Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cotton and the 20,000 mile Tee-Shirt

Cotton and the 20,000 mile tee shirt.
This blog has taken me more time than I at first thought. The subject of cotton is huge and will take a long time to research the implications of peak fossil fuels on cotton and all fibers. So, consider this blog an introduction on the future of cotton. My ideas about what I wanted to say changed throughout the week or so I've been working on it so I apologize if it seems a bit scattered- I'm also still new to blogging!
Cotton- the fabric of our lives.® At least that's been the case for the last several hundred years since the  industrial revolution. The early inventions of the industrial revolution, including the cotton gin, the water frame (the first powered textile machine), spinning jenny, and the spinning mule truly revolutionized our entire culture through the changes wrought by the industrialization of manufacturing and changed the clothes we wear. Later, the industrialization of farming freed many of the farm workers (both free and enslaved) from the arduous work in the cotton fields. Fast forward to today. The advent of peak fossil fuels will change what we wear, the quantity of our textiles, and how we produce them. I hope that as we move back to more manual labor on our farms as fossil fuels become more expensive, that we can avoid the social ramifications of wealthy landowners and thousands of people in need of work and food. More on that in a later blog post. Because I have found that the subject of cotton and peak fossil fuels is a huge subject, today, I'll give a bit of background and just start on the future of cotton.
I've been hearing from several sources lately, both anecdotal and in news reports, that cotton supplies are way down and that we will start feeling those effects in the marketplace with reduced cotton quality and much higher prices for everything containing cotton. From a peak oil prospective, due to both the extremely high input requirements for cotton (pesticides, fertilizer, GMO seeds, energy, etc) and cotton's history as a highly labor intensive crop, cotton's future as a post carbon fiber is not ensured.  The other big issue with cotton and textiles in general is transportation. If you thought the "1500 mile Caesar salad" was outrageous, the idea of an 18,000 mile tee shirt is way over the top! So let's look first at the big picture of cotton.
Worldwide, cotton acreage has remained fairly stable since the end of the 1940's at around 34.8 million hectares. Yields have greatly increased from 0.2 tons/hectare (t/h) to about 0.8 t/h today.1 Water resources used in cotton production and processing are very high and are mostly borne by the countries which grow and process the cotton instead of the countries using the finished products.2 Many of the countries which grow, process, and manufacture cotton products are countries who are experiencing increasing water stress due to the combined effects of drawdown of aquifer waters, higher populations requiring more water, and climate changes. This does include the USA as most of the cotton grown here is grown in the arid southwest. Greater water stress will ultimately reduce the acreage devoted to cotton in arid regions and reduce yields in many areas. Increasing fuel costs will also affect cotton production.
Cotton production also requires large inputs of herbicides, pesticides, man-made fertilizers, and seeds (often genetically modified seeds). According to the Organic Trade Association3, cotton uses 2.5% or the world's cultivated land and uses 16% of the insecticides used worldwide. 34% of the total cotton cropland producing 45% of total production is from genetically modified cotton. It takes 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizers to make 1# raw cotton and it takes 1# raw cotton to make one tee shirt. (If anyone knows of a conventional cotton industry source for similar info, let me know- I'd like to have info from both sides…) I've read reports on both sides indicating both decreases and increases in the use of herbicides on cotton since the introduction of herbicide resistant GM varieties. In general, it doesn't matter exactly what the exact volume of chemicals is that are used on cotton. What matters is that it is a large amount and those chemicals are derived from fossil fuels and it is thus an unsustainable practice in a declining energy world and will have to change if we are to continue wearing and using cotton textiles.
Botanically, cotton is a warm weather crop. It has a season of 130-155 days requiring about 6 months free from frost. It also requires 24-48" of rainfall per year and often supplemental irrigation. This means in a world with reduced high volume long distance trade due to high fuel costs and reduced availability of fuels, cotton will be much more expensive and difficult to obtain in the colder and dryer regions of the world. One of the reasons less cotton is grown in wet, humid regions in the south is cotton's susceptibility to pests and disease. With future difficulties obtaining the large amounts of herbicides and pesticides in addition to a reduced ability to pump aquifer water in arid areas, cotton's geographical range will be further reduced. I will be looking into the production of organic cotton as to whether or not these methods have shown promise in more disease prone areas of cotton production. Although the fiber content of the clothes for my year-long experiment, (see posts 1 & 2), ranges from 60-99% cotton, the chances that in the future I will be wearing many clothes with such high cotton contents looks slim. Other fibers, like wool, linen, and hemp are more likely in a climate like mine (Michigan, USA)
The US is the world's leading cotton exporter (that's raw cotton, not finished goods) and a leading importer of finished cotton clothing and household goods (the US imports 83% of the total $50.9 billion worth of cotton apparel and household goods from the top 10 producing countries4. There is a high probability that the cotton for my clothes travelled at least 10,000 on it's journey from seed to finished garment possibly almost twice as long if the cotton is grown in, for example, Brazil, shipped to China to be made into a garment and shipped back to the USA as a finished product. If the summer of 2008 was any indicator, international shipping will likely be drastically reduced as oil and other fossil fuels become more expensive and in short supply. In the future, we will be forced to get more of our products, whether food, fiber, or other goods, locally or at least from vastly closer places. To me, it only makes sense to start working on that now.
Cotton is a very hungry crop. Soils, unless cared for very well with constant additions of organic matter, organic fertilizers, etc, will rapidly deplete and will no longer be rich enough to grow cotton. It is even questionable whether the current soils, which have been growing crops for years using only industrial agricultural methods, would yield sufficient crops if we were forced in a very short period of time to transition to more organic methods.
Ok, in general, I am saying that cotton will not be as common a fiber in the future. I think we will still use it as it's benefits are many- it's an extremely versatile fiber. It has been around since way before the fossil fuel era so we will figure out ways to keep using it.
I did buy a sample of cotton fiber last year at a fiber festival. I'll have to try spinning it soon! I've spun wool, flax, and silk and can see making clothes from those.  I can see it will be quite a learning process. More on that in a later post.
I finished my second week wearing my one set of cotton clothing. They've been washed twice now and aren't showing any signs of wear. I have been getting some ideas about ornamentation and will be working on that in the next few weeks as time allows. I've found the need to do some spot washing of my jeans due to a bit of duck poop while spreading more bedding in the duck house.
I look forward to your comments.  As I have found cotton and the implications of peak oil to be a vast subject and will be coming back to it many times and look forward to your comments!
Some references I used as well as some other sources of info:
5.                Difficult to tell on first look where most of the cotton is consumed. Raw cotton "consumption" refers to purchasing of the cotton bales nothing to do with any finished clothing.
6.                In the US, use of raw cotton used to be primarily domestic 40 years ago. Now most of our raw cotton is exported to 3rd world countries where processing and production of finished goods takes place. (1965 75% processed by US mills, remainder exported; 2009 only 22% used processed domestically; source:
7.                World cotton prices are at an all-time high. World cotton supplies are tight. Between 05/06 and 09/10, world acreage in cotton dropped 13% and production dropped 17%. Prices continued increasing after the 09/10 northern crop was completely harvested. (20 yr history of cotton prices:
8.                Predictions are that acreage will increase this crop year (10/11).
9.                Weather problems continue to cause problems with world cotton supplies. Floods, droughts, etc.


  1. Wow, quite a history! Good thing I like wearing wool, silk, and linen :)

    One request - could you put more space between your paragraphs? It's hard to read a solid block of text like that...

    - Hannah

  2. Thanks, Hannah. I will. The topic got away from me and I lost track of the length and readability.