Cotton is primarily produced for its fibre (“cotton lint”), which is used as a textile raw material. Its seed is also used as cattle feed, or crushed to make oil. The shrub, whose seed and surrounding lint is termed a “boll,” is native to the Americas, Africa and India. Cotton has been cultivated since antiquity, but its use was industrialized after the invention of the mechanical cotton gin in 1793, which allowed for the efficient extraction of cotton seed from its fibre. The consumption of cotton grew to well over 40 per cent of the world’s fibre consumption in the 1990s, but has since dropped to about one third (U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agriculture Service, 2012), largely due to consumption of new synthetic fibres. In 2012, 27.2 million metric tons of cotton lint were produced by about 100 million farmers (Valderrama, 2005) on 0.7 per cent of the world’s agricultural land (see Table 9.1), about one-third of which was exported, for a total export value of US$20.2 billion (USDA, 2013c). As a reference, the larger textile trade was worth US$294 billion in 2011.1
Cotton has the potential to provide a sustainable source of textile fibre, notably in that it is renewable, recyclable, and drought and saline tolerant; it can be cultivated in areas where few other cash crops would survive. When cultivated using suboptimal agricultural practices, however, cotton production can have significant impacts on its surrounding ecosystem and communities. Although forced labour once dominated the discussion of cotton and sustainability (most infamously, during the U.S. Civil War), environmental, social and economic concerns including pesticide use, water use, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and government subsidies have come to the forefront over the last two decades, demonstrating that “sustainability and cotton” is a complex topic—one that can only be addressed and achieved through approaches adapted to local context.2
Cotton fibre is cultivated on both plantations and smallholdings and is harvested both mechanically and by hand. Well over three quarters of annual global cotton production is now genetically modified (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), 2012a), and about half the global area harvested is irrigated (accounting for 73 per cent of production; Ferrigno, 2012). This context has set the stage for the entry of two major international, multisector voluntary sustainability standards, Fairtrade and Organic, as well as two new sector-specific initiatives, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and Cotton made in Africa (CmiA). In 2012, 933,000 metric tons of cotton were produced in compliance with a sustainability standard (3.4 per cent of global production; see Figure 9.1), of which 448,000 metric tons were sold as standard compliant (48 per cent of standard-compliant production, 1.6 per cent of global production and 4.8 per cent of global exports). Brazil and India and Pakistan were the largest producers of standard compliant cotton by volume in 2012; Figure 9.12 breaks this down by standard.
1. [The apparel trade was worth US$412 billion during the same year (Fukunishi, Goto & Yamagata, 2013).]
2. [This is the case in many sectors, but notably even more so in cotton, due to the plant’s finicky growth cycle and massive variance in production systems across countries and regions.]