Cotton is the natural vegetable fibre that surrounds the cotton plant’s seeds. It currently represents 37% of the world’s textile production and is one of the most widely used textile materials in decoration (bed linen, table linen, curtains, carpets, etc.). Cotton has been cultivated for more than 14,000 years in Egypt, 7,000 years in Mexico, and 3,000 years in India, but the largest producers today are China, India and the United States. This plant was once picked by hand, it is with the industrial revolution that machines changed the methods of picking and production. It is widely used because its characteristics are appreciated: inexpensive to produce, hypoallergenic, soft, absorbent and easy to maintain. However, this natural material that we love is far from being ecological.
Cotton is harvested in one country, then processed and woven in another, it can move back to another country to make clothes, then return to France. This is compounded by the multiplication of transport phases that excessively pollute the air we breathe. The production of a 250g T-shirt would produce 5.2 kg of CO2, which is as much as 27 km by plane.
Cotton cultivation requires a lot of water. The Water Foot Print estimates that for a 250g T-shirt, cotton irrigation alone requires more than 2500L of water.
Massive use of chemical pesticides
Like massive agriculture, cotton production also uses many chemical pesticides to improve yields. The use of pesticides depletes the land in particular.
Legislation is less stringent in some countries that still use heavy metals and other toxic elements to dye their textiles. They dump waste into the water and contaminate the sea.
HEALTH AND SOCIAL IMPACT
For the farmer and the customer
The use of pesticides and the presence of heavy metals such as lead or chromium in dyestuffs have an impact on the health of producers in particular. For the consumer, it is the release of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) that can reach health, as well as allergenic compounds once they come into contact with the skin.
Modern slavery and forced labour
The situation of forced labour through hand-picking is well known in some countries such as Uzbekistan.
ZOOM on the case of Uzbekistan:
Uzbekistan is the 6th largest producer and 5th largest exporter of cotton in the world. The country has been known for many years as an authoritarian country that practices forced and child labour as part of their white gold: cotton. This issue is well known by giants such as IKEA, Primark, Zara Home, H&M, Marks and Spencer… who have signed The Cotton Pledge which states that they will not use Uzbek cotton.
In the program Cash Investigation, Coton : l’envers de nos T-shirts, we discover how cotton mills work in Bangladesh, including the one from which Zara, H&M and Carrefour are bought. To begin with, there are children, some working at night when the law prohibits it, and difficult conditions for all. We also discover that the same spinning mill processes American cotton and Uzbek cotton, and that it is impossible for these major brands to know which of these cotton is used for their products. Some even admit that they have no idea where their cotton comes from.
HOW TO CHOOSE AN ECOLOGICAL COTTON PRODUCT FOR A SLOW DECO?
You can trust several labels to guide you in your purchases:
A cotton from organic farming
The label GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is the main international organic ecolabel. It guarantees that the cotton is grown according to organic farming regulations and that no toxic substances are used in the manufacture or printing of the textile. The label also guarantees that decent working conditions are provided for producers.
A healthy cotton
The label Oeko-Tex is more focused on health guarantees. There are two levels of labels, the first (STANDARD 100) ensures that no harmful or allergenic substances are present in the tissue. The second level (MADE IN GREEN) also ensures a production management that protects the environment as much as possible (even if it is not organic) with optimum traceability. The latter also ensures that producers enjoy decent working conditions and that no children work.
A fair trade cotton
The label Max Havelaar guarantees an income and decent working conditions for producers. It further encourages solidarity organizations around the work of women, small producers and cooperatives. Their cotton is also guaranteed GMO-free, but not pesticide free.
Beware of massive greenwashing
Some labels are more greenwashing actors such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). This is a label created by Ikea to meet the expectations of the brands. It is presented as a responsible label by certain brands, but the BCI operates in a rather special way. To begin with, we are far from organic, farmers only have to use “less pesticides”. Secondly, a BCI-labelled brand does not necessarily use this cotton. Mills have no obligation to use it and use cotton according to arrivals. The traceability of their cotton is therefore very difficult.
Worse yet! BCI cotton is expanding rapidly because the solution is attractive to producers. However, since the rise of this BCI cotton, organic cotton has been in decline. Indeed, producers earn more money by making BCI cotton than by making organic cotton because it is more productive thanks to the use of pesticides. So those who made organic change to make BCI cotton and use pesticides again when they no longer used them.
Finally, remember that if it’s REALLY cheap, it’s because there’s something going on. As Nayla Ajaltouni, coordinator of the Ethics Collective on the label, says: “It is not possible to produce a garment for 5€, even if a company tells us that it is done in an ethical company. But just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s responsible.”