Is Cotton Eco Friendly & Sustainable For Clothing, Fabric & Textiles?

We’ve already put together guides about some of the most eco friendly fibres and fabrics, and the least eco friendly fibres and fabrics.

The aim of the guide below though is to get an idea of how sustainable and eco friendly conventional cotton might be.

We look at how cotton rates amongst different measures (such as how much water it uses, the carbon footprint, how much land it uses, pesticide and fertilizer use, and more)

With cotton in particular, this information might be important because cotton is one of the most widely used fibres in society (and is used widely in clothing, fabric and textile products).

 

Summary – How Sustainable & Eco Friendly Is Regular Cotton For Clothing, Fabric & Textiles?

Overall

– Potential Good Points

Cotton has such a wide range of uses, it can be produced at scale (and has already established supply and production chains), it’s cheap for consumers compared to other fibres (in part because the environmental impact isn’t paid upfront by companies or producers up and down the supply chain), and it can be blended with other fibres.

Cotton provides mass employment for farmers and cotton industry workers worldwide, and is a popular fibre for consumers because of characteristics and benefits of the final product.

In several countries, over the last 50 years or so, there has also been improvements in developed countries across key indicators such as increased yield per acre of land (with a side effect being more efficient land usage, as well as obviously increased production and the economic benefits that come with that), more efficient water usage, and overall resource and production efficiency in the cotton industry. 

Being one of the most heavily genetically engineered crops in the world, some sources say GM cotton seeds are responsible for some of these improvements, but other sources are more skeptical of the evidence behind these claims and point to some of GM seeds’ other potential drawbacks.

 

– Potential Bad Points

Although it’s one of the most popular and commonly used fibres in the world, regular cotton may lack some sustainability and eco friendliness across several major indicators, especially compared to organic cotton (although, organic cotton’s lower yield and lower production efficiency in some instances may make it less sustainable in other ways) 

Regular non organic cotton uses a lot of irrigated water (in some countries up to more than double the global average), a lot of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer (conventional cotton is identified by some sources as one of the most dirty crops in the world in terms of pesticide use, and also uses a lot of nitrogen fertilizer), a lot of processing chemicals, and dyes and bleaches (amongst other resources and inputs).

It might be more land inefficient compared to some other plants that produce fibres (like hemp)

It’s also possibly responsible for several forms of pollution in the environment, as well as potentially using chemicals that might be hazardous in some ways to humans and wildlife (although natural pesticides and chemicals aren’t completely harmless either according to some sources).

It’s also heavily subsidized in some countries. This might not only give it some pricing advantages over other types of fibres, but some might question the overall tradeoffs of providing these subsidies.

 

– Scope For Potential Future Improvement In The Cotton Industry

There may be scope for further improvements in the cotton industry in the future, as we have seen over the last 50 years or so already.

 

These improvements from an environmental and resource management perspective might include:

Growing more rain fed cotton (instead of heavily irrigated or non drip fed irrigation cotton), using more efficient irrigation technology that uses water more efficiently. For example, some reports indicate some parts of India are starting to move towards more efficient forms of irrigation like drop fed irrigation.

Growing in countries and climates that are good for both rainfall and yield

Decreasing water pollution at the production stage (pollution from waste water and dyes, bleaches, etc),

Decreasing synthetic pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use – at least of the ones that are persistently harmful compared to the benefits they offer

Exploring how genetically engineered cotton seeds can benefit sustainability (which can be engineered for a range of different benefits … although it’s worth noting that herbicide use has increased 15 fold according to some sources since the introduction of GM seeds)

Consider how the transport footprint of cotton can be reduced throughout the supply, production and retail chain

 

Socially and economically, they might include:

Improving working conditions and pay for cotton farm workers in developing countries

Improving economic predictability and stability of cotton farming for cotton farmers in developing countries – especially when participating in the global economy

Increase cotton farmer independence by not having to rely on companies with monopolies who supply cotton seeds, pesticides, fertilizers etc. may also help

Increasing awareness among consumers of how cotton is grown and produced, which may in turn create more informed buying decisions

Considering how third party organic cotton certification can benefit suppliers, sellers, and consumers

 

Going one step above the cotton industry specifically and looking at the fashion and textile industries as a whole … slower fashion and slower, higher quality consumerism may also help with sustainability

 

Overall, there’s more that can be done to make cotton farming and production more eco friendly, sustainable, and better for humans worldwide.

 

Specific Summaries Of The Different Sustainability Aspects Of Regular Cotton

Beyond the above general summary of cotton, these are some specific summaries of the different sustainability aspects of the cotton production process to consider …

 

– % Of Fibres & Textiles That Cotton Makes Up

Cotton makes up roughly 30% of all textile fibers and fibre production, and some estimates say cotton is used in up to half, or possibly 75% of all textiles.

 

– Production & Use

Cotton production equates to roughly 29 t-shirts for everyone on Earth, per year.

But in terms of consumption, Western countries might consume far more cotton than other countries

China, India and the US are the top three cotton producing countries according to some reports

 

– Yields

Yields of cotton have generally increased over time.

Compared to other fibre crops, hemp can sometimes have higher yields than cotton per acre, whilst bamboo might generally yield higher than cotton.

Several sources indicate conventional cotton is higher yielding than organic cotton, and that GM seeds might have played a role in conventional cotton’s increased yields over the last few decade as well.

 

– How The Cotton Plant Can Be Used

The cotton plant has a dual use – for lint (fibre), but also for the cottonseed

 

– Water Use

Some reports indicate that most of the world’s cotton comes from irrigated land, but some cotton can also be rainfed.

The amount of water used to grow cotton varies between different countries

India is reported as one of the countries that uses almost double the average water footprint for cotton

Growing in less arid regions (where evaporation can be a problem), more efficient irrigation and less water pollution/contamination (water can’t be used for other uses because of this) and pesticide use might help with India more sustainably managing water resources and use for cotton production

Places in the US and Brazil with high yields or higher rainfalls might have some of the best cotton growing conditions

In terms of the cotton production stage, dying and printing might use more water than bleaching

This guide outlines how much water it takes to produce different finished cotton products.

