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COTTON: MEETING THE CHALLENGES OF SUSTAINABILITY

Everyone knows that Cotton, although a renewable crop, is a gross consumer of  world resources,  and is therefore beset by a poor reputation in the Sustainability / Ecological lobby

We know that large quantities of water and pesticide are used in its growth, and further, that large quantities of water, chemicals and energy are used in its processing and production.

Yet, this vast industry is starting to meet the challenge, as consumers become more aware of the sustainability agenda, so the cotton industry is rising to the challenge

No single organisation exemplifies this more than the Better Cotton Initiative, based in Geneva and London it is the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world —it aims to train 5 million farmers worldwide on more sustainable agricultural practices and ensure that “Better Cotton” accounts for 30% of global production by 2020.

In less than 10 years, the Better Cotton Initiative and its on-the-ground partners have supported over 1.6 million farmers in 23 countries in adopting more sustainable agricultural practices. Thanks to these efforts, Better Cotton currently accounts for around 15% of global cotton production. Measures introduced include: Drip-feed irrigation, use of natural bio-pesticides and soil health management.

The efforts of its members are exemplified by Companies such as Arvind Ltd. of India, who started supporting the BCI initiative in 2011, and now works with over 25,000 cotton farmers in three regions.

“In the last two years we have seen increased demand for Better Cotton from retailers and brands, as many implement sustainable raw materials strategies”, says Abhishek Bansai, Head Of Sustainability at Arvind. “We hope to have 400,000 hectares under Better Cotton cultivation in the next 4 to 5 years (up from 100,000 hectares today) in order to meet demand for more sustainably produced cotton”.

Small wonder that many of the world’s leading retail brands, such as H & M, Inditex and Tesco, are associated with BCI, and as each year passes the number grows... But, it is not only in education and organisation that Cotton is changing, for, in the technological sphere great leaps have been made as the Industry 4.0 equation catches up with the manufacturing of the world’s favourite fibre.

There are some truly amazing leaps forward, and perhaps none more so than the Ecorobotix solar powered cotton field Robot, which not only weeds the crop, but also micro-doses each plant with small amounts of approved bio pesticides. Powered by its Solar Cells, this unattended Robot can traverses the cotton fields continuously, fostering cotton plant growth and the elimination of weeds.

Moving on to use of energy, there has been remarkable progress in energy conservation in Cotton processing. Here, systems such as the Bruckner Eco-Heat and Eco-Air system recovers depending on the heating requirement, up to 85% of the invested heat energy. The pollutants from the exhaust air are condensed and separated in the subsequent ECO-AIR exhaust air scrubber. A silencer behind the exhaust air fan reduces the exhaust noise to a minimum.

The result, a clean and energy efficient system, far removed from the energy-greedy processes of the past.

But it is in the field of process chemistry that the greatest progress has been made. Here, led by the ZDHC ( Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals) initiative and backed up by certification standards and regulations such as REACH, Bluesign and Oeko-Tex the industry has come up with a remarkable transformation of chemicals being used in Cotton processing. A good example here is the Archroma range of Earthcolors®.

These high performance dyes are synthesised from non-edible agricultural or herbal industries waste such as leaves or nutshells. Thanks to smart technologies, EarthColors® dyes are fully traceable from natural waste material to the store.

Their advantages include :

  • Warm ternary shades from nature

  • High-performance colours synthesised from the non-edible shells of nuts and leaves

  • Transformed natural waste-based colorants

  • Traceability with NFC technology

In Bleaching there is the Catexil Pegasus system of bleaching based on a stable manganese metal-complex catalyst (Mn-TMEM) for use with hydrogen peroxide in aqueous oxidation processes. By enhancing the activity of the hydrogen peroxide used in the bleaching phase, much less energy is required, because the reaction and the operating temperature can be reduced by up to 30°C.

And so on…across the spectrum from Plant growth to Dyestuffs, Cotton is rising to the challenge of Sustainability, as human ingenuity and purpose move forward to create an Industry to meet the Ecological challenges of the 21st Century world

Image credits: Fashion Revolution photo by @jess_lehmann_ Ecorobotix Archroma - Earth Colours