In a recent segment on NBC’s Today Show Third Hour, Lizzy Horvitz, founder and CEO of Finch, an organization supporting sustainability, categorized conventional cotton as “incredibly thirsty, uses a lot of water and degrades the soil a lot,” compared to organic cotton.
The Finch website goes even further, claiming: “Conventional cotton is one of the dirtiest crops on Earth. Organic cotton ensures that the crop is grown without the use of harmful chemicals, leaving the soil, air, and water free from contaminants. It also produces around 46% less carbon dioxide compared to conventional cotton.”
Farm Press reached out to Cotton Incorporated to address these claims, which CI says are misleading and based on faulty assumptions.
“One of the great attributes of cotton is that it is a drought-tolerant plant, primarily relying on rainwater in a majority of the regions where cotton is grown in the U.S,” says Ed Barnes, senior director of agricultural and environmental research for Cotton Incorporated.
“Water is a valuable, renewable resource and cotton growers continue to implement best practices using it responsibly,” Barnes adds. “Cotton is planted on roughly 3% of the global agriculture land and roughly uses 3% of agriculture water.”
From the CI website:
- Water is an important and renewable resource, and cotton growers strive to use it responsibly, using practices like no-till farming and advanced irrigation systems to optimize water use. In fact, most U.S. cotton is produced using only natural rainfall.
- Cotton demonstrates impressive water-use efficiency as well. With just one one-acre-inch of rain, modern cotton varieties tend to yield at least 50 pounds of lint and 75 pounds of seed – enough to make more than 170 t-shirts and feed more than 10 cows. In the past 35 years, U.S. cotton producers have reduced their irrigation water use by 79% per bale.
“Sustainability is extremely important to growers, brands and consumers,” says Jesse Daystar, Cotton Incorporated’s vice president, chief sustainability officer. “We have dedicated resources to share research and science-based facts on the sustainable practices of cotton textiles and cotton byproducts — from dirt to product to end of life uses minimizing the myths and showing how cotton supports the needs of future generations.”
The overall cotton industry goal is ambitious including a ten-year sustainability objective to further decrease water use by 18% by 2025.
Comparing dryland organic cotton to irrigated conventional cotton also misses the mark. The CI website notes: “In the U.S., 64% of cotton produced requires no irrigation, 31% receives supplemental irrigation, and only 5% is fully irrigated.”
Another voice explains that the bias claims that conventional cotton is much less sustainable than organic is based on misinformation and data comparing different production systems.
Brooke Roberts-Islam, a senior contributor to Forbes and a fashion insider who writes about sustainability and materials, wrote in an October 2021 article, “Organic Water-Saving Claims False, Declares Cotton Myth-Busting Report,” that the comparison between dryland organic cotton and irrigated conventional cotton is “apples and oranges.”
She referenced a 2019 report, “Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation,” published by Transformers Foundation as “peer-reviewed data on global cotton impacts [that] offers an opportunity to steer more sustainable material decision-making by the public, and the textile and clothing industry.”
In 2019, the water-saving claims in a Textile Exchange summary of findings were contested in an opinion piece by industry magazine Apparel Insider.
Roberts-Islam wrote that the report's authors concluded that data used in a 2014 Textile Exchange analysis to support the claim that organic cotton uses substantially less water than conventional are based on a comparison of “organic fields that happen to be largely rainfed, to conventional cotton fields that happen to use irrigation. Again, apples and oranges.”
She pointed out that multiple experts interviewed also contested the Textile Exchange organic cotton Life Cycle Assessment’s findings.
Cotton Incorporated sources also note the importance of various methods of cotton production. Depending on how sustainability is defined and measured, both organic and conventional cotton, when produced responsibly, have the ability to reduce certain environmental impacts, and neither is inherently more sustainable than the other. Currently, less than 1% of the world’s cotton qualifies as organic. Here’s a fact sheet with additional information and resources.
For more information on cotton’s sustainability see the report from Transformer’s Foundation. Page 37 , which offers insight into how the myth of cotton as a thirsty crop has been amplified.
A recent Cotton Incorporated video on Cotton & Climate also helps tell the story of how increased global conservation practices, including more efficient use of nitrogen, resulting in a 20% reduction that could decrease an amount of greenhouse gas similar to taking more than 1 million passenger cars off the road for a year.
Another resource on this topic is an infographic on Cotton’s Carbon Reduction Strategy. See illustration
The Finch website indicates the organization “educates people on the ins and outs of sustainability with simple, actionable product insights.”