We’ve put together this guide that outlines the potential impact of growing, producing and using conventional/regular cotton – outlining factors like how much water it uses, the carbon footprint, how much land it uses, pesticide use and so on.
Summary – Impact Of Growing, Producing & Using Conventional/Regular Cotton
Cotton is used widely as a fibre – it accounts for about 31% of worldwide fibre production
To put cotton production into context – enough cotton is produced per year right now to make 29 t shirts for every person on Earth
But, of that total production Western countries specifically consume an amount of cotton that would correspond to more than 100 t-shirts per person.
So, some countries consume far more than others
Most cotton that is produced comes from land that is irrigated i.e. uses irrigated water (as opposed to rain fed cotton)
Cotton’s total virtual water footprint consists of irrigated water, rain fall and polluted water (from the growing and processing stages)
Different countries use different amounts of water for each stage of the cotton making process – crop production, bleaching, dying and printing
Dry and hot climates might use more water because of factors like evaporation, and so on
The USA and Brazil are some of the best places to grow cotton because of good rainfall and higher yields
India uses 22,500 liters of water on average to produce 1kg of cotton – far higher than the 10,000 litres for 1kg of cotton world average
India’s high water use is said to be because of inefficient water use and high rates of water pollution
To reduce water use, India could consider growing cotton in less arid regions with more efficient irrigation and fewer pesticides
Organic cotton usually produces less carbon emissions than conventional cotton
When taking into consideration both crop cultivation and fiber production, cotton and other natural fibres are said to have lower energy requirement than synthetic fibres (like plastic based fibres)
According to some reports, per ton of spun fiber, polyester has the highest CO2 emissions, followed by conventional cotton, and then organic cotton has the least
Nylon has one of the highest energy use in MJ per kg measurements
Organic fibers tend to have the lowest carbon footprint and energy use, followed by natural and then synthetic
However, other reports indicate that at the point of purchase by a consumer, regular cotton has the highest carbon footprint, followed by PET, wool and nylon
Cotton growing itself can be carbon neutral because of carbon stored by cotton plants, but, synthetic fertilizers can release nitrous oxide, and there are emissions in the electricity used for irrigation pumps
The industrial stage (fibre processing) accounts for the highest carbon footprint in producing cotton
Different countries can have different sized carbon footprints for cotton production
Cotton takes up about 3% of total worldwide agricultural land (and is one of the 18 major crops – wheat, maize, rice and barley use up the most total crop land worldwide)
Cotton yields have grown about 50% in the last 40 years – which increases their efficiency.
50% more cotton is produced worldwide today on the same amount of land as compared to 40 some years ago
Some reports say that conventionally grown cotton uses more pesticide than any other individual crop
Other reports say that cotton sits behind corn, soybeans and potatoes for total pounds of pesticide use
Regardless, cotton currently uses huge amounts of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, and it costs billions of dollars annually to supply these chemicals for cotton production
India in particular uses 50% of all it’s pesticides on cotton production alone
Some reports indicate that cotton uses some of the most hazardous pesticides, such as aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan … and broad spectrum organophosphates
There’s chemicals used in the bleaching, dying and printing of cotton textiles and clothes.
There are potential human health, and environmental pollution issues linked to this
Cotton is one of 10 genetically modified crops currently available in the world
With 83 percent of cotton coming from GMO seeds, it is one of the top four GMO crops produced in the world alongside soy (89 percent), canola (75 percent) and corn (61 percent).
Cotton monocultures are said to be another issue with cotton crops
China, India and the United States produced the most cotton by far of all countries in 2014/15
Economically, cotton provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide, employs almost 7% of all labor in developing countries, and as of 2014/15, was worth $77 billion to the world economy
Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton
Cotton as a textile provides many benefits – with some being warmth, breathability, being absorbent, and so on
It’s worth pointing out that cotton has been heavily subsidized by various governments in the past, and still is by some
There’s other potential environmental, social and economic impacts of cotton to consider other than what is mentioned in this guide
Note – not all cotton products are the same.
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.
How Much Cotton Is Produced & Consumed Per Year
Cotton accounts for around 31% of worldwide fibre production.
Of all the cotton produced every year, Western countries consume far more cotton than other countries right now.
29 million tons of cotton are produced a year – 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.
More than 100 countries in the world grow cotton
Cotton accounts for about 31% of worldwide fibre production
The global 20 year average (1993/94 to 2013/14) annual planted area is 33 million hectares of cotton … producing about 26 million tonnes of lint each year
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
How Much Water Does Cotton Use
Different countries in the world use different amounts of water to produce cotton depending on various factors.