Compared to other fibres, some reports indicate that regular cotton might use more irrigated water than organic cotton, hemp and bamboo (according to some resources)

Some sources indicate that organic cotton is a net lower water user for finished products.

But, other sources indicate that conventional cotton products have a lower net water use.

So, there might be some conflicting reporting on water use of different cotton types.

Ultimately, water use might vary between individual farms and geographic regions, and across different supply and production chains.

Beyond direct water use in irrigation, rainfed water, and evaporated water, there should also be consideration for the water that is lost through water pollution due to pesticide use, and heavy chemicals in the production process.

 

– Carbon Footprint

Some sources indicate that cotton’s carbon footprint is not significant, and has decreased since 1980 in the US for example

Sources that support this line of discussion indicate that some forms of cotton cultivation in Australia are better than carbon neutral because of the cotton plant carbon storage that cancels out synthetic fertilizers and irrigation pumps

Other sources indicate that on a global level, conventional cotton is a significant emitter of total greenhouse gases because of how much of it is consumed compared to other fibres

At the cotton fibre production stage and in finished textiles, indirect emissions from electricity use might be significant

We’ve also outlined cotton’s potential carbon footprint compared to other fibres, and natural fibres compared to synthetic fibres in this guide

In that guide, there are varying reports on whether natural fibres like cotton or synthetic fibrs have a higher carbon footprint

 

– Energy Use

Some sources indicate that natural fibres and organic fibres have lower energy footprints than synthetic fibres and non organic fibres.

This might put cotton down as having a lower energy requirements compared to synthetic fibres when adding up both the growing, and fibre production (and yarn weaving) stages.

Some sources also indicate that cotton requires less energy to grow than hemp specifically.

 

– Pesticide Use

Almost all sources indicate that cotton is either the top pesticide using crop, or one of the top pesticide using crops in the world.

In some specific countries, some sources indicate that cotton as a crop can use up to 50% of all pesticide chemicals applied to crops.

Some sources indicate that insecticide use is trending down overall with the usage of GM seeds with engineered insecticide inside them, whilst other sources indicate that herbicide usage has increased with the use of GM seeds in general (for all GM seeds and not just GM cotton seeds)

 

– Fertilizer Use

One report on the nitrogen fertilizer share % by different crops in California indicates that cotton is the top nitrogen fertilizer using crops (as a relative % of total fertilizer applied)

More generally, fibre crops might make up a smaller % of total nitrogen, potash and phosphate fertilizer use compared to other types of crops like cereal for example.

 

– Cropland Use

Cotton is one of the major crops grown worldwide according to various measures, coming in 7th in terms of the crop that uses the highest % of cropland worldwide.

Some sources also indicate that a finished cotton textile takes more land to produce compared specifically to a finished hemp textile

 

– Chemical Use During Processing & Production/Manufacturing (Of Fibres & Textiles)

In general, production and processing of textiles can use both a large number of chemicals, and potentially hazardous chemicals.

Organic cotton tends to place more of an emphasis on the type of chemicals being used during fibre production (like weaving) and textile production than conventional cotton.

These chemicals, bleaches, dyes and other substances are used for activities such as bleaching, dyeing, printing, treating, finishing, and other activities.

 

– Biodegradability

Pure 100% cotton is usually biodegradable

Cotton used with a mix of synthetic fibres, or with certain chemicals, may have biodegradability issues though

 

– GMO Use

Cotton is one of the majority users of GMOs both worldwide, and in specific countries, when looking at all crops being grown.

One case study reports favorable results for the use of GM cotton seeds. But, there needs to be a comparison of these results against many more results in different regions, and on different farms around the world.

 

– Potential Transport Footprint

Like all fibres and textiles, there might be a significant transport footprint with some cotton products, as harvested cotton fibres, processed cotton fibres and textiles, and finally cotton products ready for sale at the retail level might travel a significant distance up the supply and production chain (but this can depend on the individual supply and production chains being analyzed) 

 

– Potential Impact On Humans & Human Health, Environment & Wildlife

Read more about the potential range of human and human health, environmental and wildlife impacts of cotton below.

 

– Potential Economic Impact 

Read more about the potential range of economic impacts of cotton below.

 

– Practical Benefits Of Cotton (In Textiles)

As a fibre, cotton has some practical benefits when used in textiles that other fibres don’t have.

Read more about these practical benefits and traits in the guide below.

 

– Organic Cotton Option

Organic cotton is available as an alternative to regular cotton

Read more about what organic cotton is, and certified organic cotton in this guide.

You can also read about the pros and cons of organic cotton in this guide

 

Regular Cotton Compared To Organic Cotton

We’ve also put together this guide which have further information on cotton and organic cotton:

Conventional Cotton vs Organic Cotton: Comparison

 

Cotton Compared To Other Fibres

Some further summary points on the sustainability of different fibres compared to cotton might include:

– Bamboo might use about a third of the water in the growing stage that cotton uses, and hemp might use about 50% less water than cotton

– Taking it a step further, when you add the processing stage in, cotton might use four times as much water as hemp

– Some countries might be far more unsustainable with water usage on cotton crops than others – India is currently one of these (using double the global average)

– Cotton might require less energy to grow and process than hemp (but, it’s questionable whether this is the case when taking into consideration the production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers)

– Although the cotton plant provides a carbon sink, there’s the release of nitrous oxide from synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to consider with cotton too

– Cotton is one the highest users amongst crops of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and pesticides and herbicides

– Cotton can be land inefficient compared to other crops like hemp, and might not be able to make use of lower quality land like trees used for lyocell might be able to (just as one example)

However, the production efficiency of cotton may be able to make up for some of that in some instances – yield has increased significantly in some countries over the last few decades.

But, some sources indicate that bamboo and trees have a better yield in terms of tonnage per hectare compared to cotton

– Cotton may not be as good for overall soil health as some types of bamboo are for example.

Unless conservation tillage is practiced by farmers, the soil is turned and broken up.

Compare this to bamboo which has strong root structures that bind the soil sub surface together, and can be cut without disturbing the soil.

