Cotton is known as white gold in India. It is a key raw material in the apparel/textile industry. About 250 million people globally are reliant on this crop for their livelihood and the industry employs over 7% of all labor in developing countries. Though a lot of advancements happening in the industry to develop synthetic fibers, still cotton is the main product that contributes towards almost half of the total textile supply globally. However, the environmental impacts of the cotton supply chain are significant due to unsustainable practices in the agriculture and industrial production process.
Cotton cultivation in India
About 21% of the world’s land under cotton cultivation lies in India. Key Indian states that largely produce cotton are Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu. In 2019, the cotton production in India is recorded at 36 million bales of 170 kgs (Source: The Cotton Corporation of India Limited).
Increasing use of pesticides in cotton fields
As per the estimate, cotton cultivation in India accounts for nearly 50% of the pesticides produced in India. Farmers use pesticides to increase the crop yield as it is heavily prone to pest attacks. The potential production losses due to pests in the absence of pest control mechanisms worldwide have been estimated at around 82% for cotton (Oerke, 2006). The potential production loss in India due to bollworm is estimated at about 50%–60% (Narayanan and Ramaswami, 2007). Further, small landholdings, anxiety towards crop yields, lack of access to finance and quality insurance products, and awareness among farmers towards sustainable agriculture practices can contribute to the excessive use of pesticides.
So, it is obvious for farmers to rely on pesticide to increase the yield. Since the country has the largest area under cotton cultivation, sustainable pest management practices such as use of biopesticides, and integrated pest management practices need to be explored.
Heavy water usage in the cotton supply chain
Another major concern over the cotton cultivation and value chain is excessive water consumption. About 53% of the global cotton field is irrigated, producing 73% of global cotton production (Soth et al., 1999). As per the Water Footprint Network study, producing 1kg of cotton in India consumes about 22,500 liters of water, way higher as compared to the USA at 8,000 liters/kg. The extensive water usage to produce cotton in India is attributed to inefficient water use and high rates of water pollution.
The water consumption varies from cotton fields to the end product in the production process. Overall, there are two key stages where the water mainly consumed in the value chain. These are – agricultural stage and industrial stage. The water usage in the first stage mainly happen due to evaporation of infiltrated rainwater for cotton growth, withdrawal of ground/ surface water for irrigation. Further water pollution also happens across the crop duration due to leaching of fertilisers and pesticides. In the second stage, water is required in the process which usually come from the surface/groundwater sources. The industrial stage is also responsible for a significant water pollution as a result of cotton processing.
There is a need for better water management practices in cotton cultivation to reduce the water footprint of cotton. Sustainable water management practices such as mulching have a great potential to reduce the unproductive evaporation of water from open land. Other practices such as Supplemental irrigation – provide water at critical growth points and Deficit irrigation – provide water below the evapotranspiration requirements of a crop can also reduce water requirements considerably. Please check more tips here and also explore sustainable water use in the cotton supply chain here.
Sourcing sustainable cotton
Many apparel companies/retailers have started using product and process standards where the first one is about the characteristics of a product and the second one is about the way a product is made. Usually, most social, and environmental standards are process standards in agriculture.
Leading brands like H&M, Gap, IKEA, and Levi Strauss are sourcing sustainable cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)- a non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization that promotes better standards in cotton farming and practices. Cotton farmers need to meet minimum environmental and social requirements for their cotton to qualify as Better Cotton. Some companies use the Fairtrade standards. It requires cotton farmers to organize in democratic producer organizations and adopt environmentally sound agricultural practices. Please check the step-by-step guide to source sustainable cotton here.
How you can help?
Buying clothes and other textile products which are made up of organically produced cotton will significantly boost the demand for such products in the market and encourage stakeholders to produce cotton organically. To maintain the credibility of the purchase, you can ask for certified products from your retailers. Also, work with the retailer to recycle old clothes and other textile products and make your contribution to the circular economy.