Cotton Thread Count – the real story behind your cotton clothing

See also Second wind: breathing new life into old clothes, published in same issue.

Despite the fact that cotton is a natural fibre, conjuring up images of cool summer clothing, crisp sheets and fluffy towels, the actual process of growing and processing cotton these days is far from natural or sustainable, and it’s also having devastating impacts on communities.

A convergence of globalisation and consumerism is driving an insatiable demand for cotton, which makes up at least fifty percent of the textile market. Synthetic textiles make up the other half and have their own set of problems.

We’ve seen the advent of ‘fast fashion’, where garments are churned out using cheap labour to appeal for a season, then get tossed out. All of this cotton has to be grown and processed somewhere using vast amounts of natural resources.

Is organic cotton the answer? What about other fibre crops like hemp and bamboo? Do they provide more sustainable options?

There’s no doubt we urgently need more earth-friendly fabrics and fashion but we also need to reassess our consumption of it and look at re-using and recycling clothing and fabrics so they don’t just end up as polishing rags or in landfills. Designers can also become more conscious of producing styles and clothing that lasts.

In thinking about this issue, I can’t help but recall an enduring image and a very powerful idea, which seems to have more meaning than ever before in these turbulent economic times.
It’s that of Gandhi, sitting behind a spinning wheel in his dhoti, urging Indians to embark on a non-violent, hand-spun revolution by rejecting imported textiles and the destruction of local craft and the employment that comes with it, in favour of locally made Khadi, or ‘freedom fabric’.

Industrial cotton

To get the picture of how the majority of cotton is grown today, visualise vast tracts of land cleared of its vegetation, where the soil is laser-levelled to remove its natural contours, creating a flat, featureless landscape. Fields are planted with genetically engineered (GE) cotton varieties, with genes inserted for herbicide resistance and bacteria that turn the cotton plant into its own constantly-producing insecticide factory.

Cotton fields are sprayed both from the air and with ground-based boom sprays, spreading toxic fertilisers, insecticides, herbicides, and defoliants. Huge on-site storage dams and irrigation channels divert water from its course, delivering it to one of the world’s thirstiest crops. Business managers, not farmers, run these corporate-owned operations, and they answer to company directors and shareholders, not communities or nature.

For the cotton industry in the 21st century, this vision represents the pinnacle of achievement for industrialised agriculture in a globalised market. According to Cotton Australia, the peak industry body, the Australian cotton industry is comparatively one of the most efficient and productive in the world. But this efficiency and productivity all comes at a cost that most of us don’t ever see or consider.

Cotton has a long history

The history of cotton apparently dates back some 7,000 years, as evidenced by fragments of cotton fabric found and dated in Mexico. Cotton was also grown and hand-woven in the Indus River Valley in Pakistan and Egypt’s Nile Valley, and Arab merchants are credited with bringing cotton cloth to Europe.

Cotton was originally hand picked and spun, but the industrial revolution and the invention of the cotton gin in the late 1700s paved the way for mass production. The availability of water has also been a critical factor in its development throughout the world, and it may well turn out to be the limiting factor for its continued growth in the future.

The big producers of cotton today include China, India, USA, Pakistan, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Central and West Africa, and Turkey. While each country has its own story to tell about the history and impacts of cotton growing, it seems that practically every place where cotton is grown, there is evidence of devastation to communities and the environment.

Aral Sea tragedy

The Aral Sea tragedy in Uzbekistan stands out as one of the most egregious environmental and human disasters caused by cotton growing. It also serves as a stark reminder of what happens when greed drives decision-making and nature and common sense take second place.

When the former Soviet Union diverted the Ama Dariya and the Syrdariya rivers, which fed the inland Aral Sea to grow cotton in the desert, they starved it of its water supply. After decades of irrigation, the sea receded and the water table rose to the surface bringing salt with it, causing the death of wildlife and ruining the health and livelihoods of countless numbers of people who were dependent on the inland sea.1

Indian farmers’ suicide

A human tragedy is unfolding in India today where farmers from the Maharashtra cotton-growing area of Vidarbha, as well as other regions throughout India, are taking their lives because of the hopeless cycle of debt they’ve found themselves in.