There’s also the impact of agricultural chemicals from conventional cotton on soil bacteria and microorganisms to consider

– There’s the potential impact of agricultural chemicals like pesticides used in cotton production (especially in developing countries) on farm workers and factory workers to consider

There’s the use of GMO cotton seeds in countries like the US to consider (other crops used for fibres don’t yet use GM seeds to the extent cotton does)

 

Textile & Fibre Options Other Than Cotton For Sustainability

Some sources indicate that for better overall sustainability in clothing, fabric, fibres and textiles, other options to look at might include GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% natural linen, and companies that are very transparent with their supply and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), with TENCEL’s lyocell and modal fibres being one potential example of this.

But, beyond the production stage, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well.

Some bamboos and hemps could be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes, as well as using naturally derived production chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco friendly post-growing processes and chemicals.

 

Other Notes

The above summary and the information found in this guide is a generalisation only.

Not all cotton products are the same – different brands and supply chains will have different processes for delivering cotton materials and finished cotton products.

There’s many variables that go into a cotton product – where it’s grown, how it’s grown, how it’s processed and treated, and so on.

All these variables determine the footprint of the final cotton product.

Cotton growing/farming, and processing may differ by country, especially between the first world and developing world countries.

Different conditions, climates, soils, farming technology, farming methods and other factors can impact how well the cotton fibre grows, and different factories and processing plants for cotton have different procedures.

Developments and advancements with cotton farming, and use of GMO cotton seeds is allowing new capabilities with cotton production such as increased yields and better drought resistance (amongst other capabilities)

These factors and others can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness of any particular product.

There’s also the social impact, economics and practicality to consider.

Just because something is eco friendly and sustainable to produce – it doesn’t mean that it is good for employment, profitable or even practical to produce (for businesses and workers) or use (for consumers).

So, there can be a weighing up and tradeoff of product priorities, preferences (for buyers, sellers, and society) and conflicts of interest to consider (political and corporate agendas can sometimes play a part too for example). 

 

% Of All Fibres & Textiles Fibers That Cotton Makes Up

Cotton makes up roughly 30% of all textile fibers and fibre production, and some estimates say cotton is used in up to half of all textiles.

 

Cotton Fibre Production

Cotton accounts for about 31% of worldwide fibre production (cottonaustralia.com.au)

 

[cotton fiber] currently supplies 30% of the world’s textile fiber needs (cottontoday.cottoninc.com) 

 

Cotton Used In Textiles

Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton (worldwildlife.org)

 

Approximately 75% of our clothing incorporates cotton (thegreenhubonline.com)

 

Natural Fibres In General

Read more about the production share of cotton compared to other natural fibres in this guide.

 

Cotton Production & Consumption

Total production, highest producing countries, and highest consuming countries are outlined in this section.

We also provide some context on what one bale of cotton can produce in terms of finished cotton products.

 

How Much Cotton Is Produced & Consumed Per Year?

[the amount of cotton produced yearly is] The same as 29 t-shirts for everyone on Earth.

But, the consumption of cotton varies a lot [by country]

In some Western countries, we use an amount of cotton that would correspond to more than 100 t-shirts per person.

– theworldcounts.com

 

Countries That Produce The Most Cotton

In 2014/15, the top three cotton producing countries overall were:

China: 33.0 million bales

India: 27.0 million bales

United States: 18.0 million bales

[Pakistan is the next closest at 10.3 million bales.]

[In order, the next highest producing countries were Brazil, Uzbekistan, Australia, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Greece]

– cottonaustralia.com.au

 

Some Context On The Use For One Bale Of Cotton

A U.S. bale of cotton weighs around 500 pounds, and one bale alone can produce 215 pairs of jeans, 250 single bed sheets, 750 shirts, 1,200 t-shirts, 2,100 pairs of boxer shorts, 3,000 diapers, 4,300 pairs of socks, or 680,000 cotton balls

– gmoanswers.com

 

The Yield Of Cotton

The average yield of cotton, the yield trends of cotton over time, and comparison of cotton yield to other fibre yields are outlined in this section.

Yields are important to look at because they are one indicator of how efficient a crop might be.

 

Average Yield Of Cotton

[an average yield from one farmer might be] from 2 to 4 tons (4400 to 8800 lbs.) of cotton per hectare, or 0,8 to 1,6 tons (1760 to 3527 lbs.) per acre.

… 1 ton = 1000 kg = 2.200 lbs. and 1 hectare = 2,47 acres = 10.000 square meters.

The expected yield of ginned cotton is 0,66 to 1,33 tons (1455 to 2932 lbs.) per hectare or 589 to 1187 lbs. per acre.

[but there] can be significant deviations from these figures.

– wikifarmer.com

 

Increase In Yield Of Cotton Over Time

Average world cotton yields reached 780 kilograms of lint per hectare in 2013/14, up markedly from 230 kilograms of lint per hectare in the 1950s

Over the last 20 years [up to 2017], Australia’s cotton yield has increased 38%

– cottonaustralia.com.au

 

50% more cotton is produced worldwide today on the same amount of land as compared to 40 some years ago (cottontoday.cottoninc.com)

 

Per qz.com: In the past 35 years, cotton yields have risen 42%, largely due to biotechnology and better irrigation techniques.

 

Comparing Conventional Cotton To Organic Cotton

Per qz.com:

Conventional cotton varieties have a higher yield, meaning a single plant will produce more fiber than its organic counterpart.

That’s because conventional cotton has been genetically engineered for that purpose.

 

Per frankandoak.com: One study found that the average organic yield of cotton was 25% lower than conventional.

 

Per fashionhedge.com: More recently, a study … titled ‘Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture’ revealed that – The average organic-to-conventional yield ratio from our meta-analysis is 0.75 … that is, overall, organic yields are 25% lower than conventional.

 

Comparison Of Cotton Yield To Other Fibre Yields

[A comparison to hemp:]

Hemp for fibre will be harvested as a fibre only crop or a dual grain and fibre crop.

In a dual-purpose scenario, stalk yield estimates are 0.75 to 1.5 tonnes/acre.

