Although we have had our suspicions about this, there wasn’t really a link; until now. An interesting piece of research on “Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade” was just published in Nature on 30 March 2017. The paper warns of alarming rates of worldwide groundwater depletion (GWD) due to irrigation withdrawals. Estimates are that around 11% of non-renewable groundwater is embedded in the International food trade.
What has this got to do with fashion? Well, the title of the Nature paper is somewhat misleading: it should have said “Groundwater depletion embedded in crop trade” not “food trade”. A deeper dive into the results shows that some of this over-abstraction was down to the cotton crop.
Cotton is a Top 5 crop leading to the most groundwater depletion globally
Cotton was amongst the Top 5 crops leading to the most depletion globally – wheat (22% of global GWD), rice (17%), sugar crops (7%), cotton (7%) and maize (5%). That said, the trade in cotton alone accounted for 11% of global GWD transfers, with rice topping the list at 29%, followed by wheat at 12%. Maize and soybean are more water efficient crops, only representing 4% and 3% respectively.
Groundwater Depletion (GWD) is defined as …
“the volume of groundwater that is abstracted for irrigation use in excess of the national recharge rate and irrigation return flow, accounting for environmental flow requirements, and thus corresponds to an unsustainable use of groundwater for crop production”
Who’s sucking up whose aquifers?
A glance at chart below indicates that Pakistan, USA and India are exporting GWD through trade. These three are the largest exporters of GWD, accounting for two-thirds of all GWD embedded in the crop trade.
Cotton drives USA’s GWD exports and is a quarter of India’s GWD exports …
Rice leads Pakistan’s GWD exports at 82% – mostly to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Kenya. Cotton, however, drives USA’s GWD exports at 24%, followed by wheat (16%) and maize (10%) to China, Mexico and Japan. Meanwhile, for India (#3 GWD exporter), nearly half of the over-abstraction is caused by rice (25%) and cotton (24%).
… Almost half of China’s GWD imports are from cotton
In short, cotton accounts for a sizeable amount of GWD exports by USA and India. So who’s this cotton going to? It appears that the beneficiary is China; almost half of China’s GWD imports are from cotton, whereas soybean, which China does import a lot of, only accounts for 14% of GWD imports.
From the research, it appears that demand from China along with USA, Mexico and Iran are sucking up other people’s aquifers. But before we start blaming China, the truth is that China is not the only end user of its cotton imports. Clothing & Textiles form the largest chunk of its industrial virtual exports – see chart below.
But China is not the only end user of its cotton imports…
… Clothing & Textiles form the largest chunk of its industrial virtual exports
In fact, China makes so much stuff for the rest of the world that it is a net virtual water exporter despite its agricultural imports. So what is really driving demand for cotton in China?
Zara, H&M and Uniqlo et al ultimately driving China’s cotton appetite?
China only began seriously to import cotton in the early 2000’s. We argue that this increase in appetite for cotton imports is driven by the meteoric rise of its manufacturing prowess for fast fashion.
Cotton appetite in China rises in tandem with store openings of fast fashion brands …
The chart below says it all – cotton appetite in (imports & domestic production) China rising in tandem with store openings of Inditex (which owns Zara), H&M and Fast Retailing (FR – which owns Uniqlo). Of course these three brands are not the only ones to blame; there has also been a similar explosion of stores in Target, Walmart, M&S stores in the same period. And let’s not forget the stellar rise of on-line shopping. However, since it is difficult to pin down which store is just a clothing/ food store, we used store openings of the three clothing brands for illustrative purposes.
The pursuit of the lowest price
With fast fashion driving the search for the cheapest prices in the supply chain, the price differential between domestic and international cotton drove China to import cotton.
China’s biggest trade partner has traditionally been the USA. But in 2011, cheaper cotton and shorter transportation times from India meant that the country overtook the USA to become China’s biggest trade partner for cotton. Today, the Top 5 cotton nations that China is importing cotton from are: India, USA, Australia, Uzbekistan and Brazil.
Meanwhile, China’s homegrown cotton storage stockpiled to over 12 million tonnes by 2013-2014. Since then, China has reduced incentives to farm cotton in the parched North China Plain. So while China’s own cotton production and imports fell in 2014, global production was still on the rise. As can be seen from the chart below, global production of cotton has been only rising markedly over the last decade.
The last decade has seen global GWD in crop production increase by 22%
An increase in global crop production has an impact on groundwater. Over the last decade, global GWD in crop production has increased by 22%, with the biggest deterioration from China (102%), India (23%) and USA (31%). The paper published in Nature warns USA, Mexico, Iran and China are particularly exposed as they produce as well as import food irrigated from rapidly depleting aquifers, including those in NW India, the North China Plain, central USA & California.
Given that China’s largest trading partners for cotton are India and USA, we can broadly say that the likes of Zara, H&M and Uniqlo, or anyone else in fast fashion selling cotton products are causing groundwater over-extraction in USA India and even in China, which itself grows a quarter of the world’s cotton.
So more stores = more stock and as four-season fashion moved to 52-week fast fashion, global cotton production also grew. So actually, we are depleting our aquifers globally for something we don’t eat. Also, why are we growing virgin cotton when we can recycle? Worse still, the business model of fast fashion is premised on encouraging us to throw away the garment after one week of use, if we are going by 52-week fashion.
Not only is cotton sucking some areas dry, it also causes groundwater pollution
And if that is not enough, let’s not forget that the cotton crop is also dirty, sucking up significant amounts of global insecticides and pesticides. So not only is cotton sucking some areas dry, it also causes groundwater pollution, which in turn exacerbates scarcity. In China, the over-abstracted North China Plain, where a quarter of China’s cotton is grown, faces severe pollution: >70% groundwater is unfit for human touch.
Most brands are only visibly dealing with the “dirty” part of the crop. Many of the more responsible brands can tell you how much of their cotton is organic or ‘Better Cotton’. However, we are not aware of any major high street fast fashion brand that discloses just how much cotton they have sourced from where. Sucking aquifers dry in countries that are already facing water stress is clearly not a priority for action.
7 of the Top 10 cotton producing countries face medium to extremely high water stress…
… yet brands do not disclose how much cotton they have sourced from where
Where & when does this stop?
For cotton, the answer is staring us in the face: switch to slow & more expensive and durable fashion that reflect the scarcity and polluting nature of fashion raw materials; switch to recycled cotton; or, better still, switch to hemp. Brands: surely it’s time to invest in any and/or all of these changes and not wait until the aquifers in USA, China, Pakistan and India are sucked dry. Too far-fetched? Think of what cotton-growing did to the Aral Sea: a volume loss of ~70% between 1960-2000 due to water diverted to grow cotton in the desert.