Under conditions from India’s World Trade Organisation commitments, the state government is no longer permitted to subsidise or support local farmers by buying their cotton for a fair price.  Farmers must now compete on the ‘free market’ for the first time, where traders beat down the prices and take longer to pay them, forcing them to borrow money from banks and entrenching them in debt.2

It’s believed that some 4,000 farmers may have already suicided, leaving their families behind in an even more desperate situation.

Cotton in Australia

Large-scale irrigated cotton growing got underway in Australia in the 1960s. Auscott, an American company, saw an opportunity to obtain multiple water licences from the New South Wales government, who were busy promoting irrigation to justify the newly-built Keepit Dam in the Namoi Valley.

It was this rush to irrigated agriculture that has, in part, resulted in the over allocation of water. The Keepit Dam was supposed to provide a backup for cycles of drier times, which are the norm in Australia. This story was repeated in other river valleys across Australia.

Once they acquired the water rights, Auscott imported farm equipment from the USA and began growing cotton on a scale never before seen in Australia. The rest is history, as they say.

Indigenous Australians also played an integral part in the early development of the industry. In the 1970s they were employed as ‘chippers’ to hand weed the cotton, a job considered too hard for most because of the intensely hot working conditions and the hard physical labour. As the use of planes to aerially apply pesticides increased, these workers were also used as ‘human markers’ to guide the planes and were frequently doused with chemicals themselves.

The vast majority of Australian-grown cotton is now exported to Asian spinning mills for the textile market, and we buy it back as clothing and textiles. Cottonseed is crushed to make cooking oil, such as blended vegetable oils and is added to processed foods; the meal and hulls are used as stock feed; a surprising fact given the majority of it is now genetically engineered.

Water woes

Here’s a fact to consider next time you buy a new pair of jeans and T-shirt—it takes more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton.3

According to Siobhan McHugh in her fascinating historical account, Cottoning On: Stories of Australian Cotton Growing4, by the end of the 1960s, irrigated cotton production in the Wee Waa region in New South Wales had heralded the most rapid and dramatic change in land use in the area since European settlement. Cotton irrigators by that stage were using 80 percent of the water from the Keepit Dam.

The cotton industry is quick to dismiss claims that they are profligate users of water, arguing that they use no more than other summer crops such as soy or corn. Yet for years the industry has resisted calls to change their wasteful irrigation practices.

They also defend their water use by claiming water is best ‘spent’ on the crop that returns the highest dividends per mega-litre of water, ie, cotton. Such a narrow economic focus obviously fails to take into account the water needs of the entire community.

As we have seen in recent times with the Murray-Darling Basin disaster, we have a lot to learn about looking after water in Australia and equitably distributing it. Cubbie cotton station in Queensland, the biggest cotton enterprise and irrigator in the Murray-Darling Basin, was recently given a water licence by the Queensland government estimated to be worth as much as $100 million.5 The decision has angered downstream users and highlights the urgent need to re-think what we’re doing with Australia’s precious water resources.

Pressure from the cotton industry to access new water sources and land is never far away. A proposal in the late 1990s to dam the Fitzroy River in the Kimberleys to provide water for an enormous irrigated agricultural enterprise was thankfully defeated. At the time it was envisaged that genetically engineered cotton would be grown on a massive scale in the West Kimberley, an idea that would have created untold damage to the landscape and communities living in the area. This idea may still raise its ugly head again.

Chemical contamination

The cotton industry has a shocking track record as big users and polluters of toxic chemicals. Some estimates indicate that up to 20 percent of the world’s pesticide use is on cotton.
It’s not uncommon for farmers and farm workers to be exposed to pesticides during work on cotton fields, which not only affects their health, but also the health of their families and generations to come. Wildlife is regularly contaminated, particularly aquatic species and birds, and large fish kills often occur during peak cotton spraying times. These are the gross impacts of pesticide contamination, but there’s also unseen damage to species through constant low-level pesticide exposures that impact on their immune systems, making them susceptible to disease and predators.

One of the most notorious cotton pesticides is the organophosphate insecticide methyl parathion, a chemical currently under review by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), due to its high toxicity to aquatic organisms, bees, and other insects. It is also very dangerous for agricultural workers and it persists in the soil for long periods.6

Australia has had a string of pesticide contamination incidents associated with cotton. In 1994, Australian beef was contaminated with the cotton insecticide Helix® (chlorfluazuron) as a result of cattle being fed contaminated cotton straw. In response, several countries suspended beef imports from Australia. One year later, farmers were alarmed to discover that newborn calves were also contaminated with Helix, apparently because it was passed through their mother’s milk.

