Cotton Misinformation Is Harming the Industry’s Aims: Report

A new investigative report hopes to clear cotton’s name, debunking misinformation in the cotton sector.

The report, “Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation,” was released Thursday by nonprofit Transformers Foundation, in line with World Cotton Day. Research was spearheaded by Elizabeth L. Cline, an industry expert and advocate in fashion sustainability and labor rights, and Marzia Lanfranchi, the Transformer Foundation’s intelligence director and cofounder of Cotton Diaries.

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Data collection spanned 40 countries and was informed by in-depth industry case studies.

According to the report, figures have been wrongly rattled off on how much water a cotton T-shirt or jacket takes (not thousands of liters), and to what degree cotton is doused in pesticides and insecticides (the report advised against using outdated sales data to account for use). Even calling cotton “water-thirsty” is misleading without context, given the crop is grown in many water-stressed regions.

“We have to start asking more questions beyond how many liters of water does it take to grow a pair of jeans,” the report noted, calling attention to the nuances of the global water cycle that warrant precision and context.

Hoping to provide stakeholders with the tools to combat oversimplification, irresponsible framing (or removing context), erratic copying (where integrity of information is diluted by incessant copying and pasting), among other means, the report sheds light on common missteps.

“Sustainability is complex and designers and brands want something easy and simple. Unfortunately, when people create single scores or other metrics simplifying the complex science for ease of business, bad things can happen, one of which is misinformation,” Dr. Jesse Daystar, Cotton Incorporated vice president and chief sustainability officer, said in the report.

Organizations such as Fashion Revolution, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Rodale Institute, the CFDA and more have circulated such stats.

Illustrating the scale of misinformation, even global retailers like Zalando, H&M, Patagonia and Inditex have used what the Transformers Foundation report says is the inaccurate claim that “organic cotton uses 91 percent less water than conventional cotton.” The figure was pulled from Textile Exchange’s comparison study of two life cycle assessments, or LCAs, from seven years ago that has “not been critically reviewed,” according to the report and thus “should be avoided.”

“As scientific understanding has evolved, we now know that comparison of specific LCA studies should not be used to make broad claims about material categories, given the differences in regionally appropriate parameters and other assumptions used in each LCA study,” Textile Exchange’s Climate+ program director Beth Jensen noted in the report. Textile Exchange confirmed it removed the figure from its forthcoming website update.

As the report summarizes and supports in depth, not all cotton is the same.

“There is no singular idea of cotton. It’s grown in so many different locations around the world with varying conditions — and that’s just the growing of it,” Marc Lewkowitz, chief executive officer of U.S. cotton nonprofit Supima and chair of the Better Cotton Initiative, told WWD. “Some things that are learned in one market may not be applicable in another,” he added, attributing variances to weather and growing conditions, financing, resources and scale.

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