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Biodiversity Impact from the Apparel Industry - The Cotton Example

June 08, 2020

I recently joined a panel discussion that included local leaders who run small businesses - with the topic of driving innovation - and was communicating to the audience about how poorly the fashion/apparel industry has done in terms of environmental impact,  and I shared the statistic shown on the graphic on the front of this blog and below to make the point.

Consumers Understanding Cotton's Environmental Impact

While there were many other points I made regarding apparel's impact on the environment and that being more environmentally responsible was the reason we started JOOB, many people came up to talk about this cotton statistic.  They said they had no idea a cotton tee used that much water in production, and would look for alternatives next time they are in the market for tees.  So I wanted to give a bit more context on cotton's impact and provide some resources for further study.

While the stat above isn't new to many environmentally conscious shoppers, it's still a huge shock to many.  And while cotton isn't the only environmental issue to address in apparel, it's a large one to highlight.  About 40% of all clothes produced are made of cotton (source).

BBC Documentary - Stacey Dooley Investigates

One of the best documentaries I've seen recently that dove into this issue of cotton and other environmental impacts from fast fashion was Stacey Dooley's piece done for the BBC -  Are Your Clothes Wrecking the Planet?

You can see part of the broadcast here.  This part of the story focused on the cotton producing region of Kazakhstan – a country that has been hugely affected by cotton production.  She travels by truck across what used to be the Aral Sea - one of the biggest inland seas in the world that covered 68,000 sq kilometres (~26,000 sq miles).  With cotton production a primary driver, much of the water has been diverted from the sea to grow the cotton.  

“You don’t understand the enormity of the situation until you’re here,” explains Stacey, standing on what was once the Aral seabed but is now dry land with roaming camels. “I feel like we understand what plastic does to the Earth, we’re fed that every day, but did I know cotton was capable of this? Of course I didn’t. I had no idea.”

In our last blog we had introduced the concept of biodiversity - where there's an interconnected trade-off of resources for the production of apparel that should be considered to minimize environmental impact. 

And with this cotton story we can certainly see the impact on the towns around the Aral sea with the introduction of cotton and the elimination of most of the water - fish and food supply are significantly reduced, increased salinity of water ruins other crops planted, dust storms produce illnesses to humans.   One piece of the puzzle get's introduced, supposedly to help economically by producing a cash crop, but ends up devastating an entire region.   Biodiversity - and understanding all of these interconnected trade-offs - is a concept many are considering to help analyze and solve this issue.   

Further Impact Downstream During Production

The manufacturing process used for jeans and t-shirts only adds to apparel's environmental impact - a step usually done in Indonesia and other lesser developed parts of the world.  Chemicals used during the manufacturing process are often discarded untreated into the rivers - the same river where locals bath and use for their food and drink. 

In the documentary Stacy identifies the organizations that produce product, none of whom agree to be interviewed: Zara, Asos, M&S, Monsoon, Next and River Island.  

Levi's was one of the few organizations that Stacy was able to talk to, and they recognized the enormity of the environmental impact their cotton jeans have on the planet.  

Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation for the jeans brand Levi’s, told Stacey, “We share information on how to reduce the water footprint of our cotton. We’re working on a solution that takes old garments, chemically deconstructs them and turns them into a new fibre that feels and looks like cotton, but with zero water impact."  

Mr. Dillinger goes on to state that due to the apparel's industry size and decentralized nature, regulatory controls will be required to drive further change.  While there's movement with certain industry leaders, specifically in the area of zero water cotton and using other sustainable materials - a large portion of the industry goes on as status quo.   

The Consumer as Change Agent

While the documentary certainly puts a large portion of blame on the industry leaders like Zara and other fast fashion brands for it's role in ignoring the environmental damage it has wrought - it also lays a big portion of blame on consumers who are driven to purchase goods regularly and are swayed by sales and new seasonal offerings - even though their closets are full.   The documentary points out that consumers would be willing to change once they understand the environmental consequences their actions have.  It gets back to the issue of education of the consumer.

Social Media influencers who get paid to highlight new product for brands were identified and interviewed - as they are increasingly influencing consumer behavior.  One influencer - Niomi Smart (@niomismart on IG) - who now has over 1.5 million followers - was blown away by the environmental impact apparel has and is now using her influence to help change how consumers shop.  

“Rather than going directly to retailers, I’d talk to my audience,” she said. “As a consumer, let’s change our attitudes. The beauty of what I do is I can take my audience on a journey [of eco-fashion discovery] with me. It’s letting people know they can wear the same outfit more than once or swap clothes with friends. It's more: let's talk about this; what can we do to make more of an effort, and be more conscious about the environment?”

Agree completely - there's a lot more we can do.  Since the apparel industry does such a crappy job now, consumers need to  help drive change by pushing brands  to be more transparent and more environmentally responsible across a number of fronts.  


1.  BBC - Stacey Dooley Investigates Fast Fashion:

 2.  Cotton Production Stats:

3.  Hidden Environmental Costs of Cotton:

4.  Fast Fashion's Environmental Impact:




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