Additionally, different textile items take a different amount of water to produce each item.
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)
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 …
Climatic conditions for cotton production are most attractive in the USA and Brazil.
The best cotton harvesting countries combine high rainfalls and high yields
Virtual water content of cotton products …
30 m3 per ton for bleaching, 140 m3 per ton for dying and 190 m3 per ton for printing
Virtual water content of cotton products at different stages of production…
It’s different for cotton lint, grey fabric, and regular fabric.
For a final textile, the global average is 9359 m3 /ton
Producing 1kg of cotton in India consumes 22,500 litres of water, on average
By exporting more than 7.5m bales of cotton in 2013, India also exported about 38bn cubic metres of virtual water.
Cotton doesn’t usually consume this much water.
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.
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.
73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land
The water footprint of one pound of cotton is 1,320 gallons
And, the water footprint of different cotton products are…
Bed sheets (cotton) – 2,839 gallons
Jeans (cotton) – 2,108 gallons
T Shirt (cotton) – 659 gallons
It takes 2,700 liters (713 gallons) of water to make just one cotton t shirt
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
Some governments, like in India, subsidise cotton despite how much water it uses (most than double the US’ usage rate for cotton)
Carbon Footprint Of Cotton
The growing of cotton produces greenhouse gases mainly from fertilisers (nitrous oxide emissions), electricity used for irrigation pumps, and also at the industrial stage – bleaching, dying, printing and fibre production.
At the growing stage, there is some carbon sequestration from the carbon stored in the cotton plant.
Different countries can have different carbon footprints for growing and producing cotton.
To estimate the embodied energy in any fabric it’s necessary to add the energy required in two separate fabric production steps …
1) fibre production (growing cotton)
2) energy used to weave those yarns into fabric
… What we see is that 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 kg of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber, conventional cotton (USA) comes in at 5.90, organic cotton (India) at 3.80, organic cotton (USA) at 2.35, and polyester (USA) at 9.52
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
The precise carbon footprint of different textiles varies considerably according to a wide range of factors.
However, studies of textile production in Europe suggest the following carbon dioxide equivalent emissions footprints per kilo of textile at the point of purchase by a consumer:
PET (e.g. synthetic fleece): 5.55
Accounting for durability and energy required to wash and dry textile products, synthetic fabrics generally have a substantially lower carbon footprint than natural ones.
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.
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
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.
How Much Land Does Cotton Use
Some main points about land use – cotton takes up about 3% of total worldwide agricultural land (and is one of the 18 major crops), and, cotton yields have grown about 50% in the last 40 years.
50% more cotton is produced worldwide today on the same amount of land as compared to 40 some years ago
Cotton occupies less than 3% of the world’s agricultural land
Cotton production provides two crops with each seasonal harvest: cotton fiber, which currently supplies 30% of the world’s textile fiber needs, and cottonseed, a source of nutritious cooking oil and a protein-rich supplement for dairy cattle and aquaculture feeds
The land Area and Relative Proportion of the 18 Major Crop Categories in the world are:
|Crop||Area, 1000 km2||Relative Fraction, %|
|Oil palm fruit||72||<1|
|Total of major 18 crops||15,256||85|
You can read about the geographical distribution of the major crops around the world in the agupubs resource listed in the resources list at the bottom of this guide.
How Much Pesticide Does Cotton Use
Cotton is either the top, or one of the top pesticide using crops in the world.
More chemical pesticides are used for cotton than any other crop
Over 2 billion US dollars has been spent on pesticides for cotton worldwide this year
Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop and epitomizes the worst effects of chemically dependent agriculture.
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.
Cotton growers typically use many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market including aldicarb, phorate, methamidophos and endosulfan.
Cotton pesticides are often broad spectrum organophosphates — pesticides originally developed as toxic nerve agents during World War II — and carbamate pesticides.
Cotton consumes 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide
In 2008, in U.S. agriculture, of 21 selected crops that accounted for roughly 72 percent of total conventional pesticide use (excluding sulfur, petroleum distillate, sulfuric acid, and hydrated lime), the following was the pesticide use by crop, as a percent of total pounds of active ingredient applied:
Corn – 39.5%
Soybeans – 21.7%
Potatoes – 10.2%
Cotton – 7.3%
Wheat – 4.5%
Sorghum – 2.7%
Oranges – 2.5%
Other – 2.5% (lettuce, pears, sweet corn, barley, peaches, grapefruit, pecans, and lemons.)
