These issues combined with such things as the finding of pesticide residues from the production of cotton, as far north as Greenland, has motivated us to take a closer look at today's cotton industry.
Raw materials are harvested and pressed, made into a manageable material, dyed, cut, sewn, printed, packaged and shipped, all before you see the final product at a store in the city. Your shirt is a globetrotter and has lived a long life even before it ends up in your closet. Do you eat organic food? Avoid pesticides at home? Then maybe you should take a closer look at what your clothes have been through.
The toxic reality
"5 percent of the world's cultivated land grows cotton, and it requires 25 percent of all pesticides," explains Gjermund Stormoen, former employee at Debio, which controls organic production in Norway. This has a big impact on the environment as well as a direct impact on those who work with the actual production. "Usually, it’s low-cost countries that work with cotton production and it’s these workers who are directly exposed to pesticides and its negative effects. A higher frequency of birth defects has been seen in people who have worked with pesticides over time," says Stormoen.
Maiken Pollestad Sele, who works at Oikos – Organic Norway, also believes that people often forget the direct negative impact that conventional cotton products can have on health. "In addition to the pesticides that cotton is exposed to during agriculture, there are also a lot of chemicals added throughout the production of textiles. Both the dyeing and finishing of textiles involves methods that can be toxic and can lead to an increased risk for asthma and allergies. People often think that it’s important to be aware of what is in food and to choose organic products, however, skin is our largest breathing organ and can also absorb a lot of toxic materials from textiles and similar products," says Pollestad Sele.
From the Aral Sea to Greenland
Conventional cotton production has a major impact on groundwater, which is both contaminated by pesticides, and often used up. The one-sided production destroys soil structures by the removal of plants and insect diversity. In addition, the heavy use of fertilizers accounts for 50 percent of energy consumption in agriculture and is one of the largest sources of the greenhouse gas N2O. Pollestad Sele calls it a straight out environmental disaster.
An example can be seen at the Aral Sea, which lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and was formerly the world's fourth largest lake. Much of this lake has now dried up, and in its place are parched sand dunes full of pesticide residues. These are left to be scattered by the winds and have been found as far north as the forests of Norway and even Greenland. It began in the 60's when people wanted to revive agriculture through cotton production in these arid areas. As a result, pipes for irrigation redirected rivers that led to the lake. Irrigation like this often leads to salinization, which has a negative impact on soil quality. From the dried lake, sand and salt also blows onto the farms in the region, and this together with monoculture contributes to gradually diminishing soil quality. Gjermund Stormoen, from Debio, says that when he visited Uzbekistan in the autumn of 2013, which is 500 miles south of the Aral Sea, the groundwater there was useless as a direct consequence of cotton production.
If you look aside from the production of raw materials for a moment, there are social challenges related to cotton production as well, including the working conditions. According to Pollestad, in both cotton mills and textile factories, some employees work long hours for less than minimum wage. The Ethical Trading Initiative in Norway and The Fare Wage Network, with the support of several companies including Norrøna Sport, are working on a project they call "levelønn" (Livable wages). They want to focus on working conditions throughout the entire chain and work to ensure that employees have a wage they can actually live on. Certified organic production, such as GOTS, implements several ethical production principles that lay the foundation for a fairer trade. They address the value chain and thereby seek to challenge the social inequalities that exist between those who sell the raw materials and the company that manufactures the products. "There’s ann added premium placed on the purchase of organic cotton, and this is money that goes directly to those actually engaged in agriculture," says Pollestad Sele
Norrøna introduced organic cotton into its collection in 2006 when they started producing T-shirts, and since then Norrøna has only introduced new cotton garments that are produced organically. "We have struggled a bit with getting a supplier for our svalbard arctic cotton jacket and pants," says Jørgen Jørgensen, CEO of Norrøna. "It’s made of a tightly woven 300 gram cotton fabric, which is not the most common material, but we’ve finally found a supplier who can offer organic cotton of this quality." In 2016, when the Svalbard series is re-launched, all Norrøna cotton products will consist entirely of 100 percent organic cotton.
Jørgensen explains that both the health and social issues played a crucial role in their decision to go organic. "We wish to have as little impact on the environment as we can, and through organic production of the cotton fibers we avoid contaminating both nature and people. The factories we use also work to follow certain guidelines to ensure the textiles meet environmental and health standards throughout the entire production process, including dyeing and finishing, social criteria and workers safety. Although it is somewhat more expensive to choose organic cotton, and it requires a little more work in terms of finding suppliers, it poses no particular price difference for the end customer," says Jørgensen. "The quality is the same as other cotton products, so we really hope that consumers will make a conscious choice and want to contribute to a sustainable industry."
The future of organic cotton production
Organic farming started due to the negative effects of industrialized production. Where conventional cotton production is focused on the plant itself and growing it as fast as possible, organic production focuses on soil fertility and soil structure, as this is what will eventually secure the harvest. "Organic farming will be less prone to floods and droughts precisely because the soil structure is able to filter and deal with these natural threats in a better way. This is a natural result of the soil being nourished instead of the plant. Studies have shown that organic farming actually requires gradually less water than conventional farming does," says Pollestad Sele.
For example, if one looks at cotton production in sub-Saharan regions, production has increased after the transition to organic agriculture. "It all depends on the soil structure," says Pollestad Sele. "The transition from conventional to organic production will require some time before it will function optimally. It depends on how contaminated the soil is, the amount of precipitation that occurs and the temperature. You must allow the natural structure of the soil to return before you can experience the benefits. Given the cost-increase for the purchase of organic cotton, it should be economically feasible for most to change production methods, despite the fact that you might go into a period of decline during the transition period,” says Pollestad Sele.
Worldwide, organic cotton production makes up a very small percentage, and this is where it’s important to influence the end consumer to make informed choices explains Pollestad. "By increasing demand for organic products, this will act as an incentive to change agriculture methods."
Is it sustainable to change all conventional cotton production methods to organic in terms of both demand and environmental consequences?
"In general, you should cut down on the amount of cotton being produced, like many other things. However, organic cotton production is a more sustainable way of thinking associated with production in the sense that there is a crop rotation and that it ensures the natural diversity of nature. There will be a smaller burden on the groundwater, while chemical pesticides and fertilizers will be reduced. This, together with the social aspects associated with organic production allows it to be sustainable, opposed to what it is today."
1% of the world’s cotton production is organic.
94% of Norrøna’s cotton products are organic.
How organic is your closet?