Cotton is the second most-produced fiber worldwide. About 80 percent is produced in six countries, with China as the leading producer followed by India, the United States, Pakistan, Brazil, and Uzbekistan. Today, 85 percent of cotton production methods are conventional. Conventional practices require agrochemicals, including synthetic fertilizers totaling 16 percent of the world's insecticide and 4 percent of the world's herbicide use, while organic practices are certified to be grown without them. Conventional methods are harmful to the health of the farmer, the soil and end up contaminating groundwater, oceans, rivers, and lakes from nitrogen runoff with devastating effects on ecosystems. Another significant issue is water scarcity, and some experts believe cotton to be the most water-intensive crop in all of agriculture. According to some reports, it can take up to 2,700 liters of water to produce one t-shirt, equivalent to nearly three years of drinking water for one person. For jeans, the number is significantly higher at about 7,600 liters.
Currently, there are several programs and initiatives with sustainability in mind. The largest is BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) who' s/whose activities include working with the farmer to reduce agrochemicals and water use, but there are no rules against the use of genetically modified seeds. BCI also supports farmers in promoting decent work based on international labor standards. Since 2005, BCI holds at least 12 percent in market share, and many believe it to be the most practical way to achieve a cleaner cotton supply chain at scale. Some of its members include Adidas, Puma, Nike, H&M, C&A, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Levi Strauss, G-Star Raw, Esprit, and many more.
Organic cotton represents about 1 percent of cotton grown worldwide. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the leading certification for organic textiles. The standard covers the processing of organic fibers beyond the farm from manufacturing to distribution of all textiles, which includes the social and ecological criteria of the entire textile supply chain. At the farm level, farmers must be certified by a recognized international or national standard. Unlike BCI, genetically modified seeds are not allowed. Organic growing methods preserve the soil, protects biodiversity, assists in the battle against climate change, keeps the farmer healthy, and is truly a step in the right direction. Some brands that use this standard are Mate The Label.
Taking organic farming a step further is "regenerative organic" agriculture, a term coined by Robert Rodale. In regenerative organic agriculture, planting cover crops allows photosynthesis to take place all year. A no-till method keeps the carbon in the soil, and the cover crops keep it hydrated. All of this leads to soil health and an increase in yields. There is no question that organic regenerative agriculture is the most holistic approach to growing cotton. Prioritizing environmental and ethical issues in the supply chain over the bottom line will put brands in a different position. They will be in a position of progress once they redefine their values. As the regenerative method develops and grows, fashion brands must be part of the development if they want to stay in business but for the right reasons.