Cotton’s Dirty Little Secret

Updated On
cotton and chemicals

We may collect a share of sales from items linked to on this page. Learn more.

Cotton is everywhere.  We use cotton fibers to make clothing, bed sheets, curtains, car seats, pillows, and much, much more.  It is one of the United States’ largest exports, as it ships between 40% and 60% of its crop annually.  More than 50% of the world’s cotton comes from the United States.  And an additional 85 countries grow the crop as well, with 55 of those exporting.  Clearly, cotton has quite a presence in the world.  But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Cotton, in spite of its global prevalence, actually causes quite a few problems, all of which affect the entire world.  Cotton uses an enormous amount of water, causes soil erosion and degradation, and uses more insecticides and pesticides than almost any other crop.

Cotton requires a significant amount of water to grow.  Some statistics say that in order to grow enough cotton to produce a single cotton t-shirt, the same amount of water is required as a single person drinks over a period of three years.  This is noteworthy, especially with regard to the immense amount of cotton grown worldwide.  That amounts to an incredible amount of water used to grow just one simple crop, and one that is not even a source of food.

Another serious problem with cotton is its effects on the soil.  Because cotton requires so much water to grow, this causes problems with the soil in which it grows.  Obviously not all irrigated water that is used to grow cotton actually reaches the roots.  Instead, plenty of the water becomes runoff, which is where things become problematic.  Because irrigation generally doesn’t use pure hydrogen and oxygen, there are quite a few impurities in the water, one of which is salt.  When too much salt enters soil, the soil is eventually rendered unusable, and it is known as the salinization of the soil.  After not too many years, soil that has grown cotton eventually becomes a wasteland, farmland that lies fallow.  This has resulted in the destruction of farmland in many countries, and in some, such as Uzbekistan, more than half of the farmland in the entire country is now useless.  This is yet another problem with cotton.

Cotton has often been called a toxic crop, and such assertions may well be justified when looking at the enormous amounts of pesticides and insecticides used to grown the plant.  Cotton is grown on just 3% of the world’s farmland, and yet more than 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 12% of the world’s insecticides are used to grow it.  This would all be fine and well were it not for the harmful effects of these chemical compounds.  Unfortunately, these pesticides and insecticides cause damage to soil, water sources, birds, fish, wildlife, and humans.  A study done found that within the pesticides used to grow cotton, 77% of the compounds were comprised of 15 of the most dangerous chemicals in the world.  These chemicals caused birth defects, mutations, cancer, and tumors in humans.  And it follows that these chemicals cause great harm to birds, fish, and other wildlife as well.

These are just a few of the environmental problems with cotton.  Although overuse of water, soil degradation, and toxicity are certainly serious consequences of the growing of cotton, we haven’t even addressed the economic problems that have been caused by cotton in recent years, in which the market was oversaturated and the demand for cotton was low – which drove many farmers to ruin, sadly.  Ultimately, cotton is quite a villain, and now is the time to look to other sources where possible to replace cotton fibers.  One promising alternative has been that of bamboo, which has come into the world market in recent years as a potential replacement for cotton.  Bamboo fibers can be used to create both fabric and lumber, and the bamboo fabrics are quite a bit softer than those of cotton to boot. We as consumers need to make the decision buy items like bamboo sheets, bamboo clothing, even bamboo bicycles, all of which are becoming increasingly popular because of their negative carbon footprints.  To learn more about bamboo as a resource, go here.

Water consumption, soil degradation, toxicity, and economics – these are just a few of the problems with cotton.  Let’s find an alternative before it’s too late.

3 thoughts on “Cotton’s Dirty Little Secret”

  1. Taylor – I often see articles critical of cotton, but rarely do I see them with as many inaccuracies as yours. All your statistics are incorrect and this is information that is readily available, indicating to me that you took no time to check facts or information and instead just recycled some very old articles. Cotton has made huge strides in the last 10 years to improve its sustainability and is one of the few natural fibres that can be produced in enough volume to help clothe the world. If you get rid of it we will all be back to wearing polyester and other man-made fibres and we know they are not sustainable.

  2. Cameron, I disagree about these “huge strides” you mention. My Mother lives next to cotton fields in Calif. The town has a water shortage, yet water gushes constantly day and night for the cotton crops, when other methods of watering could be employed. Not only that, the spray they fly over the fields has caused my daughter and I to come down with Litles disease which there is no real cure for. And that was from the planes flying over the fields and dropping pesticides ( inspections of what pesticides are being used is basically non existent) sometimes right over the house when we were visiting her. Getting rid of cotton is not the answer, but better methods of watering and inspecting what pesticides are being used would be a huge help. And they continue to grow cotton in her town in the same places over and over, for decades now, depleting the soil. My mother’s well keeps going dry and she has to keep digging it deeper and deeper, the city has water conservation on the towns people, yet water pours an enormous amount into the fields 24/7. I do not care how old this article may be to know what is happening!

  3. I run a company that sets up bamboo farms here in the US, partially because of some of the problems you point out here. However, I’m always quick to point out that textiles is one of the least green aspects of bamboo since most are made in China through a process using harsh chemicals to break down the hard wood. That’s still probably much greener than conventional cotton, but not always as green as people think. However, there are ways to do it very sustainably and virtually everything else about bamboo is extremely sustainable. We focus on the edible shoots and the biomass for fuel and activated carbon.


What do you think? Leave a comment!