In its study, ‘Thirsty for fashion? How organic cotton delivers in a water-stressed world’, the Soil Association reports how conventionally grown cotton relies on synthetic inputs to grow crops and tackle pests and diseases, such as manufactured nitrogen fertiliser and synthetic pesticides, whereas organic cotton farming takes “a more systems-based approach, relying on natural inputs and processes to manage fertility and reduce pest damage”.
It reports that 80% of land producing organic cotton is located in areas that are predominantly rain-fed, and so require “considerably less” water. Organic farmers are also said to use a wide range of techniques to conserve water, including rainwater harvesting, good soil management and selecting seed varieties that are drought resistant.
According to the report, production of textiles uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water a year, accounting for 4% of global freshwater withdrawal. The Soil Association says cotton production makes up 69% of this overall water footprint, with the production of one kilogram of cotton using as much as 10,000-20,000 litres of water, depending on where it’s grown.
In cotton farming, water is not only needed to grow crops, but also to dilute the large amounts of pesticides and fertilisers that are washed into waterways, says The Soil Association. “Cotton production is reported to use only 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, yet it accounts for 16% of all insecticides sold globally. It also accounts for 4% of the artificial nitrogen and phosphorus fertiliser used globally.” The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that cotton production also requires 200,000 tonnes of pesticides and eight million tonnes of synthetic fertilisers every year.
The Soil Association also reported that the dyeing and finishing of textiles, including cotton, requires as much as 200 tonnes of water for every tonne of textiles produced, and creates around 20% of all global water pollution.
The Soil Association acknowledges that a growing number of brands and retailers in the textile and apparel industry have joined the 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge. Those involved are committed to sourcing, by 2025, 100% of their cotton from farmers involved in organic and/or regenerative farming, or certified by initiatives such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, Better Cotton Initiative and Fairtrade. “Already 19% of the world’s cotton is being grown more sustainably,” says SA, “and whilst much of this is still conventionally grown, some of the worst practices of conventional production, such as the use of the most dangerous pesticides, are being addressed.”