Textile Monocultures & Biodiversity Loss

by Helena Kerr

Terms: Biodiversity; Textile Fibres; Monocultures; Sustainable Farming Practices; Plant Diversification


The more we look into nature, the more we can observe the complexity of the systems that lie beneath our everyday lives. From the smallest exchanges to the most visible systems, everything works in complex and deeply interconnected ways to create a balanced and harmonious flow between each actor in this system. Everything and everyone has a purpose, a meaning, a function. Yet, nothing in nature is static. And just like in every relationship we know, there are constant movements and adjustments happening in order to keep everything flowing. 

As humanity, we are part of this complex system, and our actions and activities all play a role in moving or interrupting this harmonious planetary flow. Since the Industrial Revolution, that completely changed the way and the scale of our productive activities; and our ever-growing reliance on fossil fuels for these activities, we have seen human actions reach an alarming level that could damage the systems that keep this balanced planetary flow in a desirable place (Rockström et al., 2009). This perception has created a new awareness and demand to on how to approach and tackle our activities. But, where do we start?

In the purpose of tackling the need to keep our systems at this desirable place where the whole system – including ourselves! – can thrive, the concept of Planetary Boundaries was created.

What are Planetary Boundaries?

The Planetary Boundaries (PB) are a framework established to define a safe operating space for humanity regarding the Earth system. These boundaries are associated with the planet’s biophysical processes, and their main purpose is to make it possible to evaluate our actions and therefore create a powerful ‘feedback mechanism’ to allow for change and betterment. (Bishop et al., 2010)

In total, there are 9 Planetary Boundaries: Climate Change, Novel Entities, Stratospheric Ozone Depletion, Atmospheric Aerosol Loading; Ocean Acidification; Biochemical Flows; Freshwater Use; Land-system Change and Biosphere Integrity.

On the right: The current status of the control variables for eight of the nine planetary boundaries (Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2022), as updated by the Stockholm University based on a study published by a group of scientists in the January, 2022 (Persson et al., 2022).
Biosphere Integrity & Biodiversity Loss

Very connected to the boundaries of Climate Change and Land-system Change, the Biosphere Integrity refers to the rate of Biodiversity Loss (Steffen et al., 2015) which, in other words, means the evaluation of the species diversity in the planet and the rate to which it’s variety is diminishing. In the current framework argued by Steffan et al. in 2015, the evaluation of species diversity is divided under two main roles that the biosphere integrity has on the overall planetary system: genetic biodiversity and functional biodiversity. The first one, genetic biodiversity, refers to the variety of species and is important to create resilience of the biosphere under abrupt or gradual changes. While the second one, functional biodiversity, relates to the role of these species in the functioning of the biosphere and the whole Earth-system.

Fashion & Biodiversity Loss

When it comes to the fashion & textile industry, there are three main stages in the value chain where the impact on biodiversity is highly significant: raw-material production, material preparation and processing, and end of  life (Granskog et al., 2020). Considering that land use is one of the changes that exert the most significant effect on Biodiversity Loss, and that the conversion of natural systems into agriculture areas is one of these uses, we are naturally drawn to take a closer look into the production of natural fibres that feed into this industry. 

Growing Fibres: Cotton & MMCFs

Today, when we look into natural fibre, cotton is by far the most important fibre. Dominating the market as the second-largest fibre in terms of volume, cotton holds a share of more than 20% of the global fibre market (Preferred Fiber & Materials Report, 2020). Apart from its great relevance in the market, cotton is also a well-know villain for its high-use of water, energy and chemicals such as  insecticide and pesticide during its harvesting (Granskog et al., 2020). 

Another fibre category that has been gaining growing attention and demand are the man-made cellulosic fibres (MMCFs). This fibre category includes popular fibres such as viscose, Tencel ®, Lyocell ®, to cite a few. Although MMCFs are not considered natural fibres, its creation is made out of cellulose mainly extracted from wood, and it is estimated that more than 150 million trees are logged for their production annually (Granskog et al., 2020), while being responsible for a growing market share of around 6% of the global fibre market (Preferred Fiber & Materials Report, 2020); making MMCFs an important fibre to look into when considering the impact of textile fibres onto land use.

Entangled Threads: the Issue with Monocultures

Apart from being both plant-based, cotton and MMCFs share a further aspect when it comes to its production: monocultures. In both industries, monoculture has become the common harvesting practice, both in farming and reforestation. In farming practices, the monoculture system became increasingly prevalent around 1945, and according to Prof. Frank Uekötter, of environmental humanities at the University of Birmingham (UK), the reason for this is that monocultures follow three important criteria: they are large, focused on a single product and cater to distant markets. And what these three criteria mean is increased efficiency, productivity and profit (Balogh, 2021). 

The benefits provided by monoculture farming systems shine a light into why monocultures have been so popular over these last many decades. The monoculture system followed the mass production and profit mindset started in the Industrial Revolution, and for a long while it had delivered its promises to its farmers and investors – but that may not be the case for long. Prof. Raul Zornoza Belmonte, an expert on sustainable land use and crop diversification at Universidad Politécnica de Cartagena (Spain), highlights that farming in this globalized capital system has become a very chemical and energy-intensive sector, which is having a ‘negative impact not only on the environment in terms of loss of biodiversity, soil health and greenhouse gas emissions but also on farm productivity and expenses’ (Balogh, 2021).

