Fashion and petrol: a love story – Agriculture – How much petrol do you need to grow cotton?

Fashion and petrol: a love story – Agriculture – How much petrol do you need to grow cotton?
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Our dependency on petroleum products is a well-known ill but less is known about the extent at which it has invaded so many aspects of our lives including our wardrobe. Incredibly, most of the items in our closet are somehow related to the black gold. 

Leaving the petroleum derived textile like polyester and spandex (See previous blog entry) , we are left with products issued from the agricultural industry; the “natural fibres”.  As plants or wool, one would think that they are totally natural. Well, technically they are; However, the mean by which they are obtained can be far from natural. Agriculture has evolved to become an industrial process which relies heavily on the petrochemical industry.

There are lots of products issued from agriculture and husbandry in the fashion industry. Those include cotton, linen, bamboo, wool, leather and others. For example, let’s take cotton which is the most important crop for the fashion industry. There are approximately 29 million of ton of cotton produced every year. According to  World Count, that would be 29 tee shirts a year per person on earth. That is a lot of t-shirts!

But how cotton production is reliant on petrol?

There is of course petrol use for mechanical purposes such as tractors, irrigation pumps, planes to spray pesticides and machinery to spread fertilisers but less obvious and more worryingly is that a large number of fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides and pesticides are derived from hydrocarbons.

In order to boost the agricultural production of land to an industrial scale, organic sources such as manure were abandoned in favour of petroleum derived fertilisers. This process started as early as the 19th century and was seen as a positive step to increase crop yield to allow more people to be fed. At the time, this supported an important population growth and the industrialisation of cities, particularly in England.

Today, cotton is a chemically intensive crop. It uses pesticides against all sorts of pests such as fungi, mites, and rodents. Insecticides are a type of pesticides used to fight against one of the 100 types of bugs that could affect cotton crop.

Herbicides to fight weeds and fertilisers to stimulate plant growth are added. Finally, specific to cotton, is the use of defoliants which is a harsh chemical used to kill the leaves just before picking to facilitate mechanical harvesting.

There are two major pests that affect cotton crops, at least in Australia. Those are two types of moths (Helicoverpa armigera and H. punctigera.)

Those used to be controlled with heavy uses of pesticides until the genetically modified cotton called BT Cotton appeared. This type of cotton has a “built in” toxin taken from a bacteria that repels the moths. Cotton Australia tells us on their website that there has be a significant reduction in pesticide use following the introduction of BT Cotton. However, the problem now is that the other insects which used to be controlled via the pesticides used to control those two moths are free to wreak havoc on the cotton crops so that genetically modified cotton still needs pesticides.

Pest resistance to BT Cotton insecticides is increasingly common and more targeted and strong pesticides need to be developed.

Hydrocarbon derived pesticides are often dispersed on cotton crop via air spray. That means that a small plane will spray from the skies a chemical cocktail. This method of dispersion is subject to the wind and can hit nearby water sources or contaminate other crops.  It has been found that bees are particularly susceptible to insecticides used on bt cotton which is dispersed via air sprayed.

How pesticides are derived from petroleum?

Pesticides, as we know them today were originally developed by a swiss chemist by the name of Muller in 1939 and industrial production began in the 1940’s. DDT which is derived from hydrocarbons was officially born and mostly used against insects carrying malaria and other insect transmitting diseases. It was  widely used in ww2 to protect soldiers against diseases.

The agricultural uses of DDT  started after the war but eventually, the darker side of DDT was uncovered. It was actually found that the DDT stays in the environment for a long time and can cause cancer. Today it is banned in most countries.

Although ddt is not permitted in Australia, North America or EU, and controls are in place in regards to the toxicity of pesticides in the developed world, most of the clothes we wear are unlikely to come from countries were there is little regulations. In fact, more than 90% of cotton produced worldwide come from developing countries where there is little control of pesticides. It was estimated that 1 million of farmers necessitate hospitalisation every year due to acute pesticide poisoning. . The low level of literacy results in farmers not reading warnings. The unavailability or cost prohibitive protective equipment, is also a problem in the developed world. Children are even more vulnerable to the toxic effect of pesticides and are also the victims of cotton farming in developing countries where child labour is common.