Twenty-three farms in New South Wales and Queensland were placed in quarantine in 1996 after inspectors discovered high levels of endosulfan in beef cattle, due to pesticide spray drift off cotton farms contaminating grazing land. Australian beef was rejected for export again in 1999, due to contamination with endosulfan residues.

Endosulfan, an organochlorine pesticide like DDT, is currently being considered for inclusion on the Stockholm Convention of Persistent Organic Pollutants. It is one stage away from being listed for global phase-out because it disrupts hormones and bio-accumulates up the food chain. Recent bio-monitoring research has found endosulfan metabolites in human placenta samples, which means even the unborn are being exposed to it.

Endosulfan was reviewed by the APVMA during the beef contamination incidents and restrictions were placed on its continued use after cotton farmers lobbied heavily to keep it. A compromise was struck and cotton farmers are now required by law to notify their neighbours if they intend to use endosulfan and they are restricted to certain formulations and a specified number of applications per season.

The Australian cotton industry, unlike many other cotton growing countries, also uses defoliating chemicals before the cotton crop is harvested. Defoliants are typically a mixture of the chemicals diuron and thiadazuron, which inhibit photosynthesis and cause the plant to drop its leaves. Thiadazuron is toxic to aquatic creatures and does not biodegrade quickly. Diuron can remain active in soil for about 4 to 8 months.7

Genetically engineered cotton

Given the cotton industry’s bad reputation with toxic chemical use, it’s not surprising they turned to genetic engineering in the hope of solving some of their problems.

Since the introduction of Ingard®, the first GE cotton released in Australia in 1996, and the subsequent release of Roundup Ready® cotton in 2000 and Bollgard11® in 2003, the industry claims that around 95 percent of cotton growers now plant GE varieties and over 80 percent of the total crop is GE.

Bollgard11® cotton contains genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which produces a toxin fatal to caterpillars, the main pest of cotton. Since the introduction of Bollgard11® the cotton industry claims that there has been an 85 percent average reduction in pesticide applications.

While this figure may be true for externally applied pesticides (although the figure is difficult to independently verify), when you consider that the cotton plant has now been turned into its own pesticide factory, constantly producing the Bt toxin, you could argue there’s actually been a net increase in the use and reliance on pesticides.

To date, GE cottons in Australia have mostly been grown under severe drought conditions, and in relatively small amounts compared to peak cotton production times, so their performance under more difficult pest seasons is also uncertain.

A major concern for the industry is that the caterpillars will quickly develop resistance to the Bt toxin, a problem made all the more likely because they are constantly being exposed to it.

Roundup Ready® cotton is tolerant to the herbicide Roundup®, or glyphosate, which just happens to be the number one selling herbicide of Monsanto, the owner of the GE cotton. There is research showing that since the introduction of the herbicide-tolerance trait there has been an overall increase in the use of herbicides.8

The use of antibiotic resistance marker genes (ARMs), derived from micro-organisms to make these GE cottons, is also highly controversial. The UK Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes actually warned in 1994 of the possible food safety issues that might arise from the use of ARMs because the genes could transfer to intestinal bacteria.9

During the genetic engineering process, a gene providing resistance to an antibiotic is inserted into GE plants as a marker, which is linked to the new gene with the trait being inserted.

The concern is that these antibiotic resistant marker genes could also transfer from the GE plant into bacteria in the gut and cause disease in humans and other animals, rendering some vital antibiotics useless.

First-hand experience

I was working as the toxic chemicals campaigner at the Total
Environment Centre in Sydney in the mid-1990s when I received a
desperate phone call from the Gunnedah Environment Group. Gunnedah is a
rural town in the Namoi Valley in New South Wales where cotton is

This group of concerned people and farmers themselves,
wanted our help because they believed their entire community and
environment were at great risk from exposure to the toxic chemicals
used in cotton growing. They also reported that illegal storage dams
were being built to hoard water and that laser levelling of land was
changing the course of floodwaters, devastating some farms, while
depriving others of water.

