It is a well-known fact that cotton is used by the clothing industry, in massive volumes. But the fiber, unbeknownst to many, is used in many other applications, ranging from paper to explosives. Flexible, elegant, and natural, it is one of the most appreciated fabrics at our disposal. But, the environmental toll of the industry, one of the thirstiest there is, has brought the industry to explore alternative ways, both new and ancient, to grow the crops with less water.

Cotton is Good, but There is Even Better
Trisha Downing

Cotton is an eco-friendly, yet thirsty, medium

Among all the materials we use and produce on a large scale, cotton is one of the good guys. Its production has few nefarious by-products, such as CO² or other greenhouse gas effect gases. It is readily accepted by markets, and it is produced in areas where

a boost in fair trade would be welcome. Alas, it is the victim of other manufacturing segments, which are increasingly hogging the water resources normally needed in cotton production. The industry of cotton production, until now, required 300 gallons of water to produce a T-shirt. This high consumption is hardly an environmental problem, as used water is released back into nature with ultra-low levels of contamination. Regardless, cotton still needs the water – and water is coming scarce, nowadays, because

other industries are using more. Hardip Desai, farm innovation director for Cotton Connect, an environmental NGO which advises farms on how to make their products sustainable, says: “When I am in farm communities, I often ask an elderly farmer what

was the water like when he was a teenager. One farmer I met said that the water was only 5 to 10 feet down. Today, it is 700 feet down. I then asked him to think about his children and the situation when his children are older. It really helps the farmers focus on the future of water and decide to act now.” So, how can the cotton industry adapt? A number of initiatives have been launched, with some showing good promise, and others seeming stillborn.

Good alternatives

Of course, with the cotton industry so closely associated with clothing, the first sector to be addressed by improvement initiatives was this one. Australia, where the water stress is particularly severe, has made outstanding progress in its reasoned use of

water, over past decades. Farm Weekly reported in May of 2020 that: “Cotton is being produced with 48 percent less water, 34pc less land, and 97pc fewer insecticides than it was three decades ago. The 2019 Australian Cotton Sustainability Report released on Monday also revealed potential further improvements which will help achieve the industry’s aim of being a global leader in sustainable cotton production. Cotton Australia chief executive officer Adam Kay said growers have been quietly improving their sustainability for decades and should take a moment to celebrate the industry’s collective achievements.” And Australia is not alone in the race to reduce water consumption. Californian cotton farms also have used their water stress as an incentive to turn to more viable and sustainable initiatives, such as converting to Pima cotton. This breed originated in South America. Not only does it produce excellent quality fabric, but it is far less demanding in water. Sewport reports: “When this type of cotton is made in the United States, it is usually produced under the auspices of either the ASA or the USDA, which means that strict guidelines are followed to minimize environmental degradation. Since G. barbadense is a relatively non-impactful crop, it is inherently sustainable to grow this type of cotton as long as responsible manufacturing processes are followed.”

An environmental endeavor made of trial and error

Alas, not all initiatives launched in the quest to preserve the environment yield the expected benefits. Since the turn of the century, a handful of central banks around the world, have decided to switch to polymer-based banknotes, instead of cotton paper, to produce their currency. It may seem surprising to invoke environmental reasons to start using plastic instead of a plant, but the rationale behind the move was that, while oil-based plastic banknotes are more polluting to produce, they would last longer than their cotton paper versions, and the added carbon footprint would be absorbed by the longevity of the notes. Unfortunately, the goal was not achieved, and plastic banknotes failed to be adopted by most central banks. The entire plan hinged on the plastic banknotes being used for longer than paper ones. But because the polymer is less absorbent than paper, the lifetime of the plastic banknote is limited by the printing (ink and security features), rather than the plastic substrate itself. The saved water was interesting if the carbon production was kept low enough, which it wasn’t. Forbes Dave Keating writes: “When the Bank of England introduced new polymer plastic banknotes to existing the existing paper currency in 2016, the government promised the new notes would not only be more durable and secure but also better for the environment because they are more easily recyclable. But a new study has put those claims in doubt. A side-by-side comparison of polymer versus paper banknotes by Evergreen Finance London, using data from the Bank of England and information on cash manufacture and usage of the British Retail Consortium, has found that the new polymer five-pound notes release 8.77kg of C02, almost three times more than previous paper notes. That, despite their longer lifespan, correlates to 2.76kg of extra C02 emissions over a lifetime.” Additionally, plastic banknotes are ill-adapted to hot climates, where the heat warps the substrate and is very difficult to phase into the economic system (ATMs cannot mix paper and plastic banknotes). The entire conversion operation is therefore extremely complex and costly, for a very debatable environmental outcome.

We should celebrate all of the initiatives which the cotton industry has implemented, even if they eventually turned out wrong. We are still at the beginning of our quest to optimize our industrial apparatus and make it sustainable for future generations. We must try out all potential solutions and see which ones work. The culture of Pima cotton and plastic banknotes were both launched to preserve water levels and the environment. We now know one method worked better than the other did, but trying them out was the only way to find out. Kudos to cotton producers and consumers for trying, whether successful or not.