from the Atlantic:
Tee shirts–the ones in your drawer and stuffed in your gym bag–aren’t easily produced. No matter how elegant–or even how paint-spattered, stained, and degraded they are–they still require 400 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make a single shirt. And jeans require 1,800 gallons. Cotton also takes a great deal of pesticides for it to grow.
Current methods of cotton production are unsustainable. Are there technological solutions here? Some say yes. One group is producing high-tech, GMO cotton that emits a certain poison that kills pests, but is harmless to humans. Given the nature of GMO, this type of cotton is controversial. And by definition, it’s non-organic. Cotton hulls also usually end up as cattle feed: that means GMO material and other cotton byproducts such as cellulose and cooking oils could end up in our food supply. And making the matter moot–the various pests targeted by GMO cotton could become resistant to it over time.
In Pakistan, the world’s fourth-largest producer of cotton, there is an initiative underway to innovate new, sustainable solutions. The Kissan Welfare Association is working with Pakistani farmers to analyze cotton fields in its area for what’s needed–just the right amount of fertilizer and pesticides. Previously, the land had been carpet-bombed with insecticides so as to kill any possible pest that might end up in the field. The average Pakistani field has fewer than five acres and the farmers are often in debt, so using fewer pesticides is good for the farmers themselves–it’s healthier and cheaper.
Also, aided by such groups as the World Wildlife Fund and the Better Cotton Initiative, farmers are learning how to use insect predators such as ladybirds on cotton pests. And some natural pesticides are increasingly finding their way onto the fields.
What about water? Farmers are learning how to use less of it. Pakistan doesn’t have a great deal of water to spare, so anything to cut down of its use is needed. Basically, efforts are underway to stop flooding the fields, and instead watering the cotton with ditches.
For those of us off the farm and on the city streets, companies such as Adidas are committed to switching over their branded products to one-hundred percent sustainable cotton. Ikea is working directly with farmers in Pakistan to improve their farms. Levi Strauss is manufacturing its jeans using with less water: making jeans softer through the stonewashing process requires a lot of. The new Levi’s Water‹Less jeans process will save sixteen million liters–and cost as about the same as conventional jeans.
What about skipping cotton altogether, and going the high-tech route? We can wear shirts made from plastic bottles. PET, the type of plastic coded with a resin ID of number 1 on its bottom, can be turned into a variety of outfits, from tee shirts to fleece. The bottles are cleaned and sorted for color then crushed and chopped into flakes. They are then melted and extruded into strands. Its use is endless: women’s business suits (made from bottles) are being offered. Polartec is making its fleece products from bottles, too.
In Hollywood, bamboo is hot. It doesn’t require nearly as much water to grow, nor does it require pesticides. It can blend with most fabrics: for example, a bamboo-cotton blend is available as a tee shirt.
What else can we do? Keep our clothing clean with less water. Switch to HE (high efficiency) washers. It also matters what kind of soap is used: in India, Unilever has a brand designed for handwashing, rather than for use in machines, because washers are less common there, even in cities.
What we choose to wear depends on how its grown–it’s all interconnected. Whether we’re aware or not, the cotton in our tee shirts and jeans may come from a family farmer trying to use less water and fewer pesticides