“There are three kinds of lies: There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”
The quote is most commonly attributed to Mark Twain, but could also be a mantra of a new report, “Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation,” released Thursday by Transformers Foundation, a non-profit group that provides denim suppliers with a platform to share their expertise and opinion on industry issues.
The investigative report on building critical data consumption in fashion, published in conjunction with World Cotton Day, is meant to debunk and refute what it claims is false information about how cotton is grown and cultivated.
“Virtually every common claim about the sector is false or misleading, including that it requires 20,000 liters of water to make a T-shirt and a pair of jeans or that cotton uses a quarter of all insecticides,” the report states. “Even the notion that cotton is water-thirsty is misleading enough that we discourage its usage.”
Authored by Elizabeth L. Cline, expert and advocate in fashion sustainability and labor rights, and Marzia Lanfranchi, the Foundation’s intelligence director and co-founder of “Cotton Diaries,” the report notes that there have been many attempts to debunk cotton myths and argues that “teaching citizens and institutions to become critical consumers of data and information is the missing ingredient in halting the spread of misinformation.”
The report draws on current leading research and dozens of interviews with industry experts to form in-depth case studies debunking the most widely used cotton statistics, and equipping the industry and consumers with the best and most recent data on cotton and pesticides.
With support and input from the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), the report provides tips and best practices on how to evaluate claims and data, refute common myths about the cotton industry with an approach that can be applied to all other sectors, add context to the conversation to foster understanding and inform solutions, and form a consensus from the largest number of trusted cotton organizations as possible on sound data.
“Transparency and traceability prove authenticity,” Andrew Olah, founder of Transformers Foundation, said. “We envision a future where farmers tabulate the amount of pesticides they use, the amount of water they use, all of the different inputs to compare this with their yield and continue retrieving the stream of data to a product’s end of life. We have been eager to launch this report to provide readers with tools to enable data transparency that will ultimately inform best practice and viable solutions for the health of the planet, the people, and our industry.”
According to the report, cotton is an ideal case study for misinformation analysis because it makes up 80 percent of the natural fiber market and is the second most-commonly produced fiber after polyester, accounting for 24.2 percent of global fiber production as of 2020. The cotton industry supports the livelihoods of an estimated 22 million households across 75 countries. When seasonal labor and ancillary industries such as ginning are included, some estimates are that between 100 million and 150 million people depend on cotton for their incomes.
On the issue of water usage, the report states that cotton farmers’ water usage varies dramatically, and those variations are influenced by a number of factors, including but not limited to climate.
“Cotton got its reputation as water-thirsty because it is in fact grown in many water-stressed regions,” the report said.
Cline and Lanfranchi said there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Farmers in dry climates often choose to grow cotton precisely because it can survive and produce a crop in harsher environments, they noted. Farmers grow cotton in these regions often because it can withstand the climate better than other crops.
Water use refers to the total amount of water that has been withdrawn from its source to be “used” for human activities, like industry, household use, or irrigation, the report notes. But water use does not indicate whether water has been lost or gained in a local system.
For example, the amount of water drawn from a river by a factory is water usage, but does not reveal if the water used was cleaned and returned to the river in equal proportions. That’s why a claim that a certain cotton T-shirt uses a certain amount of water doesn’t indicate if the water was irresponsibly managed or that it took water away from human needs or the environment.
The amount of water that farmers use and consume around the world varies dramatically, as do the methods by which farmers water their cotton, the study states. For example, some farmers only use rainwater and others use irrigation or a mix of the two.
In the end, there are many different factors that influence the amount of water cotton consumes. It’s based on access to irrigation, the local climate, the style of irrigation available, farmer knowledge and governance.
“The ultimate goal for the cotton industry is not the reduction of cotton’s water consumption or footprint per se, but a just, sustainable and equitable water footprint for cotton,” the Transformers study said. “Water Witness, a UK charity, defines a fair water footprint as water use at production sites and in supply chains which guarantees zero pollution, sustainable withdrawals, preparedness to droughts and floods, ecosystem protection, legal compliance and full access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene.”
Lanfranchi said a water footprint is often taken as a single global average statistic “that never says anything about the local environment or if the region where you’re the drawing the resources is water scarce or the availability–it doesn’t tell you any of this information.”
“The goal should be the sustainable usage of water,” Cline said. “In many cases in many cotton-growing countries, that will mean reducing the amount of irrigated water. But that should not be the starting point. The way that we talk about cotton and water is massively oversimplified, and it is extremely damaging to the cotton farmers in specific regions that are struggling with water issues.”
Mis or Dis
Lanfranchi noted that many statistics about cotton are meant to “demonize it…so we really need to get behind the gray area.”
“I think one of the big takeaways from the paper is that when you’re talking about cotton and water, global averages are completely meaningless, and I think damaging in a lot of cases,” she said. “What we’re asking people to do is have much more nuanced conversations about the cotton industry.”
As to why so much misinformation about cotton is being communicated, Lanfranchi said, “It was really difficult for us to discern intent, so we touched in the paper on the difference between misinformation and disinformation, which is the intent to mislead. We focused on misinformation in the paper, but we definitely have seen episodes of competitive marketing–if you’re pushing another fiber, you’re going to cherry pick the most shocking statistic about water and cotton in order to compare it to another fiber.”
Cline noted the paper does discuss the concept of “irresponsible framing” because outdated or false data is often used to back up certain claims, which she said “erodes trust” and “is undermining our social order and our ability to make progress.”
Discussing pesticide usage, the report cites ICAC data that shows cotton accounts for 4.71 percent of all global pesticides sales. Within the broader umbrella of pesticide usage, cotton accounts for 2.91 percent of global herbicide sales, 10.24 percent of insecticide sales, 1.03 percent of fungicides sales, and 15.74 percent of other pesticides.
While organic cotton farmers do not use synthetic pesticides, some cotton farmers have moved away from a chemical-intensive approach toward integrated pest management (IPM), defined as “the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques” that “applies pesticides as a last resort” used only after other pest control interventions, such as crop rotation and enhancing beneficial organisms, are applied and when pest damage is reaching an economic threshold.
Industry stakeholders have strong opinions about how to prevent pesticides from doing harm, from those who would like to see farmers switch away from pesticides to a broader concept of ecological pest management, to those who believe farmers can in fact use many pesticides within acceptable levels of risk to humans and the environment.
The study emphasizes the “urgent need for data transparency about cotton and fashion’s environmental impact.” Data about environmental impacts should be open-source and publicly available, and if data is being put into the public sphere, the methodology should be transparent.