Cotton farming has a sustainability problem. Let’s face it – this issue is nothing new or extraordinary to fashion. We all know about it and understand the environmental consequences of the current agricultural processes in place. They consume large amounts of freshwater, deteriorate the fertility of the soil, and produce wastewaters filled with fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides harmful to humans, plants, and animals. With initiatives in the fashion industry focused on building industry wide standards for sustainability, brands have attempted to mitigate these environmental impacts by shifting towards organically grown cotton.
But, is organic cotton enough to reduce the industry’s environmental impact? Contrary to belief, “certified organic” does not necessarily mean that producing an organic source material creates beneficial ecological outcomes for the environment. Organic cotton production still uses chemicals, albeit naturally derived organic chemicals sprayed in small amounts, that have been subject to studies about their industrial scale water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Do fashion brands need to take their sustainability efforts a step further by delving deeper into the agricultural practices of their material source partners? Is there an agricultural solution that could produce truly chemical-free, organic cotton that benefits the local ecosystems in which they are cultivated? A traditional farming system known as regenerative agriculture might be the solution the industry is looking for.
The Problem With Organic Cotton
When a fashion brand markets a cotton garment as “certified organic” or “sustainably sourced,” consumers want to believe this claim is true. In their minds, their product’s cotton fibers were grown on an eco-friendly cotton farm without using genetically modified seeds and agrochemicals, all while maintaining the natural resources and biodiversity of the local environment. But, greenwashing tactics make it difficult to trust these claims. Just because a brand claims that their cotton is sustainably sourced does not mean it is.
In fact, India, the most prominent proponent of organic cotton production in the fashion industry, has a flawed organic cotton certification system, resulting in the exportation of regularly grown cotton labeled as “organic”.
Fraudulent activity in this sector occurs from:
Local Inspection Agencies – To be certified organic, each process in organic cotton cultivation has to be inspected and verified following the gold-standard organic cotton label set by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Textile Exchange. These organizations do not visit agricultural centers themselves and rely on local inspection agencies, like Control Union, EcoCert, and OneCert, hired by the ginners, spinners, and farmers to visit and perform the necessary checks to certify organic standard compliance. These checks are infrequent and inspectors do not inspect all cotton being produced.
Paper Transactions – Each transaction along the supply chain from farmers to spinners and cotton mills involves a paper transaction certificate. These certificates are forwarded from the local inspection agencies to the GOTS and Textile Exchange who then pass it to clothing manufacturers and subsequently, brands. The lack of a central database makes it easy for data to be altered. This can result in conventional cotton being labeled as “organic” to create a higher volume contradictory to the actual yield.
High Demand and Low Supply – Organic cotton yields 28% less than conventional cotton. However, that fact has no impact on the high demand for organic cotton from brands across multiple industries, fashion included. That, combined with the limited quantities of organic cotton seeds in circulation, forces farmers to cultivate cotton using traditional methods to meet the brand demand.
Lack of Government Oversight – India’s government does not verify that the volume of organic cotton harvested matches the volume that is exported. Their lack of transparency and failure to implement a digital tracking system has led to the US Department of Agriculture terminating their agreement with companies overseen by the Indian authority.
With this systemic problem, it is safe to assume that traditional cotton farming methods prevail even among so-called organic cotton farmers, making it increasingly difficult for fashion brands to meet their own standards to promote a healthier, greener environment.
Can Regenerative Agriculture Be A Solution?
For fashion to substantiate claims of sustainability, brands and their material source partners could turn to a simple agricultural system utilized by indigenous communities of the past: regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture expands upon the principles of organic farming, utilizing a variety of holistic farming techniques focused less on being “sustainable” and more on “regeneration.” Farmers who practice regenerative farming aim to:
Improve Soil Health – Cotton farming is infamous for its soil degradation due to its high water consumption and use of agrochemicals and fertilizers. The resulting soil erosion and wastewater runoff depletes agricultural land of its nutrients, eventually rendering it unusable. Using regenerative agriculture, farmers can rehabilitate, strengthen, and increase the amount of arable topsoil soil by promoting biodiversity, minimizing soil disturbance, and integrating livestock onto their land to improve soil health and increase crop yields.
