How does cotton fair environmentally and socially as a material?
The environmental impacts associated with the cultivation of cotton are well known and include:
The total area of land dedicated to cotton growing has not changed significantly since the 1930s (at around 33 million hectares); however in that time output has tripled. Intensive cotton production causes a range of environmental impacts; mainly in cotton producing nations.
Water consumption in cotton fibre production is another significant factor
and ranges from 29000 litres in Sudan to 7000 litres in Israel. As all
irrigation water contains some soluble salts it causes soil salinisation,
Cotton contains many impurities (seeds, dirt and plant residues) which have to be removed to convert it into useful textile fibres. About one third of the raw material is cotton fibre, the rest is seeds and impurities. Hand picked cotton contains considerably fewer impurities than cotton which is machine picked.
Naturally coloured cotton
The genetic modification (GM) of biological species via the use of bacteria, fungi or enzymes has implications for the textile sector. Two types of genetically modified cotton have been introduced in the last two years: Bt-cotton which contains a gene that enables the plant to produce its own pest-killing toxin, and herbicide resistant cotton developed to tolerate specific herbicide applications. The reported benefits of both of these varieties lie in the reduced levels of pesticide application required. However, like all GM technology there are concerns about pest resistance and that these genes will transfer to and become established in wild relatives of the cotton crop.
(Source: Kate Fletcher, 1999 www.demi.org.uk)