22 September 2020 by Vonnie Conlan
I remember the first time I came across cotton growing in the heat of a Turkish summer. The field of small white cotton balls reminded me of a field of snow – impossible in the heat of the day. I was astonished as I held the cotton in my hands and pulled an un-ending cotton fiber from its husk. I understood then why this unusual plant was often referred to as ‘white gold’. The fluffy white ball that comes out of the plant has been cultivated for centuries, to create a natural yarn for fabrics that is both breathable and comfortable.
When we first started the Arc Lore journey little were we aware of the scale of interdependencies between our ecosystems and our daily choices. But standing in that field and seeing where it all starts brought home to me just how important it is. What we have since learnt about organic farming and cotton has compelled us to be a part of an organic movement. We believe in it enough to have made it one of our company values. And so here we want to share with you some of what we have learnt in the hope it becomes as important to you as it is to us.
Poison & pollution
Conventional cotton farming uses significant amounts of insecticides and pesticides, in fact cotton farming accounts for only 2.5% of the global agriculture land but is responsible for 16% of all global pesticide use. These highly hazardous chemicals end up in the air, the soil and waterways such as rivers, lakes and sea. They can stay in the soil and waterways for years leading to illnesses and even deaths as well as polluting the surrounding ecosystems. Additionally, these toxic pesticides weaken the soil making it less able to absorb nutrients and subsequently leading to soil erosion and thirsty soil.
Organic cotton agriculture applies a different and often slower, approach to farming without exposing farmers and animals to toxic pesticides. Farmers work with nature using a range of methods including crop rotation (planting a different crop during off season) to naturally manage the cyclic build up of pests and utilising biodiversity such as livestock for natural pest control. Ultimately, by building up the biodiversity within the soil, the plants are more resistant to disease and soil erosion is reduced. The Soil Association went so far as to say that if all cotton farming made use of organic techniques, pesticide usage would drop by 98%.
Conventional cotton requires a significant amount of water. The World WildLife Fund reports that it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilo of cotton; that is approximately two towels. Cotton is often grown on arid lands and already water-scarce areas in the developing world such as parts of India, China and Central Asia. Applying farming techniques without the long term fertility of soil in mind may deplete the surrounding water resources for irrigation. A lack of nutrients in the soil means that the soil around the crop is unable to hold the water it receives and much of it is washed away or evaporates. An example of this comes from the Aral sea found between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. An acceleration in commercial trade of ‘white gold’ meant the sustainable methods that had been applied over centuries were abandoned in the pursuit of faster production. It has left the Aral sea 1/10th the size of what it once was.
At its core, organic farming is concerned with healthy soil by investing in the long term fertility of soil. Organic cotton farming techniques include preparing the farming soil, planting in areas which have access to rainwater and applying other water conservation techniques for irrigation. Healthy soil means the ability to better absorb nutrients, improved water storage and stronger soil. It results in organic cotton using 91% less water than conventional cotton.
Desertification is the process by which fertile land becomes desert. Climate change and deforestation are some of the major causes and excessive irrigation from cotton farming is a primary contributor. Globally, land degradation is rapidly accelerating and these new drylands are home to communities who rely on nearby water supplies for their livelihoods. Land degradation leads to uninhabitable land - no vegetation can grow, animals have no feed, humans are breathing in dust, and drinking water becomes polluted and contaminated. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification every year land the size of England is turning into deserts. By 2030 it is estimated that 50 million people could be displaced from their homes and by 2050 an estimated 700 million, as a result of desertification and land resource issues. Quite simply that is a large movement of people within the next decade!
Organic cotton agriculture utilises a holistic approach that works to improve the biodiversity of an area and regenerative methods which can restore the land and the ecosystem. Organic farming is a sustainable way of farming that supports the farmers as well as the surrounding land, communities and animals. Depending on how the land had been used previously, it can take up to three years to convert a farm to organic standards. The long term gain of healthy soil is priceless. Where there is healthy soil it stops the spread of deserts, it becomes habitable land, it reduces diseases and illnesses caused by dirty water and toxins, it builds biodiversity, and a healthy ecosystem where people can live and not be displaced from their homes.
The changes happening to our planet can seem overwhelming and impossible to reverse, but everyday we can all make choices that are gentle on the environment. You too can become a part of the organic movement. And when it comes to towels, you can rest assured that choosing from the Arc Lore collection will be choosing to care for our world.