Cotton growing was booming in the
early 1990s and there was big money to be made. Families more familiar
with wool and wheat farming suddenly found themselves living next door
to cotton fields where lots of chemicals were used and spray drifted
inside their homes, over their washing and onto their children, crops
and livestock. Kids waiting for school buses were even being exposed.

were frightened and feeling sick, suffering nosebleeds, asthma attacks,
rashes, and headaches. Some even believed the pesticides were to blame
for high rates of miscarriage in the area. Anger grew when they
discovered their rainwater tanks, in some cases kilometres from the
nearest spraying, tested positive to a range of pesticide residues
sprayed on cotton.

One badly affected family moved off their
farm to live in town, while another family, whose children were very
affected by the pesticides, had no option but to endure repeated

Naïve to just how serious these problems were, I
became involved to advocate for those affected and to do something
about pesticide pollution. My outrage grew as I found out just how
inadequate the law was to protect people from pesticide exposures and
just how little was known, or acknowledged, about the hazards of
exposing people and the environment to pesticides.

I was
propelled on a journey, still ongoing nearly fifteen years later, to
have regulations put in place to ensure people in agricultural areas
are better protected, and have legal recourse if they are exposed to

While there has been some legislative progress since
that time, the key issue that drove me to this work remains unresolved.
People living in farming areas where there is intensive pesticide use,
still have little to protect themselves from pesticide exposures other
than to ask the neighbour to let them know before they spray.

seems unbelievable to recall that we sat around under very tense and
sometimes hostile circumstances debating with regulators, cotton
farmers, and industry representatives about whether pesticides were
even capable of drifting in the air and whether they could possibly
even cause harm in ‘such small amounts’. We know today that pesticides
do indeed drift and repeated exposure over our lifetimes can lead to
health effects.

Thankfully we have made some progress on the
legislative front. Commercial users of pesticides now at least have to
undertake mandatory training in the safe use and handling of pesticides
and records must also be kept of pesticide applications. In New South
Wales there are also requirements to notify people in public places of
intended pesticide use.

Cotton processing and dyeing

Once cotton has been harvested it moves into the processing phase where pre-treatments, dyeing, printing, and finishing introduce a whole new set of chemicals and environmental problems. The production processes also consume large amounts of energy and water, and create toxic waste products.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are used during different stages of processing, and cotton is whitened with bleaching agents such as hypochlorite. The finishing process also uses VOCs and formaldehyde, a known carcinogenic chemical even at very small doses.

The dyeing and printing process uses reactive dyes containing heavy metal pigments and formaldehyde containing fixing agents. The demand for easy-care and wrinkle resistant clothing is also driving chemical use in the finishing phase, where textiles are subjected to a variety of processes, often involving formaldehyde, to give the fabric different properties. Residues of the formaldehyde are found in the fabric surface when we purchase them and present a hazard for workers in the fashion industry.

Stain resisting, waterproofing, and antibacterial chemicals may also be applied for specialist fabrics. These chemicals, such as the perfluronated chemicals and the antibacterial triclosan, are turning up as persistent pollutants in our bodies and the environment.

Organic cotton

Certified organic cotton offers many benefits compared to its chemically-grown counterpart and thankfully, it’s more available than ever before. In the biologically-based system for growing organic cotton, healthy soils are retained through crop rotation and soil moisture is encouraged with increased organic matter.

Rather than working against nature, beneficial insects are encouraged and biological pesticides such as Neem oil are used for pest management. Water management and hand-harvesting are used as alternatives to toxic defoliating chemicals.

Mechanical weeding, mulching, intercropping (planting other crops to attract beneficial insects) and crop rotating are some of the strategies used for weed management. In the processing phases, non-toxic ingredients are used, as are natural dyes and low-impact water-based inks and pigments. Even growing different strains of cotton can produce different coloured cotton without the need for dyes.

Whilst a vast improvement on industrial cotton, water use still needs to be considered, as do issues around labour and fair trade. Being a more labour intensive crop to grow, it tends to be grown in countries with cheaper labour such as India, China, Turkey, and Africa.

It is reported that around 24 countries are now growing organic cotton and worldwide production is growing at a rate of about 50 percent a year. The USA is also a big producer while Australia grows virtually none.

