Growing cotton is very resource intensive, as it requires large amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizers. Growing just 1 kg of cotton requires just over 9000 liters of water (in Swedish), however, in the worst cases, up to 20,000 liters of water may be required. Although the cotton plant is water demanding, it is often grown in dry areas and must therefore be irrigated, which can lead to water resources being overused and water shortages. One of the most telling examples is the Aral Sea, which was once the world’s fourth largest lake, but which today only has about 10 percent of the original amount of water left due to intensive cotton cultivation in the area.
Chemical intensive agriculture
Cotton cultivation is one of the world’s most chemical intensive types of farming and about 25% of all insecticide goes to cotton cultivation. The cotton plant is easily attacked by pests that can destroy the entire crop and therefore large amounts of insecticides are used. These agents also kill beneficial insects that are the pests’ natural enemies, leading to further increasing the need for chemicals. The use of artificial fertilizers also increases the need for pesticides as insects and fungi thrive in fertilized crops. The chemicals are toxic to humans and pollute the surrounding environment and waterways. The chemicals used to grow cotton for a pair of jeans pollute 100,000 liters of water. It is so much that half of all species living in the water die.
Where is cotton grown?
Cotton is grown partly on large machine-driven farms in countries such as the USA, Australia and Brazil, and partly by millions of small farmers in countries such as India, China and Pakistan. Large producers, led by the USA, subsidize cotton cultivation with tax money and can therefore produce large quantities of cheap cotton which lowers the world market price. A low world market price hits smaller farmers hard, who may find it difficult to support themselves. A growing proportion of cotton is genetically modified (GMO) to tolerate herbicides, which is said to reduce the use of chemicals. However, this is not always the case and there is a risk that the plant spreads the gene that is resistant to herbicides to other wild plants that also become resistant. Most GMO cotton is grown in the United States, but it is also common in South Africa, China and India.
Cotton and the clothing industry
In Bangladesh, seamstresses earn the equivalent of SEK 4.50 an hour while working between 11-12 hours a day. As little as half a percent (in Swedish) of what you pay for a garment can go to the seamstress who sewed the garment for you. Fast Fashion is about mass production of clothes that wont be used. In the process, the trade chain uses cheap labor from poor countries, which consists of 70-80 percent women. This is because production must be fast and cheap.
Page updated 2021.