotton

Can Cotton be Sustainable: Why do we love our cotton tees so much? Is it because they are so affordable? And how many tee shirts do we have? More than we really need?

Mother Earth is suffering because of our love for cotton!

words by Ana Yong

Here are some facts about cotton that we should all know:

A jug pours clear water into a glass

1. Cotton Processing is Water-Intensive (i)

It takes 10,000 litres of water to process 1 kilogram of cotton, meaning it takes 2,500 litres of water to produce a cotton shirt that weighs only 250 grams. A pair of medium-weight jeans weighing 800 grams would require 8,000 litres to process. And how many pairs of jeans do we have? Do we need that many pairs of jeans?

Maybe, we should supply water to those countries without sanitary drinking water, like India, where more than 100 million people do not have clean drinking water at all. (ii)

Cotton requires 40,000 litres a day for cultivation per hectare and, with a 6-month life cycle, well, you can do the maths. (iii)

In another article (iv) by Yvette Hymann entitled “Material Guide: How Ethical is Cotton?”, it was mentioned that more than 20,000 litres of water are required to process 1 kilogram of cotton. But whether it is 10,000 litres or 20,000 litres, a huge amount of water is still required for this process.

2. Cotton is the “Dirtiest” Crop in the World (v)

Cotton uses 2.5% of the earth’s land area for cultivation and, as the cotton crop attracts many insects, it requires 16% of the world’s insecticides. Thus, it is deemed to be the “dirtiest” crop cultivated.

In many countries, the use of pesticides has been reduced and discouraged but has not ceased completely because spraying insecticides is still the fastest way to eradicate unwanted pests.

The Pink Bollworm is the cotton plant’s number one enemy and is also the main reason why so much insecticide is used. This was highlighted in a recent article published in The Hindu Business Line on 13 March 2019, which was entitled “Pink Bollworm is out of control in India”(vi). This has become the case because the Pink Bollworm has developed a resistance to two biotech solutions used to protect the cotton plant.

Torn up pieces of cardboard, signifying waste

However, according to an American Pink Bollworm expert in the same article, all is not lost. He suggests that farmers try other means like shortening the cotton season and destroying crop residues, amongst others.

3. Due to Degradation in the Recycling Process, only about 30% of the Original Cotton can be Salvaged (vii)

Based on weight, 3% of the garbage in a typical waste container is from fabrics. Using “post-consumer waste” (which consists of household items, including garments which are not worn or used anymore), we can pass these items down to friends and family members or to textile banks (which is very rare). In addition, there is a huge amount of “textile waste”, which is 50% recyclable and of which 50% is re-used. (viii)

Half of “post-consumer waste” is sent to poor countries as second-hand garments, especially where 80% of the population in many African countries rely on such clothing. Key participants in the garment recycling industry include Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), profit-based retail businesses and “solid waste” dealers.

Basically, the textile pieces are sorted into wearable and non-wearable items. The wearable pieces are sent to the second-hand clothing market whereas the non-wearable items are transformed into fibres which are then turned into yarn or converted to woven, non-woven or knitted material.

Recycling also decreases the carbon footprint which makes Mother Earth a healthier place to live in.

Now, after knowing this, would you still casually buy a cotton tee shirt just because it is cheap?


(i) The Ethics of Cotton Production by Jane Turner

(ii) World Water Day: the cost of cotton in water-challenged India by Stephen Leahy from The Guardian

(iii) Why farmers are growing cotton when water is scarce? by Saumyadeb Dasgupta for thewotrblog

(iv) Material Guide: How Ethical Is Cotton? by Yvette Hymann

(v) Cotton – World’s Dirtiest Crop by

(vi) Pink bollworm is out of control in India by KV Kurmanath for the Hindu Business Line

(vii) The Ethics of Cotton Production by Jane Turner.

(viii) Post-consumer waste recycling in Textiles by