What turned a sea into a desert?

Cotton emptied the Aral Sea, leaving fishing boats rotting on a toxic desert.

1 cotton T-shirt = 2,720 Litres of water (9 bath tubs)

1 Pair of jeans (cotton) = 10,850 litres of water (36 bath tubs)

1 double bed sheet (cotton) = 19,500 litres of water (64 bath tubs)

Cotton is thirsty. It’s also the most popular material in our clothing.

Along with all the water, tonnes of pesticides go into producing cotton, leading to the majority of cotton workers living with moderate poisoning. Check out White Gold by the EJF to see that what you’re wearing (and if you buy it on the high street it’s more than likely that the brand doesn’t know where your fabric comes from) could be supporting slavery and damaging the health of hundreds of thousands of people:

What can you do?

Commit to buying organic cotton wherever possible. Organic cotton uses just over 1/4 of the water used by conventional cotton and none of the toxic pesticides that cause so many health issues for workers and depletes soil fertility. Another positive is that it is not genetically modified: GM cotton locks farmers into financial contracts controlled by huge multinationals, reputedly resulting in suicides due to financial pressure and lawsuits due to cross-contamination of adjacent fields.

Consider other natural materials – NOT polyester, acrylic or nylon unless it’s recycled (Check out Econyl). Understand that materials such as bamboo and wood based materials (viscose and cellulosic fibres such as tencel) can involve chemically intensive extraction methods and result in irresponsible deforestation. Use companies committed to canopystyle.org, look for less thirsty crops such as hemp and linen, and also consider non-mulessed wool. I have a sweater from Finisterre that comes from a farm in Devon with top notch animal welfare processes, the flock is purely for wool and no sheep end up on the plate.

How I buy clothes

I no longer buy clothes unless I have full traceability from farm to shopping bag. I researched responsible clothing companies and will continue to research more when I need new products. Big brands are locked into a fast paced industry where those in charge are mostly interested in profit: this is evident in the way they allocate resources to social and environmental issues. Some don’t even have a CSR team. There are people in these companies who want to make a difference, and are doing great work to make a difference, but it seems obvious to me that if we all educate ourselves we can help make their job much easier.

Focussing on smaller companies with manageable supply chains is better for the welfare of those workers in the supply chain, the planet and your conscience. My research has brought me to the following companies, mostly from the UK because that’s where I live, but if you research on your own I’m sure you’ll find a lot of similar brands in your own country (I consider each garment, not just each company when making a purchase):


Rapanui Clothing


Know The Origin

Stella McCartney


As I stated, this list is not exhaustible and i’m sure there are tonnes of other brands to suit every taste – notables I’ve heard of but have not researched are Nudie Jeans and Zady.

I am also a paid member of ethicalconsumer.org, but even without membership you can look at their realtime ratings to determine whether a brand is ethical or not.

It does not take long to educate yourself on ethical fashion – reading the relevant pages on Stella McCartney’s, Patagonia’s and Rapanui’s sites are as good a place to start as any.

By taking a little time to consume responsibly, we can make a huge difference to people’s lives and the health of the planet.

Thanks for reading.

Source for cotton water consumption: Chapagain et al, 2006 The water footprint of cotton consumption: An assessment of the impact of worldwide consumption of cotton products on the water resources in the cotton producing countries, Journal of Ecological Economics

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About stevenjohntait