Fashion's Climate Crisis Explained: Water & Cotton
The fashion industry cannot hide from the consequences of overconsumption forever. Fashion’s climate crisis has already begun and is long overdue.
Cotton is the world’s most widely cultivated non-food crop. It is the foundation of the fashion industry and employs more than 250 million people worldwide. This makes cotton cultivation one of the most resource intensive industries in the world. It takes roughly 10,000 litres of water to produce just 1 kilogram of cotton.
Despite plantations only accounting for 2.4% of the worlds arable land, 25% of the world’s insecticides and 18 of the world’s pesticides are used to treat cotton fields annually. Cotton farming causes severe soil degradation and erosion, contributes to loss of habitat and wilderness areas and is responsible for 220 million tonnes of annual C02 emissions.
The irony is that cotton cultivation is contributing to its own slow demise. A warmer world means less water and drier conditions – not exactly ideal for growing such a thirsty crop. Most worryingly however is the fact that it takes nearly 1000 years to generate the 3cm-thick layer of topsoil that is ideal for agriculture.
Continued soil degradation and erosion thanks to industrial chemicals like pesticides and insecticides means that if action is not taken soon, the world’s most fertile soils will be all but depleted within 60 years. Of course, this goes beyond the cotton industry and extends into agriculture as a whole, threatening the very backbone of our civilisation. That’s certainly something to think about.
I’ve already mentioned the obscene amount of water it takes to produce just 1 kilogram of cotton and you probably won’t be surprised to hear that that’s not the only bad statistic surrounding water in the fashion industry. As many other online sources will tell you, cotton farming is largely responsible for the disappearance of the Aral Sea.
It is quite likely that many of you may never have heard of it, but the Aral Sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world. Located in Central Asia between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the rivers feeding the Aral Sea were diverted by the Soviet Union in the mid 20th century to feed a massive irrigation project aimed at transforming empty desert into productive farmland.
Unfortunately, either through ignorance or wilful blindness, the Soviets failed to account for the lake’s massive annual loss of water due to evaporation and so, by diverting its two main water sources, more water began leaving the lake than flowing into it. Over the past six decades the sea has evaporated almost entirely, becoming increasingly salty and polluted with agricultural chemicals, to such a degree that it is now a public health hazard. The contaminated dust from the dry lakebed now blows onto the fields and further degrades the soil, for which the only solution is to flush the fields with more water from the diverted rivers which only reinforces this negative feedback loop.
This is just one example of how the thirst for water in the fashion industry has devastated the environment, but the U.S. will soon face a similar problem as it slowly drains the Ogallala Aquifer, an enormous underground reservoir that spans from Texas to South Dakota which has already lost 8 feet of water in little over a decade. Quite what the consequences will be are still up for speculation, but water scarcity as a whole will pose one of the largest existential threats to the fashion industry, the economy and our entire civilisation as temperatures rise throughout the next century and beyond.
Unfortunately, these problems are only set to become worse as cotton demand increases. Only by re-engineering parts of the supply chain or shifting consumer behaviour can future crises be averted. Solutions range from using sustainable cotton planted in areas which naturally receive more rainfall, to employing IPM (Integrated Pest Management), to simply re-using existing clothing.
Personally, I believe that we will prevail over these impending disasters. The human brain’s capacity for innovation is limitless, especially in times of crisis. The decisions we make now, collectively, will define the way the world looks in 20, 50 and 100 years time. The decisions we make now will determine if our grandchildren live on a rich diverse Eden-like planet or a barren lifeless rock.
I don’t think there’s anyone who would wish to see their children grow up in a dying world and that’s why I know that we will, almost without doubt, overcome the challenges we face. Fashion’s climate crisis is no more difficult to solve than any challenge that we have already overcome. But that can only happen once enough people understand the extreme danger of where we’re headed. Only then can we draw on our innovative skill to invent our way out of our own mess.