Cotton’s environmental impacts are well-publicized (if not well-understood), including the widespread use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and flood irrigation. However, cotton is fashion’s second most popular fiber after polyester, and finding sustainable solutions to current farming methods is an economic and environmental necessity.
But much of the ‘sustainable cotton’ debate focuses on organic, which accounts for around 1% of global production. ‘If only more farmers would go organic’ goes the often-stated wish, but it ignores critical cotton metrics and downright impossibilities. The 99% of cotton not grown organically is done so by conventional methods derived from the industrialization of agriculture in the early 1900s.
The advent of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides enabled the continued growth in global food production and fiber production. At the outset of industrialized agriculture, it fed and clothed a global population of fewer than 2 billion people. Today, it enables the production of more than the required caloric food intake of the 8 billion (and rising) global population. It also clothes us with 25% of global fibres (cotton and wool combined), now dwarfed by synthetic, fossil-fuel-derived fibers at 64%.
Today’s food production volumes are achievable due to synthetic inputs, which boost the growth process and fortify crops through to harvest; this is not to deny the damage caused by industrialized farming but to recognize that industrial agriculture supplies global commodity markets, providing nourishment and supporting farmers’ livelihoods. Moreover, farmers’ earnings depend on their yields, and scientific evidence (along with the dominance of conventional farming) illustrates that processes using synthetic inputs tend to increase yields.
Organic versus conventional – yields demystified
The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) reported in 2016 that global average yields for organic cotton were low, at 375 kg of lint/hectare, compared to a worldwide average lint/hectare of 782 kg. On the other hand, evidence from India, USA, and Turkey demonstrated that yields of more than 1,000 kg of lint per hectare can be obtained if backed by good science. However, significant challenges exist in organic cotton farming, including inadequate seed availability, poor quality or insufficient access to organic inputs, weak scientific support, uncertain price premiums and low yields during the 2-3 years transition period. Furthermore, tedious certification processes, complex traceability systems, and contamination possibilities due to the coexistence of genetically engineered crops are also considered problematic.
India is the number one country in the world for land area dedicated to cotton cultivation – it has four times the number of hectares that China (the next largest) has under cotton production. Yet China is the top lint producer by volume, and India does not feature in the top 10. India is the biggest producer of organic cotton in the world, accounting for more than half of global production, again pointing to significant yield differences between organic and conventionally grown cotton.
So, organic farming has significant growth limitations, despite being ecologically sound. The same can’t be said for conventional with its cost to sustainability forming a long list of environmental degradation spanning groundwater, surface water, soils, and biological diversity. In addition, its social costs include a growing rural-urban divide, a worldwide obesity epidemic, and antibiotic resistance. Nevertheless, in this ‘conventional 99 percent’, the sustainable opportunity and challenges lie for cotton.
A conventional problem, a huge opportunity
Once the limitations of organic farming and the interrelationship between growing food and fibers are understood, it’s clear that alternative farming methods are required to balance environmental impacts and global fiber demand. So are there sustainable cotton farming options, and if so, what are they?
In recent decades, movements towards ecologically-compatible farming methods have increased, including organic and regenerative agriculture systems. Scientific research demonstrates that these systems are highly competitive in terms of a low environmental impact compared to conventional farming. However, they are considered highly reliant on financial incentives and political support, and there is variation in yields.
What is the difference between organic and regenerative agriculture? Could regenerative cotton solve conventional cotton’s environmental problems whilst maintaining yields? Which is the most ‘sustainable’ option, and what does this mean for fashion brands?
Organic versus regenerative – what’s the difference?
Organic agriculture (OA) is a holistic approach that maintains and increases the health of the soil and includes biological cycles. This is achieved by applying agronomic, biological, and mechanical techniques instead of using synthetic inputs to perform specific functions within the agricultural system. Organic agriculture adheres to these regulations:
- No chemical pesticides,
- No synthetic fertilisers,
- No genetically modified crops,
- Responsible use of energy and natural resources.
Regenerative agriculture (RA) is a holistic approach to farming that highlights the connection between farming systems and the broader ecological system. Regenerative agriculture is a concept rather than a strict pre-defined set of requirements. It involves practice-based assessment of farming systems that strictly adhere to five acknowledged principles:
- cover the soil,
- avoid soil disturbance,
- increase crop diversification,
- maintain living roots in the earth year-round
- incorporate livestock.
Regenerative farming aims to improve soil quality and biodiversity while profitably generating nutritious farm products. It eliminates tillage (digging and turning the soil) and environmental damage associated with bare soil. Simultaneously, RA promotes plant diversity and integrates animal and food production on the land. Critically RA does not prevent the use of synthetic and genetically modified inputs. Instead, it uses them to optimize soil health and yields simultaneously.
Organic and regenerative – pros and cons
Relative to organic, insufficient data is available regarding the benefits of regenerative farming. However, research has demonstrated that regenerative practices can lead to higher profitability than conventional farming practices. For example, in the case of cotton, farmers have reported higher yields by carefully controlling and minimizing synthetic inputs while maximizing gains over consecutive years of harvests.
Organic farming safeguards the environment, reducing impacts from chemical overuse; but on the other, it can lead to social and economic hardship because of lower yields. Is organic ‘better’ for not using GM inputs, or is it inadequate because of its limited capacity to feed and partially clothe the global population? Furthermore, is it ‘better’ because there are certifications to demonstrate compliance with organic standards, which regenerative agriculture does not have?
Regenerative methods allow farmers to use synthetic chemicals and genetically modified (GM) seeds to ensure characteristics in the crop that may survive better in certain conditions, depending on regional climate and other factors. Is regenerative ‘better’ because it can respond to ecological challenges through GM and targeted synthetic chemical use – so long as the ‘net regenerative’ impact is positive (to be proven through ongoing soil, water, and biodiversity analysis)? Is regenerative ‘better’ because of its demonstrable enhanced carbon sequestration at a time when emissions reduction is paramount to halting climate change? Or, is ‘regenerative’ a crutch to uphold our unabated consumption, compared to ‘organic’ with its forced limits on what optimized agriculture in tune with nature can provide? Currently, the reality is that organic’s influence – and capacity – is negligible.
Organic’s ‘eco-cred’ versus regenerative’s carbon capture
Organic farming is certified according to agreed standards, albeit through manual and highly fallible chain-of-custody processes. Regenerative farming is not a universal, singular set of methods that can be distilled into a certification – it must be analyzed case-by-case, depending on net impacts, yields, and costs.
Despite absent certification, regenerative agriculture’s proof of carbon sequestration through data capture and soil health analysis is a big win, as evidenced in this carbon case study. High-profile brand advocates of regenerative cotton farming include The North Face, who recently partnered with Indigo Ag on a cotton carbon farming initiative. In addition, Pangaia is currently ‘in conversion’ to regenerative cotton, aiming to source all its virgin cotton from regenerative systems by 2026.
Brands pursuing organic cotton tend to focus more intensely on the consumer confidence provided by the non-synthetic chemical, non-GM narrative, and broader impact reduction claims – including debunked water reduction statistics.
For all its certification faults, organic cotton does have a well-established and straightforward framework for what it is and how it is grown, leading to defined organic standards with certifications. Moreover, communicating the story of organic cotton is relatively easy, piggybacking off what consumers already understand about organic food. In this context, perception may be the decisive factor driving ‘sustainably minded’ brands to choose organic fibers over all other options. But it’s still just 1% of the cotton available. So regenerative, in ecological and production volume terms, could be the answer to the other 99.
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