Biodiversity x Fashion & Textile Industry

Madeline McElgunn

Master’s Candidate AMD Berlin

Cotton Production in the Fashion Market

In the global textile industry, one fibre takes up almost 33% of the market share alone: cotton. (Cotton Archives 2021) The global demand since the 1990s has caused developing countries to increase the production of the plant significantly and has led to irreversible environmental damage in parts of the world. In order to fully understand the impact of this important plant on biodiversity, one must first understand its demand and process of growth. 

In 2018, Europe as a whole imported around 5.2 billion worth of cotton from various countries. (The European market potential for sustainable cotton 2021) A majority of this cotton is imported from Turkey, Pakistan, India, China, and Egypt. The cost of these cotton imports has been steadily declining as more and more jobs are outsourced to developing nations. (The European market potential for sustainable cotton 2021) India and China specifically fall into the category of top three worldwide producers of the plant, alongside the United States. Many of the top cotton producing countries have been impacted through outside forces, such as the agribusiness giant, Monsanto. Their aim is to increase stock in genetically modified cotton, and as a result have had to increase pesticide usage as native insects begin to build immunity to the crop. 

Looking at Germany, the cotton consumption is massive compared to the global population itself. Germany consumes roughly 4% of the world’s cotton supply while only making up about 1.1% of the global population. (Harnisch, 2019) This number has only increased in recent decades with the popularization of fast fashion, and the ‘buy once, wear once’ mentality that has accompanied it. The main cotton producers for the German market are India, China, Pakistan, and Turkey, together making up 64% of the German cotton supply. (Harnisch, 2019) Together, these countries produced around 14,457 metric tonnes of cotton between 2019 and 2020 for the global market. (Shahbandeh, 2020) In India, cotton production has increased from 2,380 metric tonnes in 2000 to 6,205 metric tonnes in 2019. (Centre, 2020) This steep increase of production has had many effects on global biodiversity, and with the fashion industry continuing to grow, it is safe to say that these effects will only get worse as time goes on.

Aquatic Biodiversity

Due to its water intensive nature requiring on average 3,000 to 7,000 litres of water per kilogram of fibre, cotton has depleted water sources and is threatening aquatic biodiversity. (Harnisch, 2019) Specifically, the Aral Sea has lost upwards of 85% of its surface due to cotton farming around the lake. (Harnisch, 2019) The loss of so much surface has resulted in extinctions of nearly all native fish and aquatic life as well as several species of birds. This is a direct result of cotton production and the increase it has had in the past two decades. 

Additionally, cotton farming’s threat to biodiversity comes from the sheer amount of chemicals used in the farming process. The pesticides, herbicides, and other agrochemicals used in cotton production run-off into nearby water streams causing dangerous algae blooms. (Measuring Sustainability in Cotton Farming Systems 2015) These blooms are part of water eutrophication which occurs when nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients from fertilizers and agriculture make their way to water sources. (Measuring Sustainability in Cotton Farming Systems 2015) The blooms of algae can have dangerous effects on aquatic biodiversity as they hinder sunlight making its way to the organisms native to the water.  If the native aquatic plants cannot obtain sunlight, the ecosystem of the waterway itself takes a lot of damage as the food chain becomes disrupted.

Insect Biodiversity

 With the popularity of the genetically modified, Bt cotton, which was created to require less pesticides and prevent bollworm infestations, there has been an impact on insect biodiversity as well. China has been concerned about the effects of genetically modified cotton on insect populations since the early 2000’s. (Wade, 2002) The Bt cotton planted in parts of China was showing signs of killing insects (i.e. parasites of the bollworm and other various pests) which were not intended to be harmed through the production process.  Moreover, a team of researchers determined that the bollworm would build immunity in the following eight to ten years after the research was published in 2002. (Wade, 2002) Based on this study, it can be determined that long-term Bt cotton cannot act as a pesticide in the long-term. However, the damaging impact of the Bt cotton, is not just the fact that it is unable to live up to its promise of preventing bollworms, but the greater impact on insect biodiversity can cause a dangerous ripple throughout the ecosystem. It threatens insect biodiversity as it is continued to be cultivated because of the steady increase of pesticide usage season to season. (Wade, 2002) The increase is caused by the growing resistance bollworms have to Bt cotton. By 2002, the Bt cotton made up roughly 35% of China’s cotton and was expected to continue to increase, despite its failings, due to the lobbying from the agribusiness giant, Monsanto. 