Reverse Climate Change – Nitrogen based synthetic fertilizers are the primary fertilizers used in cotton cultivation, as they contribute to increased crop yields. However, these fertilizers emit high levels of nitrous oxide, a known greenhouse gas (GHG) produced from agricultural practices that contributes to climate change. The addition of tilling, a technique that rotates the soil prior to planting, removes carbon from the soil and releases it into the air as carbon dioxide (CO2). By integrating no-till farming, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers, and integrating carbon sequestering plants, regenerative agriculture could sequester up to 250 million tons of CO2 annually in the US alone.
Enacting regenerative agriculture practices will require cotton farmers to:
Plant Cover Crops – Planting cover crops is a great way to promote biodiversity and enrich the surrounding soil with nutrients. For cotton, planting crops like wheat, cereal rye, hairy vetch, and crimson clover can protect yields from pests while providing vital nutrients that promote healthier, more resilient soil.
Reduce Tillage – Regenerative farmers practice protective, reduced tillage techniques such as no-till and strip tillage. These allow water to infiltrate the soil rather than run off. They reduce CO2 emissions, increase soil organic matter, and lower production costs from the fuel and labor requirements to till the land.
Compost – Compost is composed of rich organic materials decomposed from farm and crop residues, manures, and food and yard wastes which provide a variety of nutrients and food for soil microbes to create healthier soils and crops. When added to a crop field, composting increases pest resistance and carbon sequestration, reduces plant disease, and helps retain soil moisture.
Rotate Crops – Crop rotation is the practice of planting different crops sequentially on the same plot of land following a harvest to improve soil health, optimize nutrients in the soil, and combat pests and weeds. After producing cotton, plants like corn, alfalfa, and soybeans can be planted in the same fields to maintain soil productivity until the next cotton growing cycle.
Practice Agroforestry and Silvopasture - Similar to planting cover crops, agroforestry and silvopasture intentionally integrates trees, shrubs, and grazing livestock into a farming center to increase biodiversity, improve carbon sequestration, and enhance soil health.
Integrating regenerative farming techniques to rejuvenate and strengthen the soil and surrounding ecosystem, enables cotton farmers to actively revive the earth, maintain its natural resources, improve cotton yields, and corroborate the sustainability initiatives of fashion brands by supplying them with 100% organically grown, regenerative cotton.
But, Is Regenerative Agriculture Possible?
Integrating regenerative farming on an industrial scale is complicated. Even though brands like Patagonia and Gucci are funding regenerative farming projects, there aren’t industry wide guidelines and certifications available. The closest available to this is the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), a certification for organic farmers who focus on promoting holistic agricultural practices for soil health, land management, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness. To be certified, organic farmers must already have USDA Organic Certification; however, this proves difficult because most sources of conventional and organic cotton come from India, China, and Turkey, whose organic certification processes may differ from those of the US.
In addition, brands considering adopting regenerative agriculture face the issue of time. They have to obtain the land and prepare it, which, similar to organic cotton farming, requires years of preparation before cotton seeds can be planted. Once seeds are planted, the regenerative farming process is slow. Its lack of synthetic fertilizers and agrochemicals means that farmers must constantly monitor their crop and cover crops for inconsistencies and deficiencies and react accordingly to deviances that may occur in the cultivation process. Factoring in high consumer demand for conventional and organic cotton garments, the regenerative process may not be ideal unless fashion as a whole shifts its business operandi to producing slow fashion.
Weigh these pros and cons before deciding if investing in and integrating a regenerative agricultural system is the right sourcing process to use. With its plethora of benefits to the environment, it has the potential to reshape how cotton is cultivated and reduce waste. Ultimately, fashion leaders will have to ask – will a shift to the slow fashion model supported by regenerative farming will affect their brand’s ability to stay competitive?
Charles is a Content Marketing Intern for MakersValley who graduated from Guilford College with a B.A. in English Studies. When he's not busy jamming out with his guitar, he's out having a drink with friends, reading horror fiction, or watching his favorite sports teams win the big game.