Who should be held accountable? Governments, brands or the consumers?
Fashionistas, it is also time to face up to the ugly truth. You are partly to blame for over-extraction of groundwater. The frivolity of throw away fashion means that you are only beautiful on the outside.
Ultimately, we are all to blame. Almost everyone will have at least one cotton T-shirt in their wardrobe. If this makes you, the consumer, feel uncomfortable, start demanding your favourite brand to (1) tell you where it sources its cotton and (2) guarantee that it is not causing groundwater depletion.
Researchers at Cornell University in the U.S. have developed a technique that allows the creation of functional textiles that could be capable of filtering pollutants out of water and air. By infusing cotton with a beta-cyclodextrin (BCD) polymer, the fabric can act as a filtration device. The cotton fabric was present in the polymerisation process, resulting in a unique polymer grafted to the cotton surface.
The cotton fibers were scanned under an electron microscope and found to be unchanged after the process. When tested for the absorption of pollutants in water and air, the fibers showed greater uptakes than that of untreated cotton fabric or commercial absorbents.
“One of the limitations of some super absorbents is that you need to be able to put them into a substrate that can be easily manufactured,” said Juan Hinestroza, associate professor of fiber science and director of undergraduate studies in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell. “Fibers are perfect for that; fibers are everywhere.”
“We’re compatible with existing textile machinery; you wouldn’t have to do a lot of retooling,” he added. “It works on both air and water, and we proved that we can remove the compounds and reuse the fiber over and over again.”
The absorption potential of the technique could extend to other materials. There is a patent pending.
Cotton has a reputation for being “difficult,” water-wise. Numerous non-profits and global media outlets such as The Guardian have laid blame on it for dwindling water resources in places like India, or for the environmental devastation in the Aral Sea. The truth, as is often the case, is not so cut and dried. In fact, cotton is downright drought tolerant and there are numerous ongoing efforts to improve cotton’s water footprint across the board.
If cotton is not such a grotesque water hog, why the erroneous conventional wisdom? According to Ed Barnes, Senior Director for Agricultural and Environmental Research with Cotton Inc, a U.S.-based industry research and lobbying organization, quite often, it is guilt-by-association.
“Cotton naturally is very heat and drought tolerant,“said Barnes. “The plant…has always grown in very harsh environments. When you have a crop that is adapted to hot and dry climates, then it is growing in areas that experience water scarcity.”
Understanding where cotton is being grown is key to both understanding its water footprint, and also developing strategies to improve it.
“There all these complexities,” said Laila Petrie with the World Wildlife Federation’s Global Partnerships Team. “Is cotton being grown in a water-scarce area? Is there not good water governance?”
Even factoring all this, cotton – as one of the world’s mostimportant agricultural products – does effect water scarcity in certain parts of the world, with sometimes negative impacts.
“There is a correlation between cotton and high irrigation, and there’s a high correlation between cotton growth and water scarcity and high water risk areas,” said Petrie.
Still, putting all the blame on the cotton plant is misguided. While farmers bear some responsibility, things like global warming and lack of oversight are beyond their control.
For example, the Aral Sea. While it is true that cotton farming was scaled up around Central Asia by the then ruling Soviet Union Government, it was the diversion of rivers away from the landlocked sea for unsustainable irrigation, all for quick cash from cottonexports, that was to blame for the disaster.
“The Aral Sea is a real tragedy of modern times,” said Barnes, “But there was nothing intrinsic about cotton that contributed to that problem.”
“Water is not a cotton problem, it’s a world problem, and none of us have really cracked that. It just so happens that cotton production is correlated with areas that have challenges,” said Petrie.
Thus, to blame the cotton plant alone would be a folly, and ignores the important role that technology, good governance, and proper farming techniques can play in making the crop more sustainable. In fact, Cotton Inc is working directly with farmers to provide better tools to help them make smarter water decisions – and seeing real results.
“The trend over the last 30 years – for every inch of water we use in irrigation, we’re getting more cotton,” said Barnes. “We’re finding over a 70 percent increase in lbs per inch of water.” And new technology, including the growing power of data, is making things ever better.
“One of our big pushes in the last five years is use of sensors in the field to measure the soil or the plant to see if it needs water,” said Barnes. They hope to have a national app for farmers next year that taps into sensor data, and data from the national weather service, to better equip farmers with the information they need to reduce water usage.
WWF is also working with partners – including Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle, and numerous other global brands – to improve cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative. Their goal is to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future, by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.
This means understanding that cotton’s life-cycle water usage and consumption, however, is not just what happens in the fields. Throughout the entire supply chain water is used, whether it is processing, printing, or even consumers washing and drying cotton products at homes across the world.
“Not much visibility from one end to another,” said Petrie. “There are 20 steps between the brand and cotton field. Cotton is traded as a commodity which means its hard to trace without a lot of effort.
This is a fundamental challenge for the industry.”
Both Cotton Inc, and WWF, have commissioned extensive, detailed reports and studies to figure out the whole picture of cotton’s water footprint, because unless we truly understand cotton at every phase of its, we can’t make it sustainable. In a future piece, we’ll look at the entire supply-chain water impacts of cotton to better understand the big picture.
Few topics of discussion (with the exception perhaps of the current U.S. elections) receive as much debate these days than how cotton should be farmed and harvested. The lowly gossypium plant, which is cultivated across the world, was once a remarkably hard crop to farm and harvest. The stories of African American cotton pickers’ bloody hands and endemic poverty during the early and mid-1900s became a symbol of the injustices that were equated with an industry that had at that time, neither the technology nor the means to meet the needs of growing demand.
The introduction of genetic modification to U.S. cotton farming in the 1990s further transformed the conventional cotton industry. Studies have found that genetic modification of cotton seeds not only increased cotton production, but reduced the need for insecticides and some other forms of pesticides in the field. In the U.S., technology has kept up with these changes, creating increasingly faster ways for cotton to be harvested from the field. Even though the U.S. is no longer the largest producer of conventional cotton (third, compared to China and India), it reaps tremendous benefit from the newer innovations that have become a mainstay of cotton production. According to Cotton Incorporated, the conventional U.S. cotton industry (that is, cotton not grown or produced organically), contributes to as much as $100 billion in revenues to affiliated industries.
But those advances continue to spur debate about the best – and safest – way to generate the world’s demand for this much-needed apparel product. Does GM cotton come with secondary health risks? Is GM cotton safe for the environment? Are the pesticides that end up being used with the process risky? Do the benefits of conventional cotton outweigh the concerns that are prompted by pesticide use?
