Sign up

The environmental impact of cotton production 

On the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, Kathryn Galloway, communication specialist on sustainability in fashion, reflects on the profound impact of the fashion industry on water resources and land degradation.

Over the past decade, many of us have become accustomed to hearing reports about the problematic nature of the fashion industry. Among the various materials used in fashion, polyester in particular gets a bad rap, and rightly so.  

The production of synthetic fibers, derived from fossil fuels like oil and gas, not only depletes non-renewable resources but also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and environmental pollution. According to the Synthetics Anonymous 2.0 report on fashion sustainability, the amount of oil required for the annual production of synthetic fiber exceeds the annual consumption of Spain, a staggering statistic that underscores the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels. 

Then there is the problem of microplastics, a byproduct of washing synthetic garments, which pollute our oceans and waterways. Given that polyester is the most widely used fiber in the world, found in over half of all textiles, it undoubtedly deserves to be scrutinized. However, focusing solely on synthetics overlooks another problematic textile: cotton.

The Dark Side of Cotton

Look at the garment tag on the inside of the T-shirt, blazer, or pants you are wearing right now. There’s a good chance that at least something you have on is made of cotton. The most widely used natural fiber globally, cotton is often perceived as a benign and preferable alternative to synthetic fibers like polyester — it’s natural, after all. In truth, cotton comes with its own set of environmental problems. 

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), cotton cultivation occupies 2.5% of the world’s arable land but consumes 200,000 tons of pesticides and 8 million tons of fertilizers annually, accounting for 16% and 4% of global use respectively. 

Cotton is also known to be a water-intensive crop compared to many other fibers used in textile production. For instance, synthetic fibers like polyester or nylon do not require water for growth, although water is used in their production processes. Natural fibers like hemp or flax can require less water than cotton as well, depending on the specific growing conditions.  

The water intensity of cotton cultivation is particularly important in regions where water resources are limited or where agriculture competes with other water uses. While the exact water requirement for cotton cultivation varies widely depending on factors such as climate, soil type, irrigation method, and the specific variety of cotton grown, the WWF estimates that the production of a single cotton t-shirt requires around 2,700 liters (713 gallons) of water — the equivalent of which could sustain a human being for two and a half years. This excessive water usage contributes significantly to environmental stress. 

A stark example of the impact of cotton on water resources is the Aral Sea – a salty water lake lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Once the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has been nearly drained dry due to a cotton irrigation project initiated by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. By the 2000s, it had lost about 90% of its volume, leading to a host of ecological and social problems, including the loss of fisheries, increased salinity, and health issues among local populations due to dust storms from the exposed lakebed. The disappearance of the Aral Sea is one of the most infamous examples of how unsustainable agricultural practices can lead to environmental disaster.

Desertification and Drought Day: A Call to Action 

This brings us to a broader issue connected to cotton and other forms of intensive agriculture: desertification. Desertification is the process by which fertile land becomes desert due to various factors, including drought, deforestation, and inappropriate agriculture.  

Recognizing the importance of addressing desertification and drought, World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought is observed annually on 17 June. This day aims to raise awareness about the presence of desertification and drought, highlight methods to prevent desertification and recover from drought, and promote the sustainable management of land and water resources. 

We know that healthy land is vital for life, providing 95% of our food, shelter, clothing, and livelihoods. Yet, according to the UN, we lose 100 million hectares of healthy land annually due to unsustainable practices. Addressing sustainability in the fashion sector necessitates a comprehensive strategy that stretches beyond responsible textile production, but it is a large piece of the puzzle. Measures such as reduced water usage and decreased chemical consumption are essential for conserving finite resources, protecting ecosystems and mitigating the social consequences of unsustainable agriculture practices. 


Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Stay up to date with our newsletters

Picture by Emma Dau on Unsplash

Skip to content