Cotton has been a crop harvested for thousands of years and only in 1793 did a man named Eli Whitney invent the Cotton Gin, a device which sped up the process of separating the cotton seeds from the raw fibers. Before Whitney’s invention, farmers and laborers were handpicking the crop and separating the seeds from the fibers by hand which was extremely time consuming and tedious work. “Following the War of 1812, a huge increase in production resulted in the so-called cotton boom, and by midcentury, cotton became the key cash crop” in the United States. (OER Services, p.1). During this time, over half of America’s Cotton exports came from the Southern states and the U.S produced over 75% of the world’s cotton. (Kelly, p.1, 2019).
From Growing to Clothing
Cotton is a fundamental resource to the apparel industry, accounting for “3 percent of the total amount of water consumed by agriculture” (Newell, p.1, 2019). On the farming side, “it takes more than…(5,283 gallons) of water to produce…(2.2 pounds) of cotton, which roughly equals one T-shirt and a pair of jeans” (Newell, p.1, 2019). Overflow and evaporation take a large responsibility for the waste of water during the irrigation of cotton crops. Drip irrigation is the most conservative method to water crops since it avoids mist water which evaporates quickly and flooding that happens with overwatering, but can be costly for small farmers. Because of the significant benefits, organizations like the C&A Foundation are fighting for financial means to offer water-conserving irrigation accessible. In the “Water Report On The Cotton Industry”, the Executive Director of this foundation commented “These new irrigation systems can increase yields by 30% and reduce water usage by up to 60%,” (p. 9, You can check out their Water Report here http://cottonconnect.org/wp-content/uploads/cottonconnect_more_crop_per_drop.pdf).
On the manufacturing side, the process of dyeing fabrics not only uses an alarming amount of water, but the runoff from this process pollutes our groundwater and running water sources with many chemicals. “About one fifth of the global water footprint due to cotton consumption is related to the pollution” (p. 31, You can see the Institute for Water Education water footprint here https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report18.pdf) meaning the runoff water enters large bodies of water without prior treatment and “can be translated into a certain water requirement for dilution based on water quality standards” (p. 31 https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report18.pdf). In other words, after being dumped into rivers, lakes, oceans, etc. the polluted water can be treated to be used for public use.
Recycled Water and Cotton in the Industry
The Jean Giant, Levi Straus & Co. has put in new initiatives in their jean manufacturing to conserve the use of water in growing cotton. For starters, you can donate an older pair of Levi’s and they will refurbish the pair of jeans, and resell them as a “vintage” line of older styles. Levi’s supports a “Better Cotton Initiative” which upholds high standards for growing quality by using less water. During some washing processes, only a “thimble” of water is used in addition to ozone instead of soaps, and popular items such as bottle caps and golf balls are used to tumble the jeans to get that soft feeling, “taking the water out of the wash altogether. (You can view their waterless techniques here https://www.levistrauss.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Open-Source-Water-Innovations.pdf).
Nike has also created a water-free dye that eliminates the use of water during manufacturing through “heat and pressure to convert liquid CO2 to supercritical fluid carbon dioxide, or “SCF” CO2, which then permeates and carries the dye into the fabric” (Nike, p. 1, 2013). This process minimizes energy usage by about 60%, rids the need for process chemicals and uses nearly 100% of the dye used which severely decreases runoff pollution.
How will you help conserve our water and cotton?
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Sources and further readings:
The Economics Of Cotton | Us History I (os Collection) , OER Services
Historical Significance of the Cotton Gin. Kelly, Martin Kelly Martin – thoughtco.com/the-cotton-gin-in-american-history-104722 , 2019
Quenching Cotton’s Thirst: Reducing the Use Of Water in the Cotton Lifecycle
Andrea Newell – https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2016/quenching-cottons-thirst-reducing-use-water-cotton-lifecycle/57196 , 2019
Nike Colordry Adds Water-free Dyed Fabric To Sustainable Materials Menu
Nike – https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/nike-colordry-water-free-sustainable-materials