Growing Cotton: One Small Sustainable Solution to the World Plastics Problem

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:

James Simpson
Yet sheep are not a sustainable means to produce clothing (or food) either. They denude the fields in which they are kept of everything edible. Just take a look at any herd. Cotton uses vast amounts of water to grow. There are no simple solutions to the plastics problem.


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.

A Solution?

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.

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    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Fixed it!. Thanks Gordon. Sometimes our software has a mind of its own and imports rogue formatting commands, as it did here.

  1. LAS

    Hoo boy.

    Too little was said about the historic and current slave labor which made cotton profitable. Otherwise, growing it was not profitable. The CDC has declared racism as a public health threat and here we’re talking about reviving the industry that particularly exemplified it in the USA — without addressing treatment of labor. Or is the labor all to occur in India?

    1. Carla

      @LAS: Perhaps you missed this: “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.”

      I think Jerri-Lynn is giving us an excellent example of a sustainable practice that is demonstrably working on the other side of the world without apparently exploiting people or the planet, and I am grateful to have learned about the Kala Cotton Initiative. Maybe if you go back and read the post again, you will be, too.

      1. Synoia

        The US Cotton growers raped the land. The kept planting cotton repeatedly, and after a few seasons destroyed their own soil, and reduced their yields.

        At a visit to the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s Estate, near Nashville, I asked the curator why the cotton farmers did not practice crop rotation, as had been practiced in England and Europe, the source of most of the settlers in the area.

        He looked astonished and then said, “I don’t know, I have never been asked that question.”

        I have two theories, one is that the Settlers from England, being sons of wealthy families, actually knew little of farming, and the second is that land appeared so abundant in the New World they they were careless stewards of their farms.

        1. freebird

          Wow. Do you also hate corn growers because they cause the massive anoxic dead zone in the Gulf, although they have promised to stop doing it many years ago, or is it just evil Southerners who merit the PC scorn.

          Cotton was a cash crop in times gone by, a family could raise enough on 10 acres to put a little money aside, in good years. All over the US, wherever it would grow, it was farmed because it was in great demand. And yes, there was so much land you could move on — hence the ‘Gone to Texas’ phenomenon.

          The cotton was grown to feed the raging demand by industrial looms in England, but of course they play no part in the morality play.

          And p.s. all you armchair agronomists, even irrigated cotton consumes less water than other major crops that can be grown on the same land, such as corn, soybeans and rice. I am excited that the new methods can reduce it further. But no need to get on our high horse about cotton as an inherently evil crop, no matter how mad we are at Confederate generals.

            1. freebird

              Why did subsistence Nebraska wheat farmers not practice crop rotation? Why did the Dust Bowl occur in Oklahoma? Methinks cotton farmers were much like other farmers, trying to survive and prosper, but that doesn’t fit the south-as-uniquely-evil narrative.

  2. Anonymous

    Thank you for shedding light on kala cotton and giving us a window into possibilities for sustainable cultivation, with history of pre-colonial times as our guide

  3. jo6pac

    We a story on Hemp. I’m sure it could replace cotton and plastic. Then again what do I know?

  4. Cocomaan

    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.

    This, plus consumer tastes for fabrics probably needs to get out of a hyper focus on immediate comfort and immediate gratification. Yes, clothes that are out of the box comfortable are nice but they don’t last.

    I think the average American should learn to do with some discomfort and maybe even find some meaning in it. I’m not saying we need to wear everything roughspun like early American ascetics and extremists (whose clothes were often soaked in blood from self flagellation), but there’s a lesson in here about comfort and humility and what cultivation of fabric does to the environment

    Embrace discomfort!

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Perhaps, but maybe I didn’t make my point clear – kala cotton has a nice soft comfortable handle and only becomes moreso over time. It’s breathable and much more pleasant to wear than shiny men’s shirting fabric, even fresh from the tailor. I’ve had my garments for four or five years now and there’s no sign that they’re wearing out.

      1. WalterM

        Thanks. I went to the website yesterday and looked a bit. It refers to it as a “stretchable fibre.” Am I right in thinking that you could make T-shirts out of it? (My most important garments :-)) It’s already used in denim. What more could you want?

        1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

          You couldn’t make T-shirts out of the stuff I bought, as it’s too heavy. You could make nice collared shirts, of about the heft of a denim or flannel shirt. I don’t know whether they’re producing finer fabrics now than what I bought.