But here is the thing, even if the cotton comes from Australia, North America or EU, most of the pesticides come from the petroleum industry which, if we put aside for a minute the debate about toxicity (and I am not saying that this not a necessary debate), the matter of the fact is that we are dependent on non-renewables that contribute to climate change for protecting our crops.

Now pesticides are not the only hidden petroleum product used in agriculture. Fertilizers are also an important part of  agriculture and you guested it, they are derived from hydrocarbons. With all the home grown food movement and week-end gardeners doing their compost and using manure, one would think that this is how soil fertility improvement is generally done even at a larger scale.  But no, it is not true. Agriculture is done at an industrial scale and uses an industrial process. Hydrocarbons are again the solution.  For example, nitrogen which is commonly used for all sorts of crops, has been issued from natural gas since early 20th century.

Here is another nerdy bit.

(Don’t feel like reading – have a look at the video)

The Haber process uses methane from natural gas. Methane reacts with steam and produces hydrogene and carbon monoxide. Only the hydrogene is taken out of this process and mixed with oxygene to produce nitrogene. The nitrogene is then cooked up with hydrogene and iron at 400 degrees Celsius and subjected to 200 atmoshpere (equivalent as if you would be under 2 km of water). Now, that is far from a natural process….The end result is ammonia being the active component of nitrogene fertilizer used to grow almost anything agricultural from your carrots to cotton.

End of nerdy bit.

So, no matter where we look, there seems to always be a trace of hydrocarbon somewhere. From textile directly derived from petroleum products like polyester to natural fibres, we cannot seem to escape it.

Even if we buy natural fibres for our clothes such as cotton and avoid polyesters and the like, we are still using a fair amount of petroleum without really knowing about it.

Haaaaa! We can’t escape it ! ( panic moment. Stop. Take a deep breath or two. Ok let’s think about it.)

Although this sounds depressing,  let’s pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and see what we can do…. And the good new is yes, we can do something.

When we talk about natural fibres in clothes, organic is the way to go. Organic fibres, do not use hydrocarbon derived pesticides and fertilizers which significantly cut the use of hydrocarbons.

But how do you know if cotton is organic. Of course, you can grow it yourself if you really want to but personally not my first choice. There are a few accreditations that will ensure that high standards are maintained. Generally speaking, if it is not written “organic” on the tag, it is because it is not…. Here are a few certification systems that can be helpful to recognise.

In Australia, organic certification is performed by several organisations that are accredited by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) under the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce. At the time of writing there are six accredited organisation. They certify, a vast variety of products from grapes to make wine to cattle. Some go beyond the farm itself and into the transformation of products.

I have not come across organically certified Australian cotton. However, this does not mean that it does not exist. Cotton Australia tells us that that there was a small trial made some years ago but that it was not economically viable to continue production.

Most of the organic cotton, just like regular cotton, is grown elsewhere and international certification can be obtained. The European Union, India,  the United States and Japan also have organic standards. The scope of those standards varies but they are mostly concerned about what happens on the farm. Most of them do not go further than the ginning stage which is where the seed is separated from the lint (the fluffy cotton ball stuff)– still far away in the process from the skirt hanging in the shop.

There are also two worldwide certifications, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Organic Content Standards (OCS) are the go to certification authorities.

OCS certification ensures that the presence and amount of Organic Material in a final product is documented through the supply chain but does not include processing methods such as textile dyeing. It traces the percentage of organic content in a garment.



The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. From the farm to processing, manufacturing and distribution. The Standard cover things such as fair wages and environmentally friendly dyes.

So there is hope!  By buying organic, you can avoid the hidden hydrocarbon culprit in fertilisers and pesticides right at the farm. In addition to reduce dependency on hydrocarbons, organic farming has several other benefits. If you are interested in learning about organic crop for textile, I would suggest the following pages:

Until then… go on…. Come with us and explore the world.  And see if you can add organic textiles to your suitcase