In crops grown and managed solely for fibre, average yields of 2.5 to 3 tonnes/acre are expected with a range from 1 to 6 tonnes per acre.

– gov.mb.ca

 

[A comparison of cotton to bamboo:]

Bamboo grows very densely, its clumping nature enables a lot of it to be grown in a comparatively small area, easing pressure on land use.

With average yields for bamboo of up to 60 tonnes per hectare greatly exceeding the average yield of 20 tonnes for most trees and the average yield of 2 tonnes per hectare for cotton, bamboo’s high yield per hectare becomes very significant.

– wikipedia.org

 

How The Cotton Plant Is Used

It is used for both the lint (for fibre), and the cotton seeds for cottonseed oil.

 

Cotton production provides two crops with each seasonal harvest … and cottonseed [which can be used for cooking oil and as a protein-rich supplement as feed for livestock and for aquaculture]

– cottontoday.cottoninc.com  

 

How Much Water Does Cotton Use?

Cotton water use in this section is broken down into how much water cotton crop cultivation takes, how much water cotton production/manufacturing takes, and how much water a finished pound of cotton or a finished cotton textile takes to make.

There’s also a breakdown of the types of water cotton uses during cultivation.

In addition to these things, we’ve also looked at the countries that use the most water to grow cotton, how countries might decrease cotton water footprints, what favorable cotton growing climates might be, how much irrigated water cotton uses, and how much water cotton might use compared to other fibres.

 

How Much Water Cotton Takes To Produce Overall

A 2005 report shows…

For the period 1997-2001 … the worldwide consumption of cotton products requires 256 Gm3 of water per year worldwide, out of which about 42% is blue water (withdrawal from freshwater sources), 39% green water (rainfall/evaporated water) and 19% dilution water (polluted water)

– waterfootprint.org

 

The water footprint of one pound of cotton is 1,320 gallons

– watercalculator.org

 

Water Used Specifically During Cotton Production Process

It takes about 10,000 liters of water to process just one single kilo of conventional cotton

– swedishlinens.com

 

[the virtual water required for cotton production is] 30 m3 per ton for bleaching, 140 m3 per ton for dying and 190 m3 per ton for printing

It’s different for cotton lint, grey fabric, and regular fabric.

– waterfootprint.org

 

How Much Water Finished Cotton Products Take To Make

This guide outlines how much water it takes to produce different finished cotton products.

 

In this guide about organic cotton, we’ve included sources that indicate that organic cotton uses less water, and other sources that indicate that conventional cotton uses less water in a finished textile products. So, there may be some conflicting information on which type of cotton uses less water.

 

Countries That Use The Most Water To Produce Cotton, Or Use More Than The Global Average

In countries like India (on some parts of India), cotton can use more than double the global average of water that it takes to produce/grow cotton.

 

The global average water footprint for 1kg of cotton is 10,000 litres. Even with irrigation, US cotton uses just 8,000 litres per kg.

Producing 1kg of cotton in India consumes 22,500 litres of water, on average [and …] The far higher water footprint for India’s cotton is due to inefficient water use and high rates of water pollution

In 54% of the country 40 to 80% of annually available surface water is used.

To be sustainable, consumption should be no more than 20% in humid zones and 5% in dry areas, to maintain the ecological function of rivers and wetlands

India could grow cotton in less arid regions with more efficient irrigation and fewer pesticides to greatly reduce the crop’s impact on water resources.

– theguardian.com

 

The water use for cotton production differs considerably over the countries.

Climatic conditions for cotton production are least attractive in Syria, Egypt, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey because evaporative demand in all these countries is very high (… while effective rainfall is very low …)

– waterfootprint.org

 

Cotton is a controversial crop in countries like India that are water scarce

The water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would be enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year.

Meanwhile, more than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water.

Water from cotton growing and production is either evaporated or too contaminated to use for anything else

– theguardian.com

 

Favorable Cotton Growing Climates

Climatic conditions for cotton production are most attractive in the USA and Brazil.

The best cotton harvesting countries combine high rainfalls and high yields

– waterfootprint.org

 

Cotton Using Irrigation vs Rainfed Cotton

73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land (fashionhedge.com)

 

Per qz.com: … about half of cotton crops globally—organic and conventional—get their water from rainfall.

 

Cotton Water Use Compared To Other Fibres

[organic cotton can] use far less water to grow since organic cotton growers typically utilize rain far more than irrigation.

– swedishlinens.com

 

[an alternate fibre from bamboo] requires 1/3 the amount of water to grow that cotton uses

– nutricare.co

 

[comparing cotton and hemp as a fibre…] the cotton plant needs about 50 percent more water per season than hemp, which can grow with little irrigation.

When you add processing into the equation, cotton uses more than four times as much water as hemp.

– slate.com

 

Improving Water Use In Cotton Farming

India could grow cotton in less arid regions with more efficient irrigation and fewer pesticides to greatly reduce the crop’s impact on water resources.

– theguardian.com

 

Total Water Use For All Types Of Cotton May Be High

Some sources indicate that all types of cotton use a lot of total water.

 

Per frankandoak.com:

[Given that] One kilogram from cotton fibre (the amount you need to make a pair of jeans) needs between 7,000 and 29,000 litres of water…. [Comparing conventional and organic cotton water use may be a red herring because both of them require …] an enormous amount of water.

[So, we might place more of a focus on the net water footprint of both types of cotton instead, along with how much irrigated water they use from less sustainable water sources]

 

Water Use For Cotton May Be Farm & Geography Dependent

Per sourcingjournal.com: Each [cotton] farm and geographic region of the world will have different water usage and impacts

 

Carbon Footprint Of Cotton

In the section below, we’ve outlined cotton’s potential carbon footprint, where greenhouse gases might mainly come from in the cotton growing and production processes, greenhouse gas trends for cotton over time, and how cotton might rate compared to other fibres in terms of carbon footprints.

 

Cotton Specifically

Cotton production has a small greenhouse gas footprint (approximately 300 pounds of carbon equivalent emissions per acre, excluding potential nitrous oxide emissions).

U.S. cotton has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 30% since 1980.

