We need to Cotton On

Ethics in Global Fashion

Emma is a Law & International Relations student, and aspiring diplomat with a passion for journalism. This semester she will be challenging the everyday choices we make, and the origins of the very clothes on our backs, as she explores a range of ethical concerns relating to global fashion.

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It’s that time of the year again. Time to pull those T-shirts, shorts, skirts and dresses you packed away for the Canberra winter back out again and restock your wardrobe, because we’re (finally) heading into summer! Where, I ask, would we be in this wardrobe makeover process without Vogue’s hottest summer tips to guide us through?

According to Vogue, “There’s only really ever one bag you need for the summer season and that’s a tote [bag]. Throw everything from beachwear to books and work documents in it – it’s your [summer] companion… lightening up an office look, or putting the finishing touch to a sunshine-ready outfit.”

They’re right. Tote canvas-style bags come in all sizes and designs: screen-printed, sewed, sequined, and even plain white for those DIY-design enthusiasts. They’re practical and accessible. Stores are even handing them out as sustainable “shopping bags” –  because anything’s more sustainable than plastic shopping bags, right?

Tote bags are made out of cotton, a material commonly used in clothing manufacturing – 75% of all men’s clothing and 60% of women’s clothing items contain a cotton blend.

Cotton, however, is not sustainable, for it cannot be sustainably produced. This is largely due to the enormous amount of water its production requires.

Let’s break down the facts.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) suggests that approximately 20,000 litres of water is required to produce a single pair of jeans. Now, think of the jeans in your closet. Multiply that pair by the rough population of Australia. Keep multiplying, by the number of people internationally who own jeans, denim jackets and denim tops, and then add the number of denim garments sitting in stores waiting to be sold. You end up with over 18 billion kilograms of cotton produced annually, with each kilogram requiring 20 000 litres of water. That’s an enormous amount of water consumed by cotton-farming alone each year.

It wouldn’t matter if we used that amount of water on cotton, provided there was enough to go around, but there isn’t. Cotton farms have sapped eco-systems. Satellite images released earlier this month show that the Aral Sea in cotton-farming Central Asia has dropped 23 meters from its natural level. Aside from the fact that this water source is slowing drying up – jeopardizing the livelihood of the people and wildlife who live there – the drop in water levels has increased salinity and fish can no longer survive there. 43,430 tons of fish would be caught annually in the Aral Sea during the 1960s. Today, there are not enough fish to capture even one ton.

Similar situations of drought and environmental despair are seen in other major cotton exporters, most notably in Pakistan. The country is in a drought so severe that crops have failed. This has led it a food shortage causing up to 139 children to die of dehydration and malnutrition in each month of 2016 so far. Yet despite this, because of the revenue that it brings the country, Pakistan’s second largest export is cotton. It’s ugly to hear, but our clothes are robbing children of life, and we don’t even realize it.

These are the environmental consequences of producing the material that 68% of clothing in the world is made from. Cotton is not the easy, accessible and convenient material it is so often made out to be. We glamourize cotton when we shouldn’t. There’s even an entire clothing chain named “Cotton On” – a cheeky, cute brand name revolving around the production of a material which breaks ecosystems.

Our cotton tote bag is not a practical solution to plastic bags. A study by the UK Environmental Agency found that “reusing a single plastic bag three times has the same [positive] environmental impact as using a cotton tote bag 393 times.”

Cotton is not the sustainable “summer companion” it initially appears to be. It’s time we cottoned on to the fact that the cotton we wear every day is irreparably damaging our planet. So when you’re constructing your “sunshine ready” wardrobe this season, embracing recycled, op-shop clothing may be the way to go.