Cotton: the most responsible option for the planet
Business and Markets |
Celebrating World Cotton Day is an invitation to take a closer look at the beneficial aspects of the cotton plant that has been part of human daily life for millennia. By creating this commemorative date in 2021, the United Nations recognized the importance cotton has for the world, and one of the main reasons for this is because cotton is the most sustainable option for the future of the planet.
First and foremost because it is biodegradable. Cotton comes from a plant and is a natural fibre. This is why it decomposes rapidly in the environment: over time, it gets entirely absorbed by nature without leaving any residues behind and generating a much smaller environmental impact than, for example, synthetic fabrics (see table).
Cotton is a renewable natural resource. As long as it is grown in a responsible way it can be harvested year after year, inexhaustibly. This is not the case with products such as polyester, nylon or elastane, since the raw material for these fabrics is manufactured by the petrochemical industry (mainly plastic) and oil is a non-renewable resource.
Another point in favour of cotton is the goal of achieving a production chain that employs increasingly responsible practices – both in terms of the environment as well as social aspects. Farmers, industries, governments, researchers and fashion companies have been uniting around the world to expand the adoption of lower-impact production techniques for people, animals and the environment.
In Brazil, for example, 82% of the entire domestic cotton crop harvested in 2021/22 (2.1 million tonnes) was certified by socio-environmental criteria. Since 2012, Brazilian growers have adopted a protocol of good social and environmental practices and management. This voluntary program, called Brazilian Responsible Cotton, has a high take-up rate and works in conjunction with the worldwide Better Cotton certification – the most important certifier in the global cotton market.
Defending cotton for being the most responsible option for the planet is at the heart of the work done by the Brazilian Cotton Growers Association (Abrapa). “The benefits of cotton are not limited to environmental factors. Cotton growing is an inclusive production activity which depends on people and families and it contributes to the development of the producing regions,” explains Mr. Alexandre Schenkel, president of Abrapa.
Executive Director of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), Eric Trachtenberg, agrees with Mr. Schenkel. “The world needs help and cotton can remove millions of people from poverty and contribute to combating climate change by reducing plastic pollution from the environment. When it comes to cotton sustainability, Brazil is one of the first countries that comes to mind,” he added.
Synthetic yarn and fabric, made from petroleum, are primarily responsible for the presence of plastic fibres in rivers, seas and oceans around the world. This alert came from the United Nations in a report on Sustainable Fashion in the period between 2021 to 2024 where it stated that 35% of ocean microplastics on the planet came from washing synthetic fibres.
“In Brazil, 95% of the cotton growing area requires no irrigation. We alternate cotton with other crops, such as soybeans and corn, and we can also raise cattle on the same farm. We preserve hills, slopes and riverbanks and 20% to 80% of our properties are put aside exclusively for conservation of native forest land. All of this makes our production more efficient and also more sustainable,” explained Mr. Schenkel.
Natural, renewable, biodegradable and responsible, cotton is an efficient crop on a global basis. ICAC data show that while it occupies just 3% of the world’s agricultural area, cotton accounts for 27% of the world’s textile needs.
|TYPES OF FABRIC|
|TYPE||RAW MATERIAL||EXAMPLES||NATURAL DECOMPOSITION TIME|
|NATURAL||Natural fibres of animal, plant or mineral origin||Silk, wool, cotton, linen, asbestos||Weeks to 20 years|
|SYNTHETICS||Plastic and other petrochemical products||Polyester, polyamide, acrylic, nylon, elastane||100 to 400 years|
|ARTIFICIAL||Plastic with cellulose fibres or proteins||Viscose, acetate, lyocell||200 or more years|
Cotton is used to make a lot more than comfortable fabric! It produces food for people and livestock, and can also be used as a fertilizer.