          1. Sue inSoCal

            Thank you for this! Your knowledge of textiles is very exciting, as well as your positive possible future solutions. I’ve been reading for years about not just our lack of crop rotation but micro plastics in water and bodies from washing synthetics. (I’m also old enough to recall vast fields of cotton in Arizona all the way out west in Avondale. It was Agro city out there.)

  5. topcat

    Wool and Cotton are limited but renewable resources, oil is non-renewable, so that is one thing. Secondly, it isn’t the production of a shopping bag that is the problem, it is the throwing away of the shopping bag directly after use. I assume that an expensive cotton or wool bag would get looked after and reused hence there is no real equivalence. If plastic bags cost $10 each, even with $9,50 of that being a deposit, then we wouldn’t have a problem with plastics either.

  6. Tom Pfotzer

    It’s nice to take a re-look at materials with natural sources. I really like cotton; makes great jeans.

    Wool is another great candidate. While sheep can certainly be detrimental to the land they graze upon – almost any animal can be. Goats, pigs, chickens, cattle, bison…they will all trash a piece of land if they’re not moved across it rapidly. There’s an entire animal husbandry discipline called “management intensive grazing” whose function is to prevent the problems of over-grazing.

    Just to add another possibility to the mix….a few months ago it was time to buy some new sheets. As I said, I like cotton, so that was where I started the shopping search.

    But…turns out some of the commentary about which ones to buy raised the subject of bamboo fabric, which I had never heard of. I ended up buying those bamboo sheets, and I’m delighted with them.

    Bamboo fabric production can be environmentally bad, or it can be done well. Bamboo grows well in a lot of the world.

    1. Darius

      Asian bamboo is insanely invasive in North America, and pretty well impossible to eradicate. So, bamboo culture isn’t something to encourage here.

  7. Tom Stone

    Cotton, Rice and Nut trees are all overplanted in California, which has water laws and policies best described as seriously irrational.
    And as Wuk often points out we are experiencing climate change in California and the water storage and distribution system is rapidly becoming less fit for purpose.
    We’re facing the loss of a substantial percent of farmland in California over the next decades for a variety of reasons from salt water intrusion in the Delta to a lesser snow pack.
    So, maybe not California for Cotton…

  8. Wukchumni

    Similar but different to the Aral Sea, Tulare Lake was once the largest body of water west of the Great Lakes, but now it’s where JG Boswell grows a couple types of cotton on the dry lake bed.

    Boswell was a cotton grower chased out of the south by the Boll Weevil around 1900 and discovered that he could grow the finest quality cotton in California and when the US Army Air Corps needed it to cover biplanes in WW1, it set the stage for his company being the largest landholder in the USA. (until Gates?)

    Read all about it in The King of California

    If you asked 40 million Californians who he was, 39,999,342 would have no idea.

  9. Brunches with Cats

    Thanks, Wuk! I’m no longer a Californian (and according to the fourth-generation families in the town where I lived, I never was), but I’m surprised I never heard of him, as I freelanced for energy and environmental publications and covered some water issues while I was there. The things one learns from NC commentariat!

    I did a quick search, read that he married a Chandler, which certainly didn’t hurt his agro-ambitions. However, I also saw that J.G. who built up the empire and who was the subject of King of California (BTW, written by two LA Times reporters) was actually J.G. II, nephew of the family patriarch, who apparently was the lesser of two weevils. Lots of detail in LA Times obit:

    1. Wukchumni

      Yes, the book is primarily about JG Boswell II-the nephew, but you get the whole tale of how a massive Cali Ag ( they also have one in Aussie) empire that hardly anybody knows about came to be.

      I found the tome to be a real page turner…

  10. James Simpson

    Thanks Jerri-Lynn, for your well-researched response to my brief comment. I’ve no simple answers to the plastics problem, one of the many very hard questions we’ve not solved, yet far too many activists portray it as merely one of political will. Clearly, it’s not. The solutions provided elsewhere are often glib, without an understanding that
    – use of plastics was not, in the main, forced on the world. Plastics are functionally far superior to what they replaced and any replacements in turn will have to be functionally close. That’s hard.
    – replacements for plastics all have their own inherent problems, including organic cotton, and they would be used on a vast scale with those problems scaled up as well.

  11. Maurice

    Surprised to see that no body mentioned Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert

  12. Mikey Joe

    Thank you for your interesting article. What a contrast between the Kala and Aral Sea cotton.
    My wife used to import embroidered products from India. The quality and beauty of embroidered clothing from there was amazing. I hope the Kala story inspires others.

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