Given the high level of environmental damage associated with industrial cotton growing and processing, and the impacts it has on communities, it’s clear we can no longer continue down this path to meet our fibre needs.
The future for sustainable textile production lies in growing a range of fibre crops in environments they are best suited to, and ensuring the people who grow and process them are not exploited in cheap labour markets. Organic cotton, hemp and bamboo, processed with plant-based chemistry, all appear to offer many advantages. We also need to consider our over-consumption of resources, be they sustainable or not. Instead of ‘waste couture’ it would be wonderful to see a revival of well made clothing in designs that can span the seasons and years, as well as a much greater emphasis on the use of second-hand fabrics and clothing.

Cloth unplugged

Bamboo—a quick
growing plant that does not require fertiliser or pesticides to thrive,
requires little water, and survives extreme conditions. It releases a
significant amount of oxygen into the atmosphere, more than trees, so
planting bamboo can help reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the air
as well as reducing soil erosion and desertification. The bamboo fabric
is soft like silk, yet hardwearing. Bamboo keeps you cool in the summer
and warm in the winter. It is antibacterial, quick-drying and quick to
absorb moisture—keeping you dry and comfortable.

However the
jury is still out regarding the manufacturing end. Eco fashion fans are
concerned by the harsh chemicals it takes to break bamboo down to
create fabric. The increased demand for bamboo clothing has encouraged
Chinese manufacturers to clear rainforest for bamboo growing. Here’s
the bad news: China is the sole supplier of organic bamboo textiles for
the world—the reason for this monopoly is because they slapped a patent
on the process. So other more earth-friendly countries are unable to
produce this material. Sigh.

Hemp—a durable,
hard-wearing fabric that gets softer with time. It has been around for
centuries, and has even been found in the tombs of ancient Egypt. It
absorbs moisture which makes it perfect for bedding and keeping you
cool on warm summer nights. Hemp manufacturers claim that it lasts
longer than other natural fibres. Both industrial hemp and marijuana
have the same technical name of cannabis sativa. They are essentially
different varieties of the same plant. Industrial hemp contains almost
untraceable amounts of THC, the ‘active’ ingredient in marijuana. Hemp
requires little or no use of fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides or
herbicides to grow successfully. As with all fabrics, it is important
to do your research into how the product is processed, where it is
processed and if standards of ethics and sustainability are met.

Organic cotton—like
ordinary cotton but better because it strains the environment, farmers
and communities less. Australia now grows certified organic cotton that
is grown with no irrigation—just rain water. Many organic cotton
clothing retailers are using this particular fabric; look for the ones
who carry it.

Regardless of which fabric you choose, keep these
things in mind. How far did it have to travel to get to your door? What
processes were used to dye or bleach the fabric? Is it Fair Trade, or
No Sweat Shop labelled? When you see the No Sweat Shop label on a
garment, it means the garment was manufactured in Australia and all of
the people involved in its production received, as a minimum, the Award
wage rates and conditions. Many people are shocked when they learn
textile workers in Australia are often paid as little as three dollars
an hour. Exploitation is very common in the fashion and clothing
industry, in any country.

The last thing you might like to consider is…do you really need it?


‘To Bamboo or Not to Bamboo’, March 13, 2008,
Everman, Victoria, ‘How Eco Is Organic Cotton? The Facts on 7 Questions’,

1. ‘The Aral Sea tragedy’. Paul Welsh, BBC News, 16 March 2000.
2. ‘Debt drives Indian farmers to suicide.’ Zubair Ahmed, BBC News, 1 May 2006.
3. ‘Cotton: a water wasting crop,’ WWF,
4. Siobhan McHugh, Cottoning On: Stories of Australian Cotton Growing, Hale & Iremonger, 1996.
5. ‘Farmers fume over Cubbie Station ‘gift’ of water license.’ Greg Roberts, The Australian, July 10, 2008.,25197,23996542-5013404,00.html
6. Parathion-methyl review, APVMA.
7. Dropp® Ultra Cotton Defoliant, Material Safety Data Sheet, Bayer CropScience, 2006.
8. ‘Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Nine Years’, Charles Benbrook, BioTech InfoNet, Technical Paper Number 7 (2004).
9. ‘The use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM plants,’ The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and processes, 2005.

Published in Kindred, Issue 28

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