TriplePundit writers have written a fair amount on organic cotton topics, from the nuts and bolts of the global organic cotton industry to the strides that the organic garment industry has made in recent years. We felt it was time, therefore, to take a deeper look at the processes that are used in conventional cotton production and the points raised by that industry about the benefits of transgenetic cotton farming.
To get the industry’s input on this question, we spoke to Cotton Inc’s Director of Agricultural Research in Entomology, Ryan Kurtz. Kurtz’s area of expertise is insect resistance management in genetically engineered corn and cotton. Formerly the global lead for traits insect resistance management at Syngenta, Kurtz specializes in North American Bt trait cotton production, a cotton engineered to fight the infamous boll weevil, among other pests. Most of the information below therefore focuses on U.S. cotton production.
Conventional cotton: Not all pesticides are created equally
To really address the debate over conventional cotton production, said Kurtz, it’s necessary to recognize that not all kinds of pesticides can be lumped together. We may think of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides as ‘pesticides’ but in truth, they are vastly different from each other in how they are applied and what they do.
“I think it is always important to be precise at any way you are describing things. Pesticides is a large bucket area. I think people do tend to think of insects more as “pests” than weeds and funguses, because they can relate more to it,” explained Kurtz.
The distinction of insecticide from other types of pesticides is critical, said Kurt, if you want to determine whether GM technology has made a difference in making cotton production safer and whether it should have a role in cotton production. According to information we received from Cotton Inc, GM production has dramatically lowered the demand for insecticide on cotton farms. And that in turn, has made cotton production safer.
But its real coup d’etat may have come in the boost it gave to production yields when it effectively made GM cotton immune to one of the South’s most destructive pests: the boll weevil.
Nicknamed in 1903 as America’s “wave of evil,” the tiny insect caused widespread destruction of the country’s cotton yields until insecticides came on the market. In the 1970s, boll weevil eradication began in earnest in a multi-state effort. The evil weevil has largely been eradicated at this point thanks to a systemic approach to strategic insecticide use. Cotton Inc points out that some 20 years after its introduction in the U.S. South, the impact of transgenic farming can be found in the number of applications of insecticide still used in the U.S. According to data supplied by the organization, “U.S. cotton growers applied insecticide an average of 1.96 times over the course of the season – less than twice.”
Kurtz said that those low numbers are due to farming methods that capitalize on of one of Nature’s more ingenious inventions: a bacteria that lives in the soil and is lethal to many insects. By figuring out how to genetically introduce the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene into plants (cotton in this case), scientists were able to make the plant resistant to the bollworm and other destructive insects.
“Through a natural process called agrobacterium mediated transfer (AMT), they figured out how to get the gene from that Bt bacteria that produces the insecticidal protein to put that gene into a cotton plant. So now, instead of having to rely on the bacteria to make the protein that kills the insect, the plant makes the protein that kills the insects. ”
GM cotton: the hurdles that still remain
As effective as transgenic cotton farming has been in reducing insect infestations of cotton, however, there have still been some challenges to overcome. The first, note scientists at the Aroian Lab at the University of San Diego, is figuring out just how Bt does what it does.
“[With] 50 [years] of use, you’d think we’ve got everything figured out about Bt. But the truth is, we don’t know much. Most importantly , we don’t know how it works,” notes the lab in its blog post, bacillus thuringiensis. That question is important because recent reports of insect resistance to the Bt trait have led scientists to realize that they don’t know everything about the trait, or how to ensure that more insects don’t develop immunity. The Aroian Lab points out that this problem isn’t limited to GM farming, either, so it’s not a specific failing of GM technology. “For every single synthetic pesticide that is in use today, there are species of insects that are resistant to it.” Unlocking how Bt acts could answer why some insects are immune to its toxin.
But immunity isn’t the only problem that has surfaced regarding Bt GM farming, says Melody Meyer, who serves as the vice president to Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods Incorporated and as the executive director to the UNFI Foundation. As so often happens in Nature with unintended outcomes, the dramatic reduction in insects has added consequences.
“It may have reduced insecticide use but not herbicides,” said Meyer. In fact several studies in the last decade have confirmed that the use of GM technology hasn’t reduced herbicide use. It has increased it.
And that’s where farmers have found the greatest proof to the maxim, “to every front there’s a back.” For every organism that may be reduced through scientific farming methods, there may be another that can capitalize on it. Since 2004, farmers have been finding “superweeds” that have acquired an intolerance to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Reports of Roundup-intolerant weeds such as amaranth have been known to destroy thousands of acres of cotton crops.
Recent studies on glyphosate toxicity in the environment and the food chain is another issue of debate concerning the methods used to produce conventional cotton. Kurtz said that while some studies have suggested that glyphosate may be a “probable” carcinogen, “there is very little evidence, if any to support that and there has been a long, 30+ year history of safe use in the U.S. Kurtz said the fact that it is considered a “general-use pesticide” is indicative that it is safe. “Most reputable organizations highlighted early on that there is a long history of safe use of glyphosate and the concerns about cancer are unwarranted.
In fact, the debate over this issue has persisted for years, as Kurtz stated. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization stated in May that it was “unlikely” that the chemical would pose “carcinogenic risk” from exposure through diet. The statement contradicts the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which stated in 2015 that there was a likelihood that the pesticide is carcinogenic. It has stood by its claim, even though two other agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority contradict its position. More research is underway.
Cottonseed oil and questions of pesticide residue
Cotton that is manufactured in the U.S. is used not only for clothes but for food. Cottonseed oil has been manufactured from the plant’s seed at least since the early 1900s. Today it is the unsung hero of today’s conventional food manufacturing systems due to its shelf stability.
The the two questions commonly raised are how much pesticide residue is left on the fibers and seed after the harvesting? How much residue is in the final product?
“Because of the way cotton is grown and the amount of time that it is in the field, the use of pesticides in cotton [production] is well before the fiber is developed. So you actually can set the goal of using pesticides to protect the plant that produces the fiber. Once the fiber is there, most pesticides aren’t applied any more,” said Kurtz, who said the organization monitors studies on pesticide residue through its membership in Bremen Cotton Exchange, an economic organization concerned with advancing the global cotton trade. So the fibers that make their way into the apparel supply chain are unlikly to bring pesticide residue with them.
He added that because cotton oil is a food product, the Food and Drug Administration regulates what and when pesticides can be added to the growing plant. “They look at cotton just like it were a vegetable,” with a set criteria that limits the use of insecticide and other toxic substances.
