Oakland, CA — [Editor's note: This article was originally published by Miller-McCune and is reprinted here with permission.]
That "all-natural" cotton T-shirt in your closet? The one with the eco-friendly message brightly printed on the front? Ounce for ounce, it could be the most environmentally toxic item of clothing you own.
From the water and agrichemicals lavished on cotton grown in some of the world's driest regions (approximately one-third of the pesticide and fertilizer produced worldwide gets sprayed or dusted on cotton), through multihued rivers of waste streaming from textile mills to landfills bulging with castoff clothing, the life cycle of the humble cotton tee has left ecological wreckage in its wake.
As both the world's leading producer and biggest importer of raw cotton and its top exporter of cotton fabrics and apparel, China has experienced much of the damage. The expansion of industrial-scale cotton farming in the arid western Xinjiang province has been linked to the advance of the vast Taklamakan Desert, whose dunes have swallowed entire towns.
In China's industrial heartland, untreated dye wastes stain drainage ditches in vibrant synthetic hues, contributing to pollution that renders most Chinese rivers undrinkable and a few even dangerously toxic to the touch. So when China's leaders sought advice from international researchers on how to reduce the ecological cost of their country's trade, it was natural for cotton to be put atop the list for scrutiny.
And perhaps it was no less inevitable that scrutiny would extend to America and other major cotton producers, shedding light on how divergent political and economic cultures can hinder the achievement of greener trade - even when the country at the center of that trade is focused sharply on sustainability.
China's environmental woes go far beyond its role in fashion, of course. One official conceded in 2006 that the cumulative cost of environmental damage and pollution-related health care was effectively offsetting all of the country's widely envied 10 percent annual economic growth.
But few industries bind China's interests more closely to those of the United States than cotton textiles. In addition to all those Chinese-made T-shirts and other gear stocking the shelves in the local mall (more than $30 billion worth a year), China is the No. 1 foreign customer for American-grown cotton, buying as much as 45 percent of its exported harvest in a typical year. Beyond China's two-way trade with the U.S., cotton is one of the world's major agricultural commodities, the economic support in whole or part of one-sixth of humanity, when all stages of the cotton life cycle are included.
It's also a central catalyst in a wide array of environmental issues, from falling aquifers in irrigated growing regions to nutrient overloads that nourish fish-killing algae blooms in lakes and oceans.
With the scale of pollution's drag on the Chinese economy becoming evident earlier in the decade, China's State Council (its rough equivalent of the federal cabinet) directed its research arm, the Development Research Center, to seek advice on bringing the trade vital to China's prosperity into balance with its ecological resources. The DRC in turn commissioned a low-profile Canadian research center to oversee an international network of experts, funded in part by Switzerland, in a review of three trade streams with the worst environmental records. Sharing the short-and-dirty list with cotton were wood products and electronics.
"They asked us to help envision a sustainable trade strategy," explains Mark Halle, the Swiss-raised American who directed the project from Geneva, with colleagues at the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg, Canada. The scope of the study was to include the three industries' full-spectrum impact, from product cradle to grave. And the DRC made it clear that China's leaders were looking for pragmatic solutions, not idealized visions. In particular, whatever strategies emerged from the research had to be compatible with China's World Trade Organization and other trade commitments.