Cotton and Climate Change

“And no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change” – President Barack Obama, State of Union Address 2015

Climate Change and Agriculture

Climate change is the most urgent global threat we face, and pressure is mounting on governments around the world to commit to robust measures to tackle the crisis.

  • Agriculture accounts for around 14% of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and contributes 52% 0f the world’s methane emissions, and 84% of global nitrous oxide emissions.
  • If deforestation through land clearance and conversion of rangeland for agriculture, and trade in agricultural products, is included, this figure rises from 14% of global ghg emissions to between 30-40% – far higher than the global emissions from energy or transport.

Where does Cotton fit in?

  • In 2013/14, 26.2 million tons of cotton was produced globally, on around 33.1 million hectares of land.
  • Cotton is produced in 100 countries and uses approximately 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land. 100 million households, most in some of the world’s poorest countries, are dependent on cotton farming.
  • Although the manufacture, distribution and consumer-use phases of the lifecycle of a cotton product account for most its total GHG emissions, cotton production is responsible for approximately 12% the total.
  • Cotton production uses $2 billion worth of pesticides each year, and accounts for 16% of global insecticide use – more than any other single crop.
  • Cotton crops use huge quantities of water. One ton of cotton fiber uses 2,120 cubic meters of blue water (fresh ground and surface water – lakes, rivers and aquifers, for example), and it takes an estimated 2,700 liters of water to make just one cotton t-shirt.
  • It is estimated the global consumption of cotton releases around 220 million tons of CO2e and consumes around 4% of the world’s nitrogen fertilizers.

Solution: Organic Cotton

Carbon foot print of Organic Cotton

  • A study of organic cotton in one region of India, commissioned by PUMA (the sports clothing manufacturer), found a 40% reduction in global warming potential, 72% lower primary energy demand, and lower water consumption.
  • In 2014 a comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) was published by the Textile Exchange, covering global organic cotton production. The study found that organic cotton produced 978kg of CO2e per ton of cotton fiber, a 46% reduction in global warming potential compared to non-organic cotton.
  • The research also found a massive 91% reduction in water consumption – only 180 cubic meters of blue water is consumed per ton of organic cotton, compared to 2,120 cubic meters in conventional cotton.
  • In addition, there was a 62% reduced primary energy demand, 70% less acidification potential, and a 26% reduced eutrophication potential compared to non-organic cotton.

The Textile Exchange Life Cycle Assessment

In 2014 a comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) was published by the Textile Exchange, representing global organic cotton production. The performance of organic cotton was measured against the conventional cotton, published by Cotton Incorporated in 2012.

46% reduced global warming potential

The global warming potential (GWP) of conventionally produced cotton has been calculated to be 1,808kg of CO2e per 1 ton of cotton fiber. This study arrived at a total of just 978 kg of CO2e per ton for organic cotton.  The significant reduction compared to non-organic cotton production is attributed to the lower inputs required by organic farming, particularly manufactured fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation.

91% reduced blue water consumption

The study found that the global average water use for a ton of organic cotton fiber is 15,000m3 – of which almost all (around 95%) is green water (i.e. rainwater or soil moisture). Approximately 97% of this is irrigation; just 3% derives from upstream processes such as producing inputs to the farm and electricity).  The blue water consumption of organic cotton therefore amounts to just 180 cubic meters per ton of cotton, contrasting sharply with the findings in Cotton Incorporated’s 2012 LCA of conventional cotton of a total blue water use of 2,120 m³ per ton of cotton fiber.

62% reduced primary energy demand

Conventional cotton requires 15,000 Mj per ton of cotton fiber, of which fertilizer production accounts for 37% (followed by post-harvest operations, irrigation and machinery). In contrast, organic cotton has a primary energy demand of approximately 5,800 Mj per ton. Again, this can be attributed to the absence of manufactured fertilizers which, being derived from petrochemicals, carry a high primary energy demand.

Organic Farming Is Holistic

  • Organic farming is a holistic method which aims to work with, rather than against, nature and natural processes to build health and fertility across the ecology of the farm.
  • Almost all pesticides and manufactured fertilizers, including all weed killers, are prohibited. Instead crops are fed using nitrogen fixing legumes like red clover and Lucerne (alfalfa).
  • Weeds and crop diseases are controlled by methods such as closed systems, crop rotations and green manures – fast growing plants which limit the growth of weeds, provide cover for bare soils, and improve soil structure and nutrient quality.

In 2014, the global market for organic cotton grew by 67% and is now worth an estimated $15.7 billion. Global production of organic cotton is estimated to increase by 15 – 20% in 2014/15.

Why not use Organic cotton? It is this end stage, of altering consumer demand, habits and expectations, which presents the greatest challenge. With green energy, sustainable sourcing usually does not have any bearing on the end-product, for instance, a light switch will still work, regardless of whether the electricity that powers it is from coal or solar energy.

Organic Cotton Future

  • This evidence shows that conversion to organic cotton farming will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as delivering several other environmental, human health and social benefits.
  • Leading designers, manufacturers and retailers are already supporting the 148,000 organic cotton farmers around the world, and they and others need to do more to grow organic cotton production.
  • The fashion and textiles industries should recognize that the pioneers of environmentally sustainable, organic methods are helping to fight climate change, and are setting a standard for all cotton producers.
  • Individual consumers can make an impact by choosing organic cotton clothing, bedding and other products.


The Cottoned On campaign was launched by the Soil Association and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the leading standard for organic textile processing. Consumers, manufacturers, brands and NGOs can sign up here: The Soil Association was founded in 1946 by farmers, scientists, doctors and nutritionists to promote the connection between the health of the soil, food, animals, people and the environment. Today the Soil Association is the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use. To find out more visit
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