Cleaning China's "Natural" Cotton

cotton jin sorting photo

Credit: Niosh, CC.
China's cotton production has wreaked havoc on its landscape: farming in the western Xinjiang province has been associated with the advance of the Taklamaken Deserts--whose dunes have overtaken towns--and as the world's leading producer and biggest importer of the commodity, the pollution has invariably effected their economy. China's State Council has sought advice from international researchers to curb the ecological cost of their trade. Miller-McCune reports on the findings that, if followed, could put China at the forefront of sustainable cotton production: China's State Council directed its research arm, the Development Research Center, to seek advice on how to conserve China's ecological resources while maintaining prosperity from trade. A Canadian research center was commissioned to review its three most environmentally devastating trades; topping the list cotton, followed by wood products and electronics.

The study examines the impact of the product from cradle to grave and includes pragmatic solutions, compatible with China's World Trade Organization. Miller-McCune reports on the study's results, highlights below.

Irrigation Strain and Pesticides in Cotton Production:

In several regions that China relies on to meet its enormous demand for raw cotton, irrigation diverts more water than is sustainably available, straining resources and damaging ecosystems from Central Asia to the American Southwest.

By contrast, the researchers found that the use of agrichemicals differed widely among major supply regions, with China's own farmers dosing their fields with six times more fertilizer and pesticide than growers in sub-Saharan Africa. American farmers and others in Brazil fell somewhere in the middle.

A Shift to Rain-Fed Land is Necessary for Net Environmental Gain:
With world demand for cotton goods rising and China's arable land under pressure from other demands, notably food production and urban expansion, the researchers concluded that the country should increasingly look abroad for sustainable sources of fiber.

Countering the view that global trade is necessarily harsh on the environment, the researchers contended: 'A market shift from irrigated, chemical input-intensive growing areas such as the U.S. and China toward rain-fed and less intensive areas in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Brazil and India would bring significant net environmental gains.'

Lower Subsidies will Improve Sustainability on Global Level:
Such subsidies in the U.S. and countries in Europe and elsewhere (including China itself) depress the price of globally traded cotton, leaving small producers with little profit to invest in better growing techniques. In the long run, Pan's team argued that lower subsidies for cotton growers would contribute to "improved sustainability at the global level, mainly because the most trade-distortive countries are also countries where the pressure on the environment is the highest."

Research Affirms Power of the Purchaser:
In analyzing where along cotton's journey lay the power to influence change, Pan's team cited earlier research that identified the global cotton-textile value chain as "buyer-driven" -- dominated by a relatively small number of increasingly global participants. In the key U.S. market, they noted, just two large discount chains -- Wal-Mart and Kmart -- account for one-quarter of all the clothing sold.

Branding Influences a Sustainable Cotton Supply Chain:
Given the rising power of branding in both domestic and foreign markets, Pan's team urged concerted policy efforts to stoke consumer demand for a "greener" white cotton tee. Before resorting to "green tariffs," it suggested that China throw its trade and diplomatic weight behind existing, multiparty, industry-backed ventures such as the Better Cotton Initiative (sponsored by jeans-maker Levi Strauss, among others), which is meant to raise the standard of environmental accountability from end to end of the cotton supply chain.

Could China be the leader in green cotton production? Continue reading on Miller-McCune where Chris Wood examines how divergent political and economic cultures complicates achievement of a greener trade.

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