Still, there are a considerable number of researchers and activists who question this data.Alliance of Women Scientists and Scholars, for example, maintains that “[conventional] cottonseed oil may be highly contaminated with pesticide residues” and that the cottonseed oil’s natural toxin, gossypol, is also a common allergen. [Gossypol] poisoning is common and may be deadly for dairy cows and other livestock.” However, the site offers limited data to back up this claim. Gossypol is generally removed during the oil refining process, so what might hurt cows in raw form should be harmless for humans who consume the oil.
While pesticide residues have been found in cottonseed oil in India, it is not clear if those pesticides were applied the same way as in the U.S., where workers must be trained and labeling is enforced by the EPA. And not all studies of pesticide use in India have found residues, either. One study found plenty of examples of residue contamination in fruits and vegetables in India, but none in cotton fibers.
But a University of Missouri newsletter offers the best explaination as to why cottonseed oil manufactured in the U.S.”rarely” show residues of pesticides in lab tests. The issue isn’t just when the insecticide is applied, but where the cotton grown.
“[Cotton] raised for oil is grown mostly in Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, not in the South. The shorter growing season there prevents maturation of the fiber-producing cotton boll,” explains the writer. (The USDA offers a more comprhensive list of states where cotton is grown). This shorter season requires precise control, as Kurtz suggests, so pesticides are applied only up until the boll is about to open. After the cotton is picked and the seed processed into oil, the oil goes through a “deodorizing” stage in which it is subjected to hot steam in a vacuum setting. The cleansing is supposed to remove any residue of insecticide or other unwanted compounds.
Meyer from UNFI suggests however, that with the broad disagreement on this issue, skeptics will continue looking for third-party data to prove that cottonseed oil is completely free of pesticide residue.
Conventional cotton and organic processes
One question we asked Kurtz was why, given the growing interest in organic cotton, conventional cotton industry didn’t consider transitioning toward an organic production model. If there was public pushback against GM foods, why not take the steps now to help farmers adopt organic processes.
“I think it is a matter of feasibility,” said Kurtz. “Organic production works quite well for certain growers on smaller acreages. The ability to scale that up would just be too expensive because of the cost of labor. Some of the organic practices just prohibit some of the more mechanized means that we are using today and there just wouldn’t be a way to produce enough fiber to meet the demand through organic means. It would just cost too much to produce.”
Given the world’s increasing dependence on cotton for clothing, food and medical products, it’s a perspective that makes sense. With 7 billion people on the planet, and a demand that exceeds that of any other fiber in existence, transitioning from GM methods may seem impractical on the surface.
Meyer agreed that “the demand for organic cotton isn’t as high as the total production of cotton worldwide,” but she argued that this was largely because “people don’t understand the long-term effects to the environment and to society and health in general that this poses down the line. There are unintended consequences that you pay for later,” she said.
Data: The final benchmark in cotton production
If there were one lesson to draw from the endless debate over how cotton should be grown and processed, it might be that it is quantifiable research results that tell the true story about pesticide use in cotton production. Is there really widespread insecticide residue in cotton products? Does glyphosate have unintended consequences? Answers to either or both of these questions may in coming years, alter our view of GM produced cotton.But what those answers won’t do, is change the impact that conventional cotton production with all of its problems and remarkable concepts, has had on the world as we know it.
Major brands have increased their use of so-called Better Cotton.
Cotton, the most widely used natural fiber, is considered the world’s dirtiest crop because of its heavy use of pesticides—its cultivation accounts for up to 17.5 percent of global insecticide sales, according to some estimates. So in recent years, several apparel and home-goods companies, including Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, and Nike, have used organic cotton, grown by farmers who eschew pesticides and enrich their soil with compost.
That’s good for the environment but raises another big problem: Organic cotton is too expensive for average shoppers. Organic fiber cost as much as $2.20 per pound, vs. about 61¢ for conventional cotton, in the 2015-16 growing season. That’s kept demand low; less than 1 percent of the world’s cotton production is organic.
“That’s one of the aims, to make Better Cotton mainstream and make it available for the masses” – Ulrika Hvistendahl, sustainability spokeswoman for Ikea
Over the past nine years, Ikea, Zara-parent Inditex, and H&M, among others, have signed on to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a coalition of farmers, garment makers, and retailers committed to producing and using sustainable cotton at accessible prices. BCI farmers are taught how to grow sustainable cotton using less pesticide and water—reducing stress on the environment—at a cost close to that of regular fiber. “That’s one of the aims, to make Better Cotton mainstream and make it available for the masses,” says Ulrika Hvistendahl, sustainability spokeswoman for Ikea. Since 2009 the retailer has increased the percentage of Better Cotton used in its products, from sheets to furniture. In fiscal 2015, 70 percent of the cotton Ikea used was Better Cotton.
Environmentally Correct T-shirts are too Expensive for Many Shoppers
Similar efforts, like Bayer CropScience’s e3 sustainable cotton program, which works with farmers to ensure they’re producing cotton responsibly, are increasing supplies of sustainable cotton. The material can help companies appeal to millennials and environmentally minded customers. “Offering a product with a sustainability cachet but not the added cost may meet the sweet spot of pleasing both a consumer’s conscience and wallet,” says Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Gregory Elders.
In 2015, Nike and H&M used more sustainable cotton than organic cotton for the first time. Better Cotton has grown to around 12 percent of global cotton production in 2015, vs. 0.5 percent for organic, according to BCI. Says BCI Chief Operating Officer Lena Staafgard: “By 2020 our goal is to reach 5 million farmers worldwide and account for 30 percent of global cotton production.”
Cotton Crib Sheet
*More than 27 million tons of cotton are produced annually in over 85 countries
*Ikea uses 1 percent of the world’s cotton
*It can take up to 713 gallons of water to make one T-shirt, according to the World Wildlife Fund
Cotton textile waste isn’t just getting tossed anymore, it’s making TENCEL® and big brands are buying into it.
Announcing Lenzing’s latest development at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference in Hamburg, Germany Tuesday, Tricia Carey, the company’s director of business development for apparel and denim, said no new ideas come to fruition without determination.
And Lenzing was determined to answer the market’s demand for closed loop production processes by taking cotton scraps that would have otherwise been discarded and turning them into fiber.
To make the virgin TENCEL® from the cotton waste, Lenzing takes the fabric scraps from post industrial waste, removes any contaminants such as dyestuffs and resins and produces a cotton cellulose pulp. This pulp is blended with wood pulp adding only solvent and water and the only output is TENCEL® fiber and water. In keeping with the recycling efforts, during the lyocell process the solvent gets used over and over and over again, and the whole process uses 95 percent less water than it takes to produce cotton.
