By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
And now for something completely different: this post is about cotton farming, and was inspired by a reader comment.
As part of an exchange, In response to yesterday’s post about Turkey’s decision to ban (most) plastic waste imports, Waste Watch: Turkey Bans Plastic Waste Imports, reader James Simpson commented:
It’s certainly true that most modern varieties of cotton use vast amounts of water to grow – not to mention pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Cotton production is responsible for the drying up of the vast Aral Sea, located in Uzbekistan. According to the Guardian:
The Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth largest lake, home to 24 species of fish and surrounded by fishing communities, lush forests and wetlands. While the lake was salt water, the rivers that fed it were fresh water. In the 1950’s the Soviet Union began using the rivers to irrigate the surrounding agricultural area, a process that has been continued to this day by Uzbekistan’s brutal dictator Islam Karimov.
The exposure of the bottom of the lake has released salts and pesticides into the atmosphere poisoning both farm land and people alike. Carcinogenic dust is blown into villages causing throat cancers and respiratory diseases.
The fashion industry is linked to this horror of dictatorships and environmental devastation by the fact that the crop being grown with the river water is cotton – 1.47m hectares of cotton. A hugely water intensive crop, one shirt can use up to 2,700 litres.
“Conventional cotton (as opposed to organic cotton) has got to be one of the most unsustainable fibres in the world,” says fashion designer and environmentalist Katharine Hamnett. “Conventional cotton uses a huge amount of water and also huge amounts of pesticides which cause 350,000 farmer deaths a year and a million hospitalisations.”
Reflecting on the loss of the Aral Sea, Hamnett states: “This is not just climate change this is an extinction issue. As Vandana Shiva said ‘no species has deliberately designed its own extinction’, but with industrial agriculture we have. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, causing human misery, enormous cost of life and gigantic environmental devastation.”
In addition to the environmental devastation caused by producing cotton in Uzbekistan, slave labor is still employed to pick the crop, according to this 2020 Human Rights Watch report, Forced Labor Persists in Uzbekistan’s Cotton Fields. I’m not going to discuss that horror in this post and will instead concentrate on the environmental impact of cotton production.
It’s not growing cotton per se that’s the problem. Instead, it’s the methods by which most cotton is currently grown – using industrial agricultural methods and modern hybrid seeds – that wreaks the environmental devastation.
Is that the only alternative? Of course not.
Let me discuss one. The Khamir NGO, based in the westernmost part of India, close to the Pakistani border, in the state of Gujarat, in the Kachchh district, in 2007 launched the Kala Cotton Initiative to revive the growing of kala cotton. From Khamir’s website:
Kala cotton is indigenous to Kachchh and by default organic, as the farmers do not use any pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. It is a purely rain fed crop that has a high tolerance for both disease and pests, and requires minimal investment. It is both resilient and resurgent in the face of stressful land conditions.
Kala Cotton is one of the few genetically pure cotton species remaining in India, and one of the only species of pure, old world cottons to be cultivated today on a large scale. It forms a strong, coarse, stretchable fibre that is often used in denim. As it is difficult to produce fine quality textiles with it, as its short staple length translates to fewer twists per inch of yarn, over time its use has diminished significantly in mainstream markets.
I’ve visited Kachchh many times – a place that sees few foreign tourists, except for birders and textile aficionados, despite its considerable natural beauty. And I’ve bought lengths of handwoven kala cotton from Khamir. In texture, cloth woven from this cotton is rather nubby, but calling it coarse gives the wrong impression of its softness: it’s cotton after all, not jute. As a rough comparison, think of raw silk’s texture, as compared to smooth silk. That analogy provides some idea of what the kala cotton I had made into kurtas – tunics – looks and feels like, compared to the cotton of a men’s dress shirt. The cloth was naturally dyed, one piece raspberry pink, the other the orangey-pink of wild salmon. And like a good flannel or denim shirt, the cotton only gets softer and softer every time I launder it, Click on the link to Khamir’s website to see pictures of the fiber woven into cloth, which should provide an idea of its texture.
More on the Kala Cotton Initiative:
Khamir began this initiative in 2007, by partnering with Satvik, an association of organic farmers in Kachchh, to explore the production possibilities for Kala Cotton.
As the cotton’s short staple length makes it difficult to spin and weave, Khamir and Satvik first consulted with many experts to develop a process for converting it into yarn. Additionally, local weavers had to be convinced of the value of Kala Cotton – a particular challenge since weaving it requires changes in the loom set-up, as well as differing yields and shafts. After years of experimentation and perfecting both spinning and weaving techniques, Khamir began producing its first Kala Cotton goods in 2010.
Today, the Kala Cotton Initiative encourages sustainable cotton textile production in harmony with local ecology. The project aims to create a value chain at multiple levels by working with marginalized communities and promoting locally grown species. To implement this initiative, Khamir and Satvik have created a supply chain between the Kala Cotton farmers, ginners, spinners and weavers to convert the raw cotton into hand woven products. It is hoped that eventually, the Kala Cotton Initiative will serve as an example for other communities to replicate.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that Khamir’s kala cotton initiative alone can be scaled up to solve even a small part of cotton’s environmental problems. But that kala cotton can thrive in the arid environment of Kachchh – which stretches from the Arabian Sea and includes both the Great Rann of Katchchh and the Little Rann of Katchchh, salt marshes wthin the That Desert – using only rain water, suggests that cotton doesn’t necessarily need to be irrigated to grow.
Kala cotton is only one traditional Indian cotton fiber; once these were handwoven into textiles and exported throughout the world (some ending up in ancient Rome and others in South America, albeit much later,). Yves posted a link a couple of months back to a BBC article about dhaka muslin, a textile was made from another special type of cotton grown in what was then the easternmost part of India and which produced as fine a cloth as kala cotton is rough (see The ancient fabric that no one knows how to make).I Note that Dhaka is as wet as Kachchh is dry.
My point is only that cotton could likely be bred to grow using less water, without pesticides, and chemical fertilisers, if sustainability concerns were brought to the fore, to replace current preoccupations with maximizing efficiency and profits. India still includes a large handweaving sector, and the organisers of the Kala Cotton Initiative appreciated that they needed the skills of weavers to succeed, so the initiative was designed so as to encourage their participation.
I thank reader James Simpson for his thoughtful comment, as it’s spurred me to write about the Kala Cotton Initiative and to recall many pleasant visits to Kachchh, at a time when I’m greatly concerned about the health and well-being of my many friends in India.