Peanuts – 2.0%
Tomatoes – 1.9%
Grapes – 1.5%
Rice – 1.5%
Apples – 1.4%
Sugar Cane – 0.8%
In India, about 50% of all pesticides used in the country are used in cotton production
How Much Fertilizer Does Cotton Use
Some sources indicate cotton might have the highest fraction of nitrogen fertilizer applied to it of any crop in California over a multi year period.
In California …
Multiplying the average-nitrogen-use estimates for each crop by the average harvested acreage for 2002 to 2007 indicates 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.
The high nitrogen fertilizer use crops are (as a relative proportion of the overall nitrogen fertilizer used):
Cotton – 16%
Almond – 15%
Wheat – 10%
Rice – 10%
Processed Tomatoes – 7%
Lettuce – 6%
Grapes – 4%
Walnut – 4%
Stone Fruit – 3%
Oranges – 3%
Broccoli – 3%
Carrots – 2%
Pistachio – 2%
Onions – 1%
Potato – 1%
Avocado – 1%
Lemons – 1%
Cauliflower – 1%
Celery – 1%
Strawberry – 1%
Sweet Corn – 1%
Melons – 1%
Peppers – 1%
Fresh Market Tomatoes – 1%
Dry Beans – 1%
There’s also data on the crop area and pounds of nitrogen used per acre of these and other crops from 2005 in a table in the calag.ucanr.edu resource in the resources list.
Cotton takes up about 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre for each 480-pound bale produced.
Nitrogen is essential for the development of all plant organs including shoots, buds, leaves, roots, and bolls
Worldwide, fertilizer use (nitrogen, potash and phosphate) on the different types of arable and permanent crops, both as a % of total and an application rate in kg per hectare, was:
Cereals – 64% (of total fertilizer use), and a 102 kg per hectare fertilizer application rate
Oilseeds – 9.2%, and 85kg/ha
Vegetables – 4.9%, and 242kg/ha
Sugar beet/cane – 4.7%, and 216kg/ha
Roots/tubers – 4.5%, and 212kg/ha
Fibres – 4.4%, and 144kg/ha (cotton is a fibre crop – but there are also others)
Fruits – 3.6%, and 163kg/ha
Tobacco, beverages – 2.0%, and 153kg/ha
Pulses – 1.9%, and 39kg/ha
Chemicals On Clothing Made With Cotton
There’s chemicals used in the bleaching, dying and printing of cotton textiles and clothes to consider.
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
Genetically Modified Cotton (GMO Cotton)
Cotton is one of the crops that is a heavy user of GMO technology.
The 10 genetically modified crops available today are: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets.
In the U.S., 93 percent of all cotton currently grown is GMO cotton.
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).
Monsanto is currently the world’s biggest seed and pesticide corporation, leading the way in GM seed development, and taking monopoly over GM seed prices.
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.
Monsanto have created a monstrous cotton issue, and it needs to be stopped.
Environmental, Wildlife, Social & Health Impact Of Cotton
As a summary, some of the overall issues to do with cotton are:
How much water it uses – mainly irrigation water from freshwater sources
It contributes to water scarcity and water shortages
Use of pesticides during growing – can be harmful for cotton farm workers, animals and as run off into soil and water, and can create secondary pests or pests that become immune to certain pesticides
Use of fertilizer – contributes to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, runoff into the soil and water, and run off into the ocean contributing to eutrophication
Use of chemicals during cotton production and processing – contaminates water so it can’t be re-used, can run off into environment
Some people worry that GMO cotton crops can become a problem
+ other issues
Cotton is mostly grown in monocultures – not good for crop biodiversity
Cotton is pesticide intensive [and there’s various environmental issues related to cotton]
Intensively cultivated cotton requires large amounts of water for irrigation [which can contribute to water scarcity and environmental problems]
Cotton contributes to climate change with the heavy use of fertilizers [and there can also be eco issues to do with run off of fertilizers into water sources like the ocean]
There are also health problems to do with workers that work on cotton farms coming into contact with and inhaling pesticides
Economically – 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
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
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.
Countries That Produce The Most Cotton
In 2014/15, the major cotton producing countries overall were:
China: 33.0 million bales
India: 27.0 million bales
United States: 18.0 million bales
Pakistan: 10.3 million bales
Brazil: 9.3 million bales
Uzbekistan: 4.6 million bales
Australia: 1.9 million bales
Turkey: 2.8 million bales
Turkmenistan: 1.6 million bales
Greece: 1.4 million bales
Economic Value Of The Cotton Industry, & Employment
In 2012, the global value in billions of US dollars of cotton fibre crops was $37 billion US dollars
The world cotton market [as a whole] was estimated at USD $77 billion for 2014/15
Cotton provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labor in developing countries.
Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton.
2. 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