“This is taking the next step toward what we talk about so much here at Textile Exchange, and that’s the circular economy,” Carey said.
Recently Lenzing’s first brand and retail partner for the new TENCEL® fiber was announced. Now Patagonia has been added as the latest brand to take up the closed-loop fiber.
“Patagonia pioneered recycled materials starting with polyester in our apparel in the 90s and we are always looking for new ways to incorporate recycled materials into our products,” said Helena Barbour, senior director of global sportswear at Patagonia. “This revolutionary new material Lenzing has created takes pre-consumer waste cotton scraps and turns it into a high-quality TENCEL® fiber that meets Patagonia’s rigorous performance standards. Partnering with Lenzing to bring this material to market was an easy choice for us and we are excited to launch our first products with it in the spring of 2017.”
TENCEL® made from the cotton waste has the same behavioral properties as Lenzing’s traditional TENCEL® made from wood pulp, and the fiber gives garments the same smooth hand consumers seek and the strength to have lasting power.
The first garments using the new fiber will hit the market in Spring/Summer 2017. Patagonia will be the first to market in the U.S.
“It’s the first of its type and it meets the desire from the market for a high quality, recycled cellulosic fiber,” Lenzing business development and project manager Michael Kininmonth, said. “The physical characteristics are as good as our standard product. Therefore there is no evidence of down-cycling whatsoever”
Now through October we are highlighting the first class of Levi Strauss & Co. Collaboratory fellows. These 10 next-generation apparel leaders are making an outsized impact on their communities, and we’re excited to take them behind our doors to expand their commitment to sustainable practices and reducing their water impact.Kavita Parmar: Founder and creative director of the IOU Project, an experiment to rethink how goods are produced and sold in a way that empowers artisans and protects the environment.
Tell us about your business and the work you do.
The IOU Project was born from my frustration and desire as a designer to fix what I see as the broken system of fashion. To the detriment of artisan makers, local communities, the environment, designers and even the customer, I feel like the current structure of the apparel industry is only rushing toward a short-term profit with no regard to the real human cost.
At the IOU Project, we developed proprietary technology to provide full transparency and traceability along the supply chain to both the customer and the maker. We currently work with more than 15 heritage textile communities around the globe and produce all our clothing with traditional craftsman/ateliers in Europe. Our goal is to become the Wikipedia of heritage artisans globally and be a resource for designers, the brands they represent and consumers.
What does it mean to you to create a more socially and environmentally responsible apparel industry?
We believe a more transparent system that provides full traceability would be a big step toward social and environmental responsibility. A sustainable system can only be made with full participation from the consumer community, as we need them to fully understand who and what is impacted by their buying decisions. In essence, we see value in empowering both ends of the supply chain.
How important is water to what you do?
Water is fundamental to what we do – and a huge concern for us – as we work with artisans who source locally grown cotton. Cotton is a thirsty plant, and dyeing and processing garments uses a large amount of water, which is unfortunately becoming a scarce commodity globally. Finding sustainable alternatives is a must.
What do you hope to get out of participating in the LS&Co. Collaboratory?
We are hoping to have a truly honest and open exchange of ideas between a company the size of Levi Strauss & Co. and our artisan communities. We believe there is the potential for real synergy in working together to solve the major problems we all face. As the quote by Marshall McLuhan goes, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”
What’s your Levi’s® story?
The first collection I designed included repurposed vintage Levi’s® 501s® that I would scour for at second-hand and vintage stores. I would open up the inseams and hand-print, embroider, dip-dye and create unique pieces that I sold at some of the most exclusive high-end retailors in Spain.
I have always admired the core philosophy of the Levi’s® brand and have used it many times as an example of how you can build a product for longevity, like the 501®. I believe if any brand can be a catalyst for change in the apparel industry, it’s Levi’s® that has the history and product authenticity to create the change many of us want to see.
Rebecca van Bergen: Founder and executive director of Nest, a nonprofit committed to the social and economic advancement of the fashion and home industry’s informal workforce.
Tell us about your business and the work you do.Nest is focused on advancing social and economic opportunities for the millions of women who are part of the fashion and home industry’s informal workforce. While we often think of apparel production as taking place inside factories, as much as 60 percent of contemporary garment production is done in homes and small workshops around the world. Nest’s work focuses on channeling sector transparency, needs-based artisan business development and widespread homeworker advocacy to empower women, alleviate poverty, and preserve traditions of artisanship. The organization arose from my life-long drive to support women to be agents of change through economic empowerment.
Our approach is business-needs based. We are tackling the barriers to market access and successful partnership with international, largely western, brands by looking at both the artisan and brand perspective.. Brands can contract Nest (without us acting as artisan brokers or middleman) to bring increased transparency, social responsibility and economic sustainability to their own existing artisan and homeworker supply chains. We also can help to source new partners, but transparency into vendors and artisan independence is key to our success and theirs!
What does it mean to you to create a more socially and environmentally responsible apparel industry?
I’d like to address the ambiguity of the word sustainability head-on. Its origin is actually in ecology and is defined as the ability to make systems that remain diverse and productive indefinitely. I love using this definition because it reminds us that endurance is the key. If we want fashion to be around 10, 20, 100 years from now; if we want our planet to be around 10, 20, 100 years from now; if we want global craft traditions and artisan techniques to be not only around, but also thriving, we must practice responsibility both socially and environmentally.
At Nest, we are particularly bent on ensuring that this responsibility extends beyond factory labor to also acknowledge the millions of people and huge portions of the environmental supply chain that are non-factory based. The word “artisan” tends to carry negative connotations of being niche, hyper-localized, and outdated. Nest is challenging these stereotypes and repositioning this global population as a workforce to be taken very seriously.
How important is water to what you do?
Dyeing is a fundamental component of the production process for many artisan businesses, particularly those producing textiles. Unfortunately, improper disposal of wastewater can pose extreme risk to local environments, artisan health, and the wellbeing of community members who may be collecting drinking water nearby. In developing communities experiencing water scarcity, the dye process further depletes already limited resources.
While this issue has been explored from a major industry standpoint, wastewater management solutions that are affordable and applicable in small workshops and underserved communities have not been developed, leaving this population of workers and their surrounding home environments at risk. .
Nest is committed to creating practical and affordable solutions – across a broad spectrium of artisan businesses – to ensure more responsible wastewater treatment and disposal within the artisan and small workshop context.
What do you hope to get out of participating in the LS&Co. Collaboratory?
