Why is cotton so popular?
Cotton is a natural fibre and is one of the most widely used and popular fibres in the textile industry due to its numerous favorable characteristics, such as its softness, breathability, absorbency, and durability.
Cotton is also versatile and can be used to create a wide range of products, including clothing, bed linens, towels, personal care products and even medical supplies.
Additionally, cotton textiles are easy to care for and can be washed and dried with little to no shrinkage. Due to its many desirable qualities and widespread availability, cotton has remained one of the world's popular textiles, comparing its popularity with polyester.
The major cotton growing countries are Australia, Brazil, China, India, Pakistan and US. Together, they account for around 80% of cotton produced globally. (1)
Cotton is a difficult crop to grow. One common feature of cotton growing is its unpredictability: a long growing season, pests, weather, and price volatility. (2)
What does it mean for farmers?
With cotton being such a popular fibre, the scale of chemicals used in cotton production is enormous - cotton is still the fourth largest consumer of agricultural chemicals.
Excessive use of pesticides, especially by smallholder farmers in underregulated countries, can have huge impacts on human health and the environment. Pesticide poisoning of farm workers, contamination of rivers and ground water, reuse of empty toxic containers, and loss of biodiversity are all very real effects of chemical use. (3)
Pesticides can be absorbed by ingestion, inhalation and through the skin. Exposure to pesticides can occur at any stage from manufacture and packaging of the pesticide to distribution, storage, use and disposal. The toxicity of a pesticide is its capacity to cause injury or illness. (4) In 2012, WHO estimated that 193,460 people died worldwide from unintentional chemical (including pesticide) poisoning and that most of these exposures were preventable. Of these deaths, 84% occurred in low and middle-income countries. WHO estimates that in the same year, unintentional poisoning caused the loss of over 10.7 million years of healthy life (disability adjusted life years, DALYs). (5) PAN UK’s own surveys of cotton farming communities in Africa and Central Asia (Mali, Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, Benin, Ethiopia and Kyrgyzstan) have found pesticide poisoning rates among cotton farmers of 25-57%. (6)
Organic cotton is better than conventional cotton
There are alternative methods of cotton production that are less harmful to the environment and to human health, such as organic cotton farming.
Organic practices of growing cotton specified in organic standards limit the chemicals used in cotton production. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria. The GOTS quality assurance system is based on on-site inspection and certification of the entire textile supply chain (processing and trade).
By choosing to buy organic cotton products, consumers can support sustainable cotton production and help reduce the use of harmful pesticides.
(1) https://www.pan-uk.org/cottons_chemical_addiction_updated/ Report, page 9
(2) https://www.pan-uk.org/cottons_chemical_addiction_updated/ Report, page 10
(3) https://www.pan-uk.org/cottons_chemical_addiction_updated/ Report, page 2
(4) https://www.pan-uk.org/cottons_chemical_addiction_updated/ Report, page 49
(6) https://www.pan-uk.org/cottons_chemical_addiction_updated/ Report, page 50