– cottonleads.org

 

In Australia, Cotton growing has a better-than-neutral carbon footprint.

Net on-farm emissions of greenhouse gases on cotton farms are negative because the cotton plants store more carbon than is released from production inputs used during growth

The main sources of emissions on an irrigated cotton farm are synthetic fertilisers and electricity and fossil fuels used to power irrigation pumps

– cottonaustralia.com.au

 

A case study of Chinese cotton shirts found:

Estimated average CFP (carbon footprint) for the life cycle of a pure cotton shirt was 8.771 kgCO2e (kg of C02 equivalent).

The industrial production stage accounts for the highest proportion of CFP.

Overall agricultural and industrial production represents more than 90% of CFP.

Approximately 96% of CFP is indirect, embedded in energy and materials.

Energy consumption, especially electricity, is the main CFP of textile products.

– sciencedirect.com

 

Global consumption of non-organic cotton releases huge amounts of greenhouse gas … about 220 million tonnes a year.

1 tonne of conventional cotton fiber produces 1.8 tonnes of CO2e.  

– swedishlinens.com

 

Cotton Compared To Other Fibres

We’ve outlined cotton’s potential carbon footprint compared to other fibres, and natural fibres compared to synthetic fibres in this guide

 

Energy Footprint Of Cotton

In this section we look at how cotton compares to synthetic and organic fibres after the growing and fibre production stages.

We also look at how cotton compares to hemp specifically.

 

Compared To Other Fibres In General

[estimating embodied energy in any fabric involves these stages -] 1) fibre production (growing cotton) [and] 2) energy used to weave those yarns into fabric

… natural fibres like cotton have a lower energy requirement and carbon footprint than synthetic fibres when taking into consideration both crop cultivation and fiber production

In terms of energy use in MJ per KG of fiber (embodied energy in the production of fibers), flax fibre comes in at 10 MJ per kg, cotton 55, wool 63, viscose 100, polypropylene 115, polyester 125, acrylic 175, and nylon 250

Organic fibers have the lowest footprint, followed by natural, with synthetic having the highest energy and carbon footprint

– oecotextiles.wordpress.com

Read more in this oecotextiles.wordpress.com resource

 

Compared To Hemp

[compared to hemp] cotton requires less energy to grow and process

– slate.com

 

How Much Synthetic Pesticide Does Cotton Use To Grow?

Below we look at how much pesticide cotton uses as a % compared to other crops both worldwide, and in specific countries.

 

Cotton Generally As A Crop

More chemical pesticides are used for cotton than any other crop (theworldcounts.com)

 

What % Of Pesticides Cotton Uses

A 2008 report shows that in US agriculture, out of 21 selected crops, cotton used the 4th most conventional pesticide amount, as a percent of total pounds of active ingredient.

The top 4 were Corn – 39.5%, Soybeans – 21.7%, Potatoes – 10.2%, Cotton – 7.3%

Read more about the full report and findings in this guide.

 

Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop …

Each year cotton producers around the world use nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides — more than 10 per cent of the world’s pesticides and nearly 25 per cent of the world’s insecticides.

– ethical.org.au

 

Cotton consumes 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide

– organiccotton.org

 

In India, about 50% of all pesticides used in the country are used in cotton production (theguardian.com)

 

Conventional cotton has “earned” the title of being the dirtiest crop on earth.

It consumes 16% of the world’s insecticides and requires $2 Billion in pesticides each year.

– swedishlinens.com

 

Per frankandoak.com: White cotton covers just 2.5% of the planet’s total agricultural area, it uses 7% of all pesticides and 16% of all insecticides with entire chemical companies making neurotoxic formulas just to support cotton.

 

Insecticide Use Over Time

… the use of sprayed insecticides is quickly decreasing [with regular cotton] with the advent of genetically engineered cotton seeds that have insecticides bred right into them.

– business-ethics.com

 

How Much Synthetic Fertilizer Does Cotton Use To Grow?

Below we outline what crops might use the highest % of just nitrogen fertilizer, but also nitrogen, potash and phosphate fertilizer combined.

We look at cotton crops specifically, but also fibre crops generally.

 

Fertilizer Use By Cotton Crops

[One report looking at different crop in California multiplied …] the average-nitrogen-use estimates for each crop by the average harvested acreage for 2002 to 2007 …

[… it indicated that] cotton received the largest fraction of the total nitrogen applied, 16%, while almond received 15%, rice and wheat each received 10%, processing tomatoes received 7% and lettuce received 6%.

[Altogether these six crops account for 64% of the total nitrogen use]

Read more about this report and the associated data in this guide.

 

Cotton takes up about 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre for each 480-pound bale produced (ipni.net)

 

Conventionally grown cotton also uses large amounts of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizer—almost a third of a pound, says the OTA, to grow one pound of raw cotton (business-ethics.com)

 

Fertilizer Use By Fibre Crops In General

Worldwide, fertilizer use (nitrogen, potash and phosphate) on [fibre crops], both as a % of total and an application rate in kg per hectare, was [4.4%]

Read more about worldwide fertilizer use on different types of crops in this guide

 

How Much Cropland Does Cotton Use?

In this section we look at the % of total cropland that cotton takes up worldwide, and also how much land cotton takes to produce compared specifically to a finished hemp textile.

 

How Much Cropland Cotton Uses As A % Of Total Worldwide Cropland

agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com has a table that shows the 18 major crop categories, their total square area (in km2) of land they take up worldwide, and what that square area is as a relative fraction amongst all 18 major crops

Of those crops, cotton comes in as the 7th highest user of cropland, using roughly 3% of all cropland as a relative fraction.

We’ve listed the other crops in this guide, and you can also find the full agupubs resource link in that guide too.

 

Cotton occupies less than 3% of the world’s agricultural land (cottontoday.cottoninc.com)  

 

Cotton Land Use Compared To Hemp

[cotton] needs approximately twice as much territory as hemp per ton of finished textile (slate.com)

 

Conventional Cotton On Soil Health & Soil Degradation

It depends on the farming practices used.

But, if intensive practices are used, and there isn’t an emphasis on soil health or topsoil preservation, soil health can suffer and topsoil loss can happen.