By 2015, Bt cotton was by far the most used cotton seed in China with a 10 to 1 usage compared to other cotton seeds. (Zhang et al., 2018) While the presence of the cotton bollworm has remained manageable, the pests of the bollworm have increased resulting in more pesticide usage. (Zhang et al., 2018) Thus, pesticides have been employed on a regular basis and cotton farming specifically makes up 30-40% of pesticide usage in China which is already the largest consumer of pesticides globally. (Zhang et al., 2018) Despite the success of Bt cotton mitigating bollworm infestations, farmers have found secondary pests are unaffected by the cotton and therefore continue to use high amounts of pesticides.

Impact of Monoculture

Finally, because of the popularity of Bt cotton in many cotton producing countries, there is now a threat of a monoculture agricultural industry that can easily be threatened by natural causes. Due to its popularity as a textile resource, many cotton producers rely on one type of cotton. Most infamously, Bt cotton has been chosen by cotton producers thus creating a monoculture which has serious impacts on the greater ecosystem because of the high use of agrochemicals. (Measuring Sustainability in Cotton Farming Systems 2015) Because the monoculture is built off of genetically modified varieties of cotton, pesticide and herbicide usage continuously goes up as native species become immune to the GM cotton. The broad spectrum crop dusting employed by most cotton producers also builds up immunity within the ecosystem itself which causes the increase of agrochemicals. The crop dusting also has many negative health effects on both humans and wildlife. (Vreeland, 1999) The danger of monoculture cultivation has many warning signs, and this impact on biodiversity cannot continue as cotton demand grows globally. 

Naturally Colored Cotton

However, not all is lost, as there have been significant pushes for increased production of organic cotton as well as a resurgence of naturally colored cotton in parts of Peru. While cotton can have many effects on biodiversity if cultivated in dangerous ways, there are signs in remote places that cotton itself is more genetically diverse than previously imagined. In Peru, indigenous Mochitas have been harvesting naturally colored cotton for 5,000 years. (Vreeland, 1999) The color variation ranges from light tan to a deep mauve and was initially banned from growing by colonial powers claiming it would not be popular enough to be sold at mass. (FAO of the UN, 2019) Most cotton produced now is off-white to white and is typically bleached after harvesting to guarantee a crisp-white canvas to be dyed. (Vreeland, 1999) However, colored cotton is now protected as heritage by both the country of Peru and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. With these protections, there is a chance to increase the popularity of this indigenous cotton and use it as a replacement for harmful dyeing techniques within the textiles industry. Colored cotton doesn’t need to be dyed at all to achieve a certain color because of its wide variety of colors grown. Moreso, should this cotton be used more, the genetic diversity of the cotton plant can further expand to adapt to environments naturally and cause a decrease in agrochemicals in native areas. In addition to the Peruvian native cotton, parts of Africa and Asia also harvested naturally colored cotton at one point in time. (Vreeland, 1999) The potential uses for colored cotton and the positive environmental impact it can bring should be seen as an exciting investment for the fashion industry. The industry has an opportunity to invest into indigenous communities and bring forth a new era of cotton production that looks vastly different from the monoculture of today.


The research compiled in this analysis derives mainly from secondary sources and data points about the cotton industry as a whole. Included in the analysis are several case studies about specific cotton producing countries. Included are several literature reviews as well. Comparing the various data points and case studies together allowed for a synthesis of information to draw conclusions from. This combined with previous knowledge of cotton, specifically of indigenous cotton farming techniques, allowed for an overview of the situation as a whole.


Centre, I. T. (2020). Statistics for Cotton (HS 520100). Cotton statistics – Cotton Portal.

The European market potential for sustainable cotton. CBI. (2021, February 12).

FAO of the UN. (2019, October 3). Live Culture Native Cotton. YouTube.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2015). Measuring Sustainability in Cotton Farming Systems.

Harnisch, R. (Ed.). (2019, September). Sustainable Consumption for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Shahbandeh, M. (2020, October 6). World cotton production by country 2019. Statista.

Various. (2021). Cotton Archives. Fashion Revolution.

Vreeland, J. (1999). The Revival of Colored Cotton.

Wade, C. (2002, June 21). GM cotton threatens biodiversity in China. UPI.

Zhang, W., Lu, Y., Werf, W. van der, Huang, J., Wu, F., Zhou, K., Deng, X., Jiang, Y., Wu, K., & Rosegrant, M. W. (2018, August 14). Multidecadal, county-level analysis of the effects of land use, Bt cotton, and weather on cotton pests in China. PNAS.