Why You Should Look for Fairtrade Cotton

CC BY 2.0. Kimberly Vardeman -- Cotton ready to be harvested

A new study explores the social and environmental costs of cotton production, and how Fairtrade certification can mitigate these.

Look down at the clothes you’re wearing, and you’ll likely see cotton somewhere. Cotton is an integral part of our lives, present in everything from bath towels and bed sheets to underwear, T-shirts, and socks. We use it to diaper children, to wash and dry dishes, to wipe up messes. Despite its constant presence in our lives, however, cotton is often ignored. When’s the last time you thought about cotton production and what goes into creating this household staple?

The truth is that cotton farmers are struggling terribly. Fairtrade International (FI) reports that cotton farmers face “multiple long-term threats, including climate change, food security, biotechnology, the circular economy and ‘fast fashion’, trends which are combining to create both risks and opportunities for the cotton industry.”

FI recently published a study comparing the social and environmental impact of Fairtrade-certified cotton to conventionally grown cotton. It found that the combined environmental and social costs of Fairtrade cotton are five times less than conventional cotton, and that “the impacts of Fairtrade farming were 97 percent lower for social elements and 31 percent lower for environmental components studied.”

The most significant improvement was social. Certified farmers receive a higher income, as well as a better community benefits, such as schools for children. Environmental standards for Fairtrade were higher, too:

“Fairtrade cotton performed significantly better than conventional cotton for all environmental KPIs. Areas surveyed included land use, water pollutants, water use, GHG emissions and soil pollutants. It was only for land use where Fairtrade cotton’s cost was a little high as the yield for organic practices for cotton per acre is lower than conventional.”

While the fact that Fairtrade is conducting its own study on its own certification methods is likely to be questioned, it’s undeniable that current cotton production is a mess, and this is something that we need to talk about a whole lot more than we do.

On a social level, genetic modification of cotton seeds has wreaked havoc in traditionally agrarian communities. In India, the second biggest cotton producer in the world after China, there has been a shocking surge in farmer suicides, more than a quarter million. These tragic deaths are linked to genetically modified cotton and the ugly cycle of dependence on special seeds and chemicals into which many farmers fall. A documentary film called “Bitter Seeds” estimates that, every 30 minutes, one farmer in India commits suicide, deep in debt and unable to provide for his family.

Environmentally, cotton growing is a disaster. Cotton accounts for 24 percent of global sales of agricultural insecticides and uses an obscene amount of water – approximately 20,000 liters (5,283 gallons) of water to produce 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) of cotton, enough for a T-shirt and pair of jeans. The WWF links cotton production to the destruction of the Aral Sea, the Indus River in Pakistan, the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia, and the Rio Grande in the US and Mexico.

Cotton isn’t going anywhere, nor should it, since it’s a wonderfully versatile, all-natural fabric; but Fairtrade International (FI) argues that there’s such thing as better cotton, and shoppers should know the difference.