 

Per frankandoak.com:  Conventional cotton might involve … soil loss due to single cultivation …

 

Use Of Chemicals During The Cotton Processing Stage

Generally, organic cotton might put an emphasis on the management of the types of chemicals used during fibre and textile production/manufacturing.

But, below is some information on general textile processing.

 

Chemicals Used In The General Production & Processing Of Textiles

Prints on clothing are typically made from PVC, phthalates and other harmful chemicals.

Up to 8,000 chemicals can be used in the production and processing of textiles – for dyeing, treating, printing and finishing

– theworldcounts.com

 

Biodegradability Of Cotton

Cotton is a natural fibre, which means it is biodegradable when used on it’s own (without mixing it with other fibres)

When used with other synthetic fibres, or usd with synthetic chemicals, there is questions over it’s biodegradability.

 

Use Of GMOs In Cotton Growing

Cotton is one on the main users of GM seeds/GM technology across all crops.

Below we outline the % use of GM cotton crops, and also outline some results from one Gm cotton seed case study.

 

United States

In the United States, over 90% of cotton crops are genetically modified.

 

Australia

In Australia, 99% of cotton planted is GM.

 

Worldwide

Over 80% of cotton crops worldwide are genetically modified.

 

Per triplepundit.com:

Regular cotton is one of the crops most intensively reliant on big GMO seed companies like Monsanto.

With 83 percent of cotton coming from GMO seeds, it one one of the top four GMO crops produced in the world alongside soy (89 percent), canola (75 percent) and corn (61 percent)

 

A third of global cotton cropland and 45 percent of world cotton production now uses genetically engineered seeds (business-ethics.com)

 

One Case Study Of GM Cotton Seed Use

This is only the results from one study, so it would need to be compared against many more different studies to get a more reliable average outcome.

But, the results were mostly positive in favor of GM cotton seeds.

 

But, from kissedafarmer.blogspot.com:

In the Chihuahuan Desert in North America, GMO cotton has provided the following benefits on one particular farm:

A decrease in insecticide applications from 13, to zero

An increase in beneficial insects

A decrease in secondary pests

A decrease in the amount of herbicide sprayed

A cleaner cotton product (since it uses less pesticides overall)

Cleaner water (since there’s less pesticide)

Cleaner air (since there’s less pesticide)

Better soil health (since there’s less tillage – because less weeds have to be cleared)

A decrease in labor (since there’s less spraying and tillage that has to happen)

 

Potential Transport Footprint Of Regular Cotton

The further that cotton is transported between farms, fibre production facilities, textile production facilities, and finally to retailers – the higher the transport fofootprint of cotton.

Some sources suggest cotton in some instances may have a sizeable transport footprint on this basis.

 

… conventional cotton also can be—and often is—sold far from where it was grown (qz.com)

 

Potential Impact Of Cotton On Humans & Human Health, The Environment, & Wildlife

We’ve previously mentioned how agriculture in general (including cotton agriculture) might negatively impact humans, impact the environment and wildlife, and impact other areas of society.

We’ve previously discussed how agriculture in general might positively impact different areas of society, and this includes cotton agriculture.

 

But, for the cotton industry specifically …

The potential factors in the cotton growing and also production/manufacturing process that might impact humans and human health, the environment, and wildlife, might include:

– The use of pesticides at the growing stage

– The use of synthetic fertilizers at the growing stage

– The use of GM seeds at the growing stage

– The use and management of resources at the growing stage

– The use of chemicals at the processing and manufacturing stage (chemicals, bleaches, dyes and other synthetic toxic substances)

– Working conditions and economic conditions for farmers and workers in developing countries

– At the consumer stage, textile care and textile disposal can have an environmental impact. One example is waste pollution when cotton mixed textiles are thrown away

 

Humans & Human Health

– Cotton farming in developing countries may involve poor working conditions, such as very long hours and very low pay. It may be harder for both farmers and farm workers in developing countries, compared to more developed countries

– Exposure of pesticides to workers on farms in developing countries where workplace health and safety may not meet a certain standard

– Exposure of processing chemicals to workers during the processing and manufacturing stage in places where workplace health and safety may not meet a certain standard 

– In some countries where cotton uses a lot of irrigation and water, humans may miss out on this water for drinking and essential activities. It can also contribute to overall water scarcity issues for society

– A reliance on non renewable GM seeds which may put farmers in position with less leverage and control over their business

 

[People exposed to certain chemicals during the cotton growing or production stages may experience a range of health conditions]

[Exposure to chemicals may be more prevalent in] developing countries, such as India and Uzbekistan.

[Working conditions for cotton farmers and cotton farm workers in developing countries may be poor as well – both in terms of the labor conditions and employers’ demands for employees, and the economics of cotton farming farm owners in these countries and having to compete with more developed countries and participate in the world economy]

… suicide rates among cotton farmers have been high in the last 20 years … [and] In the year of 2013 alone 11,772 farmers committed suicide in India, that’s 44 farmers a day ..

… Pesticides and insecticides used in cotton production [also] contaminate the soil we use to grow crops, the air we breathe and the water we drink.

– swedishlinens.com

 

Per swedishlinens.com:

1 billion people don’t have access to freshwater and 2.4 billion people suffer from inadequate sanitation.

Millions of people, mostly young children, die each year due to water-borne illnesses caused by inadequate sanitation and lack of water.

[Given the above amount of water cotton takes to grow, and cotton products take to produce, this is something that needs to be addressed] 

 

Cotton growers typically use many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market …

[ethical.org.au goes on to list some of these pesticides]

– ethical.org.au

 

Per organiccottonplus.com:

Chemicals used to grow conventional cotton have tremendous impact on the earth’s air, water, soil, and the health of people in cotton-growing areas.

They are among the most toxic chemicals as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency

The problem is even worse in developing countries with uninformed consumers, and lack of stable institutions and property rights.

In addition to destroying the land, thousands of farmers die from exposure to these chemicals every year.

 

The cotton industry has been linked to forced labor and farmers suicides, but this does not depend on the crop being grown organically or not; the unsustainable volumes are driven by global apparel demand and the culture of fast fashion, among other factors.