Nest firmly believes that change within the apparel industry must happen on a unified front to ensure collective progress and wide-reaching results. Through our participation in the Collaboratory, we will share our insights, resources and best practices, as well as learn from others, in our effort to build a scalable global solution for responsible wastewater management in home and workshop settings. We seek to determine how our work best merges with, compliments, and advances existing efforts. Our goal is to create model solutions the entire apparel industry can make use of.
What’s your Levi’s® story?
I bought my first pair of Levi’s® in my late 20s. I had just moved to New York City from my home in St. Louis with not a single pair of jeans (true story). In “the big city”, ready to embark on the next chapter of my life, I wanted to find a pair of jeans that felt very authentic, high quality, and yes, fashionable. But alas, I could not afford the $200 price tag of many of the emerging denim brands.
Then I found Levi’s®, a name I knew to be classic and reliable. I bought a pair of slouchy boyfriend jeans for $40 – a purchase that has proven well worthwhile. These jeans saw me through adjusting to life in New York, through dating and marrying my husband, and they have even grown with me in having my two children (I cut them into shorts and they have a new life post pregnancy!). These jeans have grown and changed, just as I have, and still their style is timeless.
Once again this year, the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilized its citizens — including health care workers, teachers and students — to the cotton fields to prepare for and carry out the 2015 harvest of the country’s “white gold.” As in the past, forced labor practices were well documented by human rights groups, including the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF).
New to the harvest this year were monitoring teams deployed by the International Labor Organization(ILO). Despite finding numerous “indicators” of forced labor related to the widespread recruitment of adults, the ILO nevertheless concluded that it did not find “conclusive information that beneficiaries of World Bank projects used child or forced labor during the cotton harvest.” The World Bank now provides $500 million in loans to Uzbekistan’s education and agricultural sectors.
Positively, the use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields has waned (though it still exists as a byproduct of state pressure to fulfill quotas). Unfortunately, the Uzbek government used the 2015 harvest to “double-down” on its use of coercion in the mobilization of adults and increased its persecution of those seeking to document and expose the government’s forced labor practices. Worse still, according to the Cotton Campaign and other observers, the forced labor practices of Uzbekistan are now being employed by the government in neighboring Turkmenistan as well.
Voluntary or forced labor?
As in prior years, the harvest plan was developed at the very top levels of the Uzbek government. The prime minister determined the quotas and distributed them to regional “hokims” responsible for imposing the quotas on farmers and other institutions. Wages paid to those involved in the harvest were nominal and substantially lower than market.
As reported by UGF in its March 2016 report: “Almost universally, respondents told us they could not refuse to pick cotton.” As one person put it to UGF, “No one wants to go of their own will to harvest cotton for miserly wages.” For many, the UGF concluded, the very notion was unthinkable.
Yet, the Uzbek government insists that participation in the harvest is voluntary, and the ILO concluded in its November 2015 report that “[l]arge numbers of citizens seem to be willing recruits and see the harvest as an opportunity.”
Reading the UGF’s most recent report, it is almost inconceivable to imagine how the ILO could reach such a conclusion. Rather than merely “encouraging” people to take advantage of the economic “opportunity” of the harvest, the state once again drew from a well-worn playbook of fear and intimidation tactics designed to give citizens no other choice but to leave their homes and jobs to labor in the cotton fields.
For instance, last year police and prosecutors regularly patrolled the fields, inspected farms and monitored workers. Regular “cotton meetings” were organized with local officials and farmers to discuss the harvest’s progress. One farmer reported to UGF that he spent every night of the harvest at “cotton headquarters,” and at one such meeting the hokim was recorded shouting, “If even one person does not go out, it will be bad for you! I’ll shut down your organizations!”
Operation Cleaver, an official directive from the Uzbek government, tasked officials with repossessing land and the personal property of farmers who were either in debt to government-run banks or had failed to fulfill their cotton quotas. Teachers received orders from government officials compelling them to send their students to the fields, and many students rightly feared expulsion if they refused to participate. One “urgent message” sent to a private company stated that “[a]ll organizations … must participate in the cotton harvest.” Others were threatened with dismissal from their jobs.
As the UGF points out, forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector must be viewed against the backdrop of the systemic repression and widespread human rights violations that occur there on a regular basis.
Human Rights Watch describesUzbekistan’s human rights record as “atrocious,” and in 2015, Freedom House ranked Uzbekistan the fourth least free country in the world and the most repressive regime in the highly authoritarian region of Eurasia. The Uzbek government regularly engages in torture of prisoners and detainees; severely limits speech, religion, assembly and association; routinely harasses and conducts surveillance on human rights defenders; and lacks an impartial justice system or any semblance of the rule of law. In other words, in Uzbekistan, people are justifiably terrified of disobeying the state.
Particularly in this context, police and prosecutor presence in the cotton fields reinforces a not-so-subtle message that participation in the cotton harvest is mandatory and that resisters could face severe punishment from the state. In 2015, this climate of fear was supplemented by an onslaught of propaganda about the importance of cotton, linking the resource to the the Uzbek identity. As such, there was a pervasive sense in Uzbekistan that those who do not participate are somehow unpatriotic.
Pulling the wool over our eyes
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Uzbek government went out of its way to make participation in the 2015 harvest appear voluntary. According to both the UGF and Cotton Campaign — a coalition of human rights organizations, trade unions, socially responsible investors and business associations — this effort was greatly intensified in 2015 as compared to prior years.
For example, UGF obtained copies of false statements from students at six different educational institutions stating that they were picking cotton voluntarily. One student even referred to cotton picking as his “internship.” Though the ILO reported that “schools and hospitals functioned normally” during the harvest, UGF found the opposite. None of the doctors, teachers or other professionals interviewed said they would rather pick cotton than do their own jobs.
The 2015 harvest was also marred by a campaign of state-organized persecution of activists documenting labor and human rights issues in the cotton sector. One such activist, Dmitry Tikhonov, was one of UGF’s own monitors, and his tale — documented by UGF, the Guardian, and in Tihkonov’s own words (here andhere) — is a harrowing one.
Prior to the harvest, in August 2015, Tihkonov learned that some of his friends had been questioned by the police about his work and personal life. The next month, when mobilization for the harvest was at its peak, Tihkonov was surrounded in public and harassed by a group of local officials. A day later he was picked up by police, forced to draft a statement explaining why he is “against cotton,” yelled at and beaten. A few days later, he was detained again after a questionable traffic stop.
In late October, when Tihkonov was out of town, there was a major fire at his home. The fire destroyed his work, two computers, a laptop, a printer/scanner, video and sound equipment, all contacts, papers and files, $1,500 in cash savings, clothing, and his legal library. He also discovered that his hard drives were missing.
