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The Top 10 Alternative Facts About Cotton and Why They’re Wrong

For a fiber, cotton certainly makes its way into quite a few conversations—and it even finds itself the subject of a lot of unfounded claims.

That’s at least according to Cotton Incorporated, which has made it its mission to increase the demand for the fiber and up cotton’s profitability based on research and findings.

Speaking at a Cotton Incorporated event titled “Everything You’ve Heard About Cotton is Wrong” co-hosted by Sourcing Journal in New York City Tuesday, James Pruden, Cotton Inc.’s senior director of public relations, took to refuting what he said are 10 major myths about cotton.

1. Cotton uses 25 percent of the world’s pesticides.

Clearing that myth up right away, Pruden said, “This is not true for a lot of reasons.”

First, that number doesn’t speak to applications, only sales. Second, Pruden contradicted the high 25 percent claim, citing Informa Economics, which shows that cotton represented 5 percent of global pesticide sales in 2016.

2. Cotton requires excessive amounts of water.

Cotton is a drought and heat-tolerant crop, Pruden explained.

Half of global cotton crops rely solely on rainfall, and in the U.S. that number climbs to a higher 60 percent.

“It actually takes more water to grow an acre of lawn grass than it takes to grow an acre of cotton,” Pruden said.

3. Cotton farming drained the Aral Sea.

The Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was once the world’s fourth largest lake, but in the 1960s Soviet irrigation projects saw rivers that fed it being diverted elsewhere and cotton took the blame—though wrongfully, according to Pruden.

“What happened was, in the 60s the Soviet government had control of that area and they thought it would be a really awesome idea to irrigate all of that desert and transform it into farmland. One of the things they wanted to plant was cotton,” Pruden explained. “A poor engineering design, not cotton’s water needs, drained the Aral Sea.”

4. It takes 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make a pair of jeans.

This alternative fact can be disproved in several ways, according to Pruden.

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For one, the amount of water it takes to grow the amount of cotton needed for a pair of jeans depends on whether you’re looking at a high-yielding system like conventional cotton, which would use roughly 567.5 gallons of water after adjusting for rainfall, or a low-yielding system like organic cotton, which would use closer to 1,320.5 gallons.

“When we adjust it for rainfall, that goes down significantly from what people are claiming,” Pruden said.

5. Cotton occupies land that should be used to grow food for a growing population.

Cotton, though it may not be common knowledge, is actually regulated as a food crop in the United States and it has been used as an ingredient in foods, finding its way into cottonseed oil, ice cream, light beer and even New Orleans beignets.

What’s more, according to Pruden is that cotton is “often grown in land that can’t support crops.” And though fiber volume has increased, cotton land use has remained relatively constant over the past 50 years.

6. Cotton is responsible for Indian farmer suicides.

This particular alternative fact has to do with Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) cotton, a naturally occurring protein that gets inserted into cotton varieties to function like an insecticide—namely staving off the pink bollworm.

Bt cotton, also considered GMO (genetically modified organism) cotton, was introduced in India in 2002, and the expense of it drove local farmers into debt, which reportedly drove some of them to suicide.

Since then, however, Bt cotton has come to account for more than 90 percent of India’s cotton acreage, and the instances for farmer suicides have remained flat. Research conducted over the years has not pinpointed Bt cotton as a trigger for the suicides, instead claiming the shift to industrial farming techniques sent the farmers to debt and death.

7. Conventional cotton is industrial farming.

The notion that growing conventional cotton is largely done by big corporations appears to hold little truth.

According to Pruden, who cited U.S. Department of Agriculture Data, of the 18,155 U.S. cotton farms, 69 percent are family-owned farms, and 21 percent are partnerships owned by multiple family members. That means 90 percent of U.S. farms are family owned and their output accounts for 87 percent of fiber sales, which could hardly be considered industrial farming, Pruden said.

8. Chemicals used to grow cotton can permeate the skin through cotton apparel/textiles.

With clothing coming in such close contact with the skin, many have expressed concern that chemicals used to cultivate cotton could seep into the skin.

But according to Cotton Today, cotton plants are only sprayed with insecticides when they are young and at their most vulnerable, not once they’re matured. In 2015, U.S. cotton growers used fewer than two (on average) insecticide sprays on their crops. Because of all the cleaning stages a fiber goes through on its way to becoming a finished garment, even if any farm residues remained on a fiber, it would be removed well before it found its way onto a store shelf. To date, tests for chemical residues in clothing and textiles, haven’t uncovered any remains of the pesticides used in growing cotton.

9. Cotton kills.

National Parks will often have warnings that “Cotton Kills,” which explain that because it’s harder to stay warm and dry outdoors than most people think, cotton can lead to death in certain scenarios.

The warning Pruden shared read: “Cotton holds moisture and moisture saps body heat. When the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat hypothermia sets in. At first, this is merely uncomfortable; but it can become serious medical emergency. Hypothermia can happen at temperatures well above freezing.”

To help offer cotton products that wouldn’t contribute to such scenarios, Cotton Inc. developed USDA certified Storm Cotton, a water repellent textile finish that provides protection from rain and snow but maintains breathability.

“It still allows for the breathability of cotton that we all know and love, but it still repels water,” Pruden said.

10. Cotton is the enemy.

It’s little surprise that this cotton alternative fact comes courtesy of Under Armour—typically the purveyor of all things synthetic.

The sportswear brand trademarked the phrase “Cotton is the enemy” as a selling tool for its performance products that it purports have better traits than cotton.

“It’s not that cotton is the enemy, it’s cotton’s performance,” Pruden said.

But cotton doesn’t always have to be basic, and it can wick moisture right alongside synthetics. With TransDRY, Pruden explained, moisture management technology gets applied to cotton and allows fabrics to wick and spread perspiration “as well as, or better than, most high-tech synthetic fabrics.”

And advancements like TransDry have done something to soften Under Armour’s cotton-is-the-enemy approach.

“Under Armour did introduce cotton into their line, which was quite successful, and they’ve stopped saying it,” Pruden said.