Slow fashion and slower, higher quality consumerism could be part of the solution to this

– fashionhedge.com

 

Per qz.com:

… particular chemicals used in conventional farming have raised serious concerns, such as glyphosate, a widely used herbicide that’s the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller brand, which the World Health Organization has deemed a “probable carcinogen” based on studies of workers who used the product.

[But, there’s no evidence to suggest that wearing clothing made from cotton grown with the chemical is harmful].

 

Per thegreenhubonline.com:

… With [GM] seeds in particular, some developing country farmers may go into debt buying non renewable seeds from cotton seed suppliers.

If they don’t make a profit in that season, they can go into debt and never pay that debt off …

.. There’s one major company that has a monopoly on GMO cotton seeds [and] This company continuously increase seed prices, throwing farmers into more and more debt, and destroying their financial freedom and independence.

Their seeds are also non renewable – which means farmers much buy more and more of them

… There’s thousands of farmer suicides in India yearly – and debt may be a reason why

 

The Environment (Land, Air & Water)

– Chemicals at both the farming and processing stages can get into the soil, water and air either when they are used, or when they are discharged or dumped as waste into water sources

Pesticides and fertilizers can even run off into the soil, into groundwater tables, and into the ocean and freshwater streams and rivers.

– Heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers have the potential to deplete soil and it’s fertility characteristics and traits (like water and nutrient retention and capacity) over the long term when cotton is grown

– The use of nitrogen fertilizer can lead to greenhouse gas emissions (like nitrous oxide)

– Monocultures lead to less crop diversity and overall diversity. 

– GM seeds potentially leading to various problems

 

… the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in monoculture causes soil degradation, reducing its nutrient and water retention capacity.

– organiccotton.org

 

Per frankandoak.com:

Conventional cotton production has resulted in reduced soil fertility, loss of biodiversity, and life-threatening health problems to those who have been exposed repeatedly to toxic chemicals used in pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides.

 

Pesticides used on cotton — even when used according to instructions — harm people, wildlife and the environment.

These pesticides can poison farm workers, drift into neighboring communities, contaminate ground and surface water and kill beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms

– ethical.org.au

 

Up to 2000 chemicals are used in textile processing, many of them known to be harmful to human (and animal) health.

The application of these chemicals uses copious amounts of water.

In fact, the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet.

Wastewaters are discharged (largely untreated) into our groundwater with a high pH and temperature as well as chemical load.

– oecotextiles.wordpress.com

 

Cotton production has depleted and degraded the soil in many areas (worldwildlife.org)

 

In Australia … nitrous oxide emissions have increased 130 percent since 1990 due to fertilizer usage …

When these fertilizers are applied haphazardly, large amounts of nitrous oxide—which has a GWP (global warming potential) of 310—can be lost to the atmosphere

Supporters of cotton though say that cotton lint provides a cotton sink for some of this nitrogen and nitrous oxide emission

– slate.com

 

Cotton is also grown as a monoculture, when in the past it relied on surrounding crops to protect against pests, disease, drought, and crop failure.

The change of growth style reduces the success of crops.

[Some suggest this is due to GM companies like Monsanto that promote these monocultures] 

– thegreenhubonline.com

 

[genetically engineered seeds pose …] a whole other set of issues, as some scientists fear that the proliferation of such “Frankenseeds” can lead to pest immunities and even the unleashing of so-called “super pests” that can resist virtually any pesticide.

– business-ethics.com

 

… Researchers have found that the fertilizers used on cotton are the most detrimental to the environment, running off into freshwater habitats and groundwater and causing oxygen-free dead zones in water bodies.

The nitrogen oxides formed during the production and use of these fertilizers are also a major part of the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.

– business-ethics.com

 

Per sourcingjournal.com (about water pollution):

… The real issue about water [in regards to cotton] is pollution.

Toxic chemicals used in conventional cotton production are poisoning the very water it claims to save

 

Per qz.com: The main environmental concern with water use relates to irrigation, especially in countries such as India, struggling with water scarcity.

 

Wildlife

Pesticides, fertilizers, production chemicals, bleaches and dyes can all b exposed to wild life directly when discharged into the environment, or when leached or polluted as waste.

Some cotton fields can also take the place of animal habitats in some areas.

 

Most cotton is grown on well-established fields, but their exhaustion leads to expansion into new areas and the attendant destruction of habitat.

– worldwildlife.org

 

Per swedishlinens.com: The deaths of animals exposed to [Pesticides and insecticides used in cotton production] is counted in the millions every year.

 

Potential Economic Impact Of Cotton

Below we’ve identified that some potential economic impacts of the cotton industry might be:

– Cotton has a significant value to the economy, both for the cotton industry directly, and for related and dependent industries

– Cotton is responsible for significant employment worldwide, especially in developing countries.

– There may be some questions around the amount of subsidies cotton receives in some countries, and whether government dollars could be spent better elsewhere

– Cotton farmers in some countries may face economic challenges/difficulties, and farm workers in these countries may experience low wages and poor working conditions

– There’s still work that may need to be done in the future to keep the cotton industry up to certain standards and economically healthy in some countries

 

Economic Value Of The Cotton Industry

In 2012, the global value in billions of US dollars of cotton fibre crops was $37 billion US dollars

This value sits within the top 20 of all crops and livestock products, with rice, cattle meat and pig meat topping the list

– wikipedia.org

 

The world cotton market [as a whole] was estimated at USD $77 billion for 2014/15

– cottonaustralia.com.au

 

Employment From Cotton Industry

Cotton provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labor in developing countries.

– worldwildlife.org

 

300 million farmers in 80 countries rely on the cotton industry for their livelihood.

– thegreenhubonline.com

 

Per swedishlinens.com:

About 100 million households are engaged in growing and producing cotton and 300 million people work in the cotton sector as a whole

 

Other Industries Impacted Economically By Cotton

Over 2 billion US dollars has been spent on pesticides for cotton worldwide this year

– theworldcounts.com

 

[cotton] requires $2 Billion in pesticides each year.