Other activists were also subjected to harassment by the state. For instance, in my conversation last month with the coordinator of the Cotton Campaign,Matt Fischer-Daly, he mentioned the arrests and body cavity searches of a number of female monitors, as well as the arrest and two-month detention of a monitor who was released only on the condition that he do no more human rights work.
I asked Fischer-Daly how the crackdown impacts the work of Cotton Campaign and others dedicated to exposing the crimes of the Uzbek government (UGF is one of Cotton Campaign’s primary partners). Unsurprisingly, he reported that the systematic persecution made Cotton Campaign’s work far more difficult, as much of 2015 was spent responding to acute safety risks facing the campaign’s partners on the ground in Uzbekistan. The group also had to change its procedures and can no longer conduct trainings in Uzbekistan. Yet, despite all this, the Cotton Campaign’s monitors have said they will not stop working to expose forced labor in the Uzbek cotton fields.
The failures of the World Bank and the ILO
In 2014, Uzbekistan signed a Decent Work Country Program with the ILO, in which it committed to work with the ILO and to apply international labor standards. The Bank also agreed to condition Uzbekistan’s loans (now amounting to $500 million) on the absence of forced or child labor in project areas. As a result of these agreements, Uzbekistan also committed to establish a “feedback mechanism” that allows witnesses or victims to report abuses during the harvest and an awareness-raising campaign aimed to educate Uzbekistan’s citizens about the illegality of forced and child labor.
Pursuant to the World Bank’s request, the ILO created monitoring teams, which watched over Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest from Sept. 14 to Oct. 31, 2015. Each team was made up of just one ILO staffer and five members of the Uzbek government. At the end of its work, the ILO concluded that“[m]onitoring has not provided conclusive information that beneficiaries of World Bank projects used child or forced labor during the cotton harvest.”
Yet, the ILO still found “indicators” of forced labor related to the widespread organized recruitment of adults to pick cotton and noted that “[r]obust further steps are required to remove the risk of forced labor.” In particular, the ILO highlighted several concerns “with respect to candidness of interviewees,” and UGF rightly pointed out that serious questions exist concerning the independence, and resulting effectiveness, of the ILO monitoring teams, due in part to their makeup.
The ILO acknowledged that monitors encountered significant difficulties obtaining accurate information and noted that authorities “obstruct, detain and threaten people who are gathering information on labor standards during the harvest,” which does not “provide a conducive environment in which to assess and investigate labor practices.”
In the face of these admitted shortcomings, however, there is no indication that the ILO considered changing its strategy, nor does the ILO explain why it failed to do so. Moreover, by beginning its monitoring process in mid-September, the ILO missed the “massive labor deployments to the fields” that occurs in the beginning of the month, the UGF notes.
As for the “feedback mechanism,” the ILO admitted that usage rates were low, and nobody interviewed by the UGF even considered using it. The reason for the poor level of participation seems to be that people feared reprisals for using the mechanism. In fact, several who called the hotline or tried to complain to the ILO suffered harassment from officials.
As the Cotton Campaign’s Fischer-Daly sees it, the World Bank should incentivize reform by requiring demonstrable progress from the Uzbek government on ending forced labor as a condition for loan disbursements. By disbursing funds first, the Uzbek government has less incentive to change practices and is likely to only take procedural measures.
Yet, when I asked Fischer-Daly whether apparel companies were succeeding in keeping Uzbek cotton out of their products, he noted the limitations of RSN’s Cotton Pledge. As with many products, the difficulty with cotton boils down to traceability, and many brands simply do not know the true origin of their cotton. The most successful companies are those that have direct relationships with their raw material suppliers, but very few do.
In order to truly change this practice, Fischer-Daly said, brands must fundamentally change the way they source.
Last year, Cotton Campaign and others,including CNN, began documenting a system of forced labor in Turkmen cotton fields that is strikingly similar to the practice in Uzbekistan. Following the president’s order to “pick all cotton to the last boll,” tens of thousands of Turkmen citizens are mobilized by local government officials to report to the cotton fields. According toAlternative Turkmen News, the Turkmen government treats “refusal to contribute to the cotton harvest as insubordination, incitement to sabotage, lack of patriotism and even contempt of the homeland.” Consequences include “public censure, docked pay and termination of employment.”
As in Uzbekistan, the state maintains a monopoly on the purchase and sale of cotton and sets a below-market procurement price. Turkmenistan is the world’s eighth largest exporter of cotton (Uzbekistan is fifth), and the Cotton Campaign has been able to tie Turkmen cotton to Turkey, a major manufacturing hub for brands operating throughout Europe. Fischer-Daly told me the first Turkish company that Cotton Campaign identified as processing and producing garments using cotton from Turkmenistan reported that it sold to about a dozen brands.
Some brands, such as H&M, have nowcommitted to excluding Turkmen cotton from their products (as H&M did with Uzbek cotton in 2013). Yet, as in Uzbekistan, without real consequences there is little reason to believe either the Uzbek or the Turkmen governments will move away from their forced labor systems.
La Rhea Pepper is a fifth generation cotton farmer from Lubbock, Texas, and she currently is the Managing Director of Textile Exchange. La Rhea began farming organic cotton in the early 1990s, and since then has been a key figure in the organic cotton movement. La Rhea co-founded the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, which has grown to 40 producer members who plant 10,000-19,000 acres of organic cotton a year. Le Rhea has an impactful story, which she shares with us below, and is an invaluable resource to the organic cotton industry.
Above: La Rhea Pepper on a cotton farm. Photo: Donna Worley.
What has been most surprising in your journey from growing up on a conventional cotton farm to owning your own organic cotton farm?
I guess the most surprising part of this journey is the affirmation that this is about life and death—to farm organically for me is about respecting life in the soil, in the plant, life within the ecosystem with ladybugs and birds and assassin bugs and lizards galore!—and creating a healthy place for families who work the land to live and play.
The other side of the surprise is that everyone doesn’t want to farm the same way—for different reasons. I say, ‘Organic? Why Not?’
How have you seen organic cotton farming impact the lives of farmers and the surrounding communities? How has this changed over time?
When we started [organic farming] in 1990, there were only about five farmers/families involved. There were also some projects starting in India in the early 90s.
As the market expanded, some of the farmers started farming organically because of market dynamics and opportunities, however, once they started, they began to see for themselves the impact on the soil with increased organic matter and increased biodiversity. So, I don’t really care why a farmer starts—it is a start, and he will experience the long-term benefits.
