Your car and home aren’t the only sources of greenhouse-gas emissions. Clothing has an ecological footprint of its own, as well. But African-grown cotton might have a considerably smaller impact on the environment than conventionally grown cotton, according to an independent study commissioned by Cotton Made in Africa, an initiative of the Aid by Trade Foundation to help African smallholder farmers improve their lives through trade rather than handouts. Compared with Pakistan-grown cotton, Systain, an independent consulting firm based in Hamburg, found that cotton cultivated on the continent emits 70 percent less carbon. It also saves around 18,000 liters of water per kilogram of cotton lint.
Upon closer examination, the reasons for Systain’s findings are obvious: The continent’s climate, with its high average temperatures and alternation between dry and wet seasons, provides the ideal conditions for growing cotton, which thrives in warmth and requires about 200 days of sunshine to flourish and bear fruit. African cotton is also almost exclusively grown by smallholder farmers using rainfed cultivation methods, which means no form of supplemental irrigation is necessary.
Africa cotton is also almost exclusively grown by smallholder farmers using rainfed cultivation methods.
“At zero cubic meters of freshwater per kilogram of cotton lint, this gives [cotton made in Africa] a clear ecological advantage over conventional cotton with an index of five cubic meters per kilogram,” reads the report. Translated to the amount of cotton required to manufacture a T-shirt, Systain says that African cotton conserves about 2,000 liters of water through the sustainable cultivation of the raw material alone.
The study also noted that African cotton released only 1.9 kilograms of greenhouse gases, less than half of conventional cotton’s 4.6 kilograms. African cotton produces no emissions from mechanical energy to work the land, while these account for 34 percent of all emissions for conventionally grown cotton, says Systain. While the bulk of the greenhouse gases released by African cotton—or 70 percent—results from the production and use of fertilizers, the Cotton Made in Africa initiative prohibits the use of pesticides on the Rotterdam Protocol and Stockholm Convention lists and those classified by the World Health Organization as “extremely hazardous” or “highly hazardous.”
TRADE, NOT AID
Since only 8 percent of cotton traded on the world market originates from Sub-Saharan Africa, there are plenty of inroads for African cotton to make. To boost the fiber’s profile, Cotton Made in Africa has developed its own woven tag, featuring a white cotton bloom on a burgundy background, to identify garments derived African cotton.
Cotton Made in Africa has developed its own woven tag to identify garments derived African cotton.
The group is more than a labeling scheme, however. Cotton Made in Africa works directly with farmers in Benin, Burkina Faso, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Côte d’Ivoire to achieve a “sustainable increase” in farmers’ incomes while establishing a stable demand for sustainably grown cotton worldwide.
At the same time, the Aid by Trade Foundation is building a network of international clothing retailers as a Demand Alliance. Participating companies buy African cotton at world-market prices but pay a licence fee—currently about 2.5 percent of the purchase price of the garment—to the foundation. This surplus cash is used to conduct agricultural training in the growing areas, as well co-finance social projects such as the building of schools.