– swedishlinens.com

 

Each year cotton producers around the world use nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides — more than 10 per cent of the world’s pesticides and nearly 25 per cent of the world’s insecticides.

– ethical.org.au

 

Subsidies For Cotton Industry

Some governments, like in India, subsidise cotton despite how much water it uses (more than double the US’ water footprint for cotton (theguardian.com)

 

Cotton Farming & Work In Developing Countries

The majority of cotton farmers and workers live in developing countries, work extremely long hours … [and are] earning very little in wages.

In fact, many of them have unsustainable debts because they are unable to keep up with employer demands.

… decreasing prices of cotton and tough competition from farmers in rich countries don’t make it any easier. 

– swedishlinens.com

 

Impact On Farmers’ Profits & Business

… the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in monoculture causes soil degradation, reducing its nutrient and water retention capacity.

As a consequence, farmers face declining yields and have to increase production inputs.

This can impact a farmer’s bottom line, along with climatic conditions and volatile world markets for cotton prices

– organiccotton.org

 

Cotton Industry In The US

Maintaining market share (especially in Asia), enhanced consumer awareness and continued investments in research and development (of new innovations and products) are needed to keep the U.S. cotton industry advancing (cottongrower.com)

 

Natural Fibres In General

One source indicates that fibres coming from crops and other plant based fibres provide a number of potential economic and practical benefits.

Plant and crop based fibres may be the only type of fibre that can be produced in some regions of the world, and might offer other benefits too, such as being able to be grown alongside or in rotation with another plant, crop, or other agricultural product.

 

Practical Benefits Of Cotton Fibre For Textiles

Cotton fibre might possess several physical traits that other fibres don’t have. 

Some of these traits include but aren’t limited to being absorbent, having good color retention, printing well, and being soft.

For this reason, some products might us 100% cotton, whilst others might use a cotton mix.

 

In this guide, we outline the traits and practical benefits of some different common fibres such as cotton.

There’s also an FAO.org resource referenced in that guide, along with other resources, that point out some of the potential practical benefits of cotton as a fibre.

 

The Option Of Organic Cotton

Cotton has an organic option that doesn’t use GMO seeds, doesn’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and uses organic agricultural practices.

Certified organic cotton allows consumers to check what it they are buying before they buy it.

Read more about what organic cotton is, and certified organic cotton in this guide.

 

Other resources on organic cotton are:

Pros and Cons of Organic Cotton

Potential Eco Friendliness & Sustainability Of Organic Cotton As A Fibre Or Textile

 

Sources

1. https://www.swedishlinens.com/blogs/news/organic-vs-conventional-cotton 

2. https://www.nutricare.co/media/2016/11/29/bamboo-vs-cotton 

3. https://slate.com/technology/2011/04/hemp-versus-cotton-which-is-better-for-the-environment.html 

4. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/the-impacts-of-growing-producing-using-cotton/ 

5. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/pros-cons-advantages-disadvantages-of-organic-cotton/  

6. https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/cotton 

7. https://wikifarmer.com/cotton-harvest-yields/ 

8. https://cottonaustralia.com.au/cotton-library/statistics 

9. https://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/production/print,hemp-production.html 

10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamboo_textile#Yield_and_land_use  

11. https://slate.com/technology/2008/01/if-i-want-to-help-the-environment-should-i-buy-wool-or-cotton.html

12. https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2003GB002108

13. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/43854/46734_eib124.pdf

14. Rosenstock T, Liptzin D, Six J, Tomich T. 2013. Nitrogen fertilizer use in California: Assessing the data, trends and a way forward. Calif Agr 67(1):68-79. – http://calag.ucanr.edu/Archive/?article=ca.E.v067n01p68

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16. https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report18_1.pdf

17. https://www.watercalculator.org/water-use/the-hidden-water-in-everyday-products/

18. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/27/cottons-water-footprint-world-wildlife-fund_n_2506076.html

19. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/20/cost-cotton-water-challenged-india-world-water-day

20. http://www.theworldcounts.com/counters/cotton_environmental_impacts/world_cotton_production_statistics

21. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_valuable_crops_and_livestock_products

22. https://cottonaustralia.com.au/cotton-library/fact-sheets/cotton-fact-file-the-world-cotton-market

23. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_footprint

24. https://cottonleads.org/sustainable-production/carbon-footprint-united-states/

25. https://cottonaustralia.com.au/cotton-library/fact-sheets/cotton-fact-file-climate-change

26. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652615007064

27. https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/estimating-the-carbon-footprint-of-a-fabric/

28. https://cottontoday.cottoninc.com/agriculture-4/land/

29. https://organiccotton.org/oc/Cotton-general/Impact-of-cotton/Risk-of-cotton-farming.php

30. http://www.theworldcounts.com/counters/cotton_environmental_impacts/cotton_pesticides_statistics

31. https://www.ethical.org.au/3.4.2/get-informed/issues/cotton-pesticides/

32. https://gmoanswers.com/gmo-myths-vs-facts

33. https://gmoanswers.com/other-uses-gmos

34. https://gmoanswers.com/current-gmo-crops

35. http://business-ethics.com/2010/08/07/1438-the-bad-side-of-cotton/

36. https://www.triplepundit.com/special/cotton-sustainability-c-and-a-foundation/the-challenges-to-expanding-organic-cotton/

37. https://thegreenhubonline.com/2018/05/08/why-should-we-choose-organic-cotton/

38. https://fashionhedge.com/2015/03/12/the-truth-about-organic-cotton/

39. https://www.cottongrower.com/opinion/several-factors-vital-to-u-s-cotton-industry-growth/

40. https://qz.com/990178/your-organic-cotton-t-shirt-might-be-worse-for-the-environment-than-regular-cotton/

41. https://sourcingjournal.com/topics/raw-materials/report-truth-organic-cotton-impacts-68512/

42. https://organiccottonplus.com/pages/learning-center#questions-and-answers

43. http://kissedafarmer.blogspot.com/2012/11/a-buggy-full-of-gmo-cotton.html

44. https://www.frankandoak.com/handbook/style/organic-cotton-pros-cons

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