Other farmers, while not going fully organic, have also begun to use winter cover crops to increase soil fertility to reduce their dependence upon petroleum-based fertilizers and use more of an integrated pest management system, reducing their use of insecticides.
Every step toward greater stewardship and the reduction of toxic and persistent pesticides is a step in the right direction.
Above: La Rhea with her family on their farm. Photo: La Rhea Pepper.
Would you mind sharing why you are personally so committed to organic farming and why you have been a critical player of the organic cotton movement?
Much of the reason why I’m an organic farmer is because it is a part of my heritage (my grandfather was an old-school German farmer who had strong stewardship principles that we are only caregivers of the land), and philosophically it aligns with my personal and religious beliefs about stewardship.
I’ve also seen first-hand the negative impacts that conventional, mono-crop, chemically intensive agriculture can have on communities and families. For so many reasons, we needed to change agriculture to a more sustainable and lower impact system.
And then my husband was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiform stage IV brain tumor in 2005. Our brain surgeon in Lubbock, Texas, said that his was a type of tumor that seemed to be commonly found in men, ages 40-60, who worked in agriculture or oil. Terry was 48 when we found out, and he died at 50. Too young!
He grew up on a conventional farm in south Texas—a chemically intensive farm. His father died at 57 of acute leukemia, which has known links to pesticides.
There are so many other illnesses linked to chemical usage in farm communities: endocrine disruption and all types of cancers.
For me, the difference in organic and conventional agriculture is life and death, not only the life in the soil and farm, but literally life for the farmers who are growing our food and fiber.
After Terry died, going organic and persuading the world to go organic was no longer important—it was imperative!
Why is Texas organic cotton different from organic cotton from other areas of the country (California, Georgia, etc)?
The area where the organic cotton is grown in Texas, the high plains, is blessed with a climate conducive to growing cotton: dryer with a cold winter that keeps insect pressure down. The other key factor is that we get a hard freeze, usually in early November, that kills the cotton plant, and, like deciduous trees, the plant drops its leaves, which allows the cotton to be mechanically harvested. Other areas that don’t get this freeze really struggle to harvest the cotton. The majority of conventional cotton uses a defoliant to kill the cotton and prepare the plant for harvesting. We rely on Mother Nature and her chilling winter weather.
Above: Cotton harvest on Texas farm. Photo: La Rhea Pepper.
Since you have been around the organic cotton movement for so long, what action has been most successful in really growing the organic cotton market?
I have seen the greatest success where there is a cohesive and integrated partnership along the supply chain. It truly is a relay race that comes full circle with the farmer growing the crop, the supply chain, and the brand creating the right product. We are all telling the story about the intrinsic value of the fiber. This is what creates meaningful change at the consumer level.
So, it is about engaging consumers, having the right product, and integrity along the supply chain—it all matters.
What causes you to get out of bed every morning to work on organic cotton and to advocate for the industry?
I have grandchildren, but they don’t have their grandfather.
For me it is personal. It is part of my heritage; it is also a part of my legacy.
If you could change things, what is your best/ideal vision for the future of cotton farming?
I believe that growing cotton in an organic production system is a tool for creating long-term sustainability with stronger communities, food security and biodiversity. It is an integrated and regenerative production system.
I also believe that it is a tool to help create a market-driven solution for addressing poverty, accessing resources, schools, and health care, and other infrastructure needs when farmers are paid a fair price for the crops that they grow.
I truly believe that the pioneers in this industry—and especially the folks that are driving the organic cotton movement—are creating meaningful change. We have a great start—we just need to keep up the momentum.
Above: Cotton field after a rain. Photo: La Rhea Pepper.
*This story first appeared on the Coyuchi blog here.
Cotton is by far the world’s most popular natural fiber, and much of it is used for clothing. No doubt, it would be ideal if all those cotton clothes could simply be recycled into new garments when their time was up. It would keep millions of tons of waste out of landfills, and allow the fashion industry to use far less virgin material, in turn cutting use of water, pesticides, and chemicals for dyeing.
Unfortunately, recycling cotton clothes isn’t simple. To create a new piece of clothing from old clothes, the old clothes first have to be chopped up and turned back into raw material. But that chopping-up process tends to lower the cotton’s quality because it shortens the staple length of the fibers. Staple length plays an important role in determining the strength and softness of cotton threads. The longer the staple, the better these characteristics, which is why cotton varieties with extra-long staple lengths, such as supima, are highly valued—and why fashion brands currently find it difficult to use any large amount of recycled cotton in their products.
Levi’s, for example, which recently kicked off a massive clothing recycling program in the US, can only use up to 20% recycled cotton in a garment before the garment no longer meets its quality standards. The company is experimenting with blending recycled fibers with long-staple fibers to solve the problem. But so far nobody has come up with the kind of large-scale solution that could change the whole industry.
A cotton picker works in a field in Hami, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, November 1, 2012. China is expected to harvest 6.9 million tonnes of cotton this year, a decline of 4.2 percent from a year ago, due to a smaller sowing area, an official from the country’s top planning agency said in remarks published on October 9. Picture taken November 1, 2012.
Using less virgin cotton also means using less water and pesticides to grow it.(Reuters/China Daily)
The H&M Conscious Foundation, funded by the Persson family—which owns clothing retailer H&M—hopes to surface an answer through its Global Change Award contest. It’s giving out a €1 million ($1.15 million) grant to be shared among five winners with pioneering ideas for “closing the loop”—sustainability speak for recycling used material into something brand new.
The contest isn’t focused on any one way of doing so; a novel technique for recycling cotton is not an explicit priority. “We want to find new approaches in the whole value chain of the fashion industry, changing the way garments are designed, produced, shipped, bought, used, and recycled,” a spokeswoman for the foundation tells Quartz.
But it’s clear that finding a way to recycle cotton easily, without impairing it, could be the sort of “game changer” the foundation is seeking, and a competition could speed up the process. “The largest potential lies with finding new technology that means we can recycle fibers with unchanged quality,” she says.
The inherent contradiction is that it’s H&M—a fast-fashion brand that contributes copiously to the paradigm of cheap, disposable clothing—behind the effort. Cotton is the fiber H&M uses most, and so far the massive amount it consumes is a sustainability problem it hasn’t been able to address. “Closing the loop” would let it continue cranking out giant volumes of clothing, just with fewer consequences.
In any case, a $1.15 million grant for five people isn’t huge in the context of the roughly $18 billion (pdf) that H&M did in sales last year. But the planet would benefit from any progress the fashion industry can make on sustainability, especially with regard to recycling cotton.