Cotton monocultures are a clear example of this intensive sector mentioned by Prof. Belmonte. Even though cotton takes up only 2.4% of the global cropland, it accounts for 22.5% of the world’s insecticide use and 10% of all pesticide use – the highest demand in comparison to any other fibre (Granskog et al., 2020). And while MMCFs plantations also make high use of agrochemicals in its plantations (Granskog et al., 2020), the mechanical impact of the harvest machinery along with the change in the water regimes due to high amounts of tree logging in the plantation, account for a very significant impact as well, and can lead to loss of species and thereby to losses in biodiversity (Tobler-Rohr, 2011).  Furthermore, the high demand for water is also a big issue with significant impact in biodiversity losses in both fibres harvesting.

Harvesting Life: Plant Diversification for Fostering Biodiversity

As overwhelming as this can be, the important questions remain: how do we get out of this model? What are the alternatives to balancing business and environmental needs and assuring the future of our fibres?

A heightened interest in sustainable farming practices has led to several studies in recent years exploring the possibilities of diversified cropping systems because apart from their regenerative potential, they have also showed better nutrient retention, pest and weed control, carbon sequestration and counteract resource degradation and desertification (Power, 2010; Oliveira Duarte et al., 2019). Plant diversification, as the name suggests, is the concept of introducing different plants in the same harvesting, creating a mix of the main crop with intercrops or non-crop plants – also known as service crops, such as flowers or other plants that, for example, are used for pest control.

But how can one increase plant diversity in agricultural systems?

Some common methods for increasing plant diversity in agricultural crops are (Cappelli et al., 2022):

1. Agroforestry: incorporating trees and shrubs on and between the agricultural fields

2. Row Cropping: a spatial organization of the fields in rows that would either incorporate a.) multiple main crops, or b.) one or more main crops and one or more service crops to support the development of the main crop(s).

3. Cultivar Mixture: different species of the same crop being planted together.

4. Crop Mixture: multiple different species planted together, either with  a.) multiple main crops, or b.) one or more main crops with one or more service crops.

5. Relay Cropping: similar to row cropping, but with a different time frame, where the second crops are planted a bit before the harvesting of the first crop, therefore allowing only a short overlap of time in which the different plants grow together.

6. Crop Rotation: different crops are sown after the harvest of the prior crop, allowing for a complete change of activities.

As we can see, many alternatives exist for plant diversification that could be applied for the production of natural fibres such as cotton or for man-made fibres such as MMCFs. In the case of the cultivation of sustainable fibres, plant diversification in same crop compositions seems like a favourable alternative to cultivate biodiversity due to its high impact on soil microbial community (Oliveira Duarte et al., 2019). Among the many positive effects of the increase in microbial biomass in the soil, the promotion of ecosystem functions like decomposition or mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions from the soil (Oliveira Duarte et al., 2019) are two highly important ones that can potentially have a high impact on the overall biodiversity of agricultural systems as well as other interconnected systems. 

Although plant diversity has been shown to promote great benefits to overall ecosystem in agricultural systems, it is important to highlight that plant diversification schemes have shown to interfere in crop productivity, or crop yield, which is partially due to reductions of main crop densities by replacing it with other plants – especially when compared to the crop yields in monoculture systems (Letourneau et al., 2011; Oliveira Duarte et al., 2019).

Nevertheless, it is also important to take into consideration that the benefits promoted by plant diversification and consequently in biodiversity gains often tend to strengthen over time, and should therefore further improve the overall environmental and cost gains in these agricultural systems (Oliveira Duarte et al., 2019). And while that is already positive on its own, studies have shown that the benefits in biodiversity-ecosystems functioning promoted within one ecosystem, have further consequences across system boundaries – know as cross-boundaries effects (Scherer-Lorenzen et al., 2022). That interconnectedness between different ecosystems has the potential to promote even further the gains from one ecosystem into the other, but further studies are needed to look into this (see further in Scherer-Lorenzen et al., 2022).

Tieing the Knots: Conclusion

There is no doubt that biodiversity loss and the harvesting of natural fibres and MMCFs are highly connected, and while there is still the need for further research to understand how could these fibres have their impacts on biodiversity diminished, studies into plant diversification in same crop configurations seem to provide promising alternatives to fibre cultivation that not only foster biodiversity but also improve income and living conditions of local populations (Oliveira Duarte et al., 2019).

As presented in the beginning, we can see how the required complexity of nature seems to be mirrored not only in the practical structures of our agricultural systems but also in our evaluation and decision-making processes in order to build the structures for better futures for fibre production, biodiversity and for our overall planetary health. As noted by Romeiro (1998), the biggest limiting factor is the monoculture logic that takes into consideration only the profit, leaving the damages caused by such practices to be navigated around by others. It’s time we move past the monoculture mindsets and promote as well as in our thinking the conservation and regeneration of diversity, that allows us to remain resilient and thriving to create other ways into a more sustainable future. As greatly reflected by Vandana Shiva in her book “Monocultures of the mind: perspectives on biodiversity and biotechnology” (1993):

“ Conservation of diversity, is, above all, the production of alternatives, of keeping alive alternative forms of production. Protecting native seeds is more than conservation of raw material for the biotechnology industry. The diverse seeds now being pushed to extinction carry within them seeds of other ways of thinking about nature, and other ways of producing for our needs. The critical theme in all the papers is that uniformity and diversity are not just patterns of land use, they are ways of thinking and ways of living. ”


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