Updated: Feb 28, 2022
Traditional cotton farming methods are environmentally unsustainable for a number of reasons. So how is organic cotton any better?
The cotton industry is huge. It is the most profitable non food crop in the world, provides an income for 100's of millions of people and around half of all textiles are made of cotton. So its potential to affect the environment is huge too.
When I first started looking into switching to organic cotton to make our beeswax wraps I assumed the issues were mainly about pesticides. Predominately the chemicals that would get left on the cotton and end up in the products we used. Once I started reading, my eyes were well and truly opened.
Across the world, cotton crops cover about 2.4% of cultivated land but use 6% of the worlds pesticides and 16% of insecticides. These pesticides have been shown to cause serious health issues for cotton farmers and their families.
Added to the immediate health risks for the local populations, these pesticides end up in the run off from the cotton fields, affecting the soil and ultimately the rivers and lakes. This is water that may well be relied upon by local communities for consumption and necessary for sustaining aquatic life.
Cotton farming is very water intensive, the amount of water needed to produce a single cotton t-shirt is 2,700 litres! It's also traditionally grown in areas with limited rainfall. Meaning that surface and ground water supplies are diverted to help irrigate cotton farms. More water is then used to help dilute the hazardous pesticides used to bring them to 'safe' levels before they enter waterways. Over one fifth of the water used to grow non organic cotton is used for this purpose.
There are a few well documented examples of this. It was reading about the Aral Sea in Central Asia that cemented the decision to make the switch to organic cotton.
The Aral Sea, a freshwater lake once covered 26,000 square miles. In the 1960's an enormous irrigation network was built to provide water to cotton fields. In the following decades the water volume reduced to a tenth of the size with the remaining water having too high salinity to sustain aquatic life.
Photo credit NASA
Why is organic cotton better for the planet?
No polluting pesticides - which means a healthier working environment for the farmers, better quality soil and no additional water is required to dilute the pesticides.
Healthier soil - organic farmers use natural methods like composting to create healthy soil. Healthy soil acts like a sponge, soaking up water during floods and holding it for longer during droughts.
The way cotton is watered - most organic cotton is grown in rain fed areas. This means farmers rely on rain to water their crop instead of having to extract water from the ground or divert it from surface water.
Discovering all of this made the decision to change to organic cotton easy, the harder part was finding organic cotton that waxed well and looked good! I was really pleased to find both. With a bit of tweaking to our secret recipe we now have top quality beeswax wraps, plantwax wraps, bread bags, produce bags and reusable make up removers all made with beautiful organic cotton!