The fashion industry is on the cusp of a sustainable revolution, provided that more cotton farmers turn to regenerative and water-efficient strategies. By Lucianne Tonti.

Can the cotton industry ever be sustainable in Australia?

The CSIRO cotton research team in action.
The CSIRO cotton research team in action.
Credit: CSIRO

Scott McCalman describes his soil as black, beautiful and a highly appreciating asset. He cultivates it on 1200 hectares of land on the Liverpool Plains in New South Wales – a source of the regeneratively grown, rain-fed cotton that’s driving a revolution in the fashion industry.

“Lucky for us,” McCalman says, “the Australian climate grows the best-quality cotton fibre in the world.”

The fifth-generation farmer is doing more than growing high-quality cotton. McCalman cultivates his soil using a variety of techniques, including replacing synthetic fertilisers with a liquid biological inoculate that he produces himself and planting nitrogen-fixing multispecies cover crops between seasons. For him, the benefits of farming this way are twofold: one is financial, thanks to the rising costs of chemicals and fuel, and the other is environmental. McCalman’s management system has allowed him to reduce his pesticide use by 98 per cent, and in the decade he’s been on the land, his soil carbon has increased from 1.5 per cent to 2.8 per cent.

Regenerative cultivation methods such as his are fundamental to the long-term health of the fashion industry, according to Textile Exchange. The global think tank noted in a 2022 report that farming techniques that address soil health, water, carbon sequestration and biodiversity not only produce better-quality fibres, they are also the foundation of any strategy to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target of 45 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.

Some of fashion’s biggest players, including Stella McCartney, Burberry, Patagonia, LVMH and Kering are already integrating regenerative agriculture practices into their supply chains. In Australia, the industry’s shift towards sustainable sourcing of raw materials and traceability has seen designers such as Nobody Denim and Country Road embark on partnerships with local farmers.

Country Road’s sustainability plan prioritises sourcing raw materials with a positive climate and biodiversity impact. Fabia Pryor, the company’s brand community and impact manager, cites research that shows 88 per cent of their customers consider it very important to use Australian wool and cotton. Since 2020, they have partnered with Oritain, a company that independently verifies the origin of their Australian cotton, which is used in a limited range of their cotton products.

“By sourcing locally, we’re supporting Australian farmers and local farming communities [and] acknowledging that the local cotton industry is world-leading in its approach to responsible land management,” Pryor says.

McCalman, who is currently doing a case study for the CSIRO, says cotton production is evolving as the long-term economics of the business have changed. “The industry has to get smarter and find innovative ways to remain profitable, but most importantly we have to be good stewards and land managers so we’re working in harmony with the landscape rather than against it.”

McCalman’s practices are not the norm in Australia, however. Climate expert Professor Mark Howden says, “We’re entering into more complex territory when we consider whether we can have a climate-friendly cotton industry.”

According to Cotton Australia, the industry consistently delivers some of the highest yields in the world. Since 1999, yields have increased from seven bales per hectare to almost 11. Adam Kay, Cotton Australia’s chief executive, says these improvements are partially the result of better management and partially the result of research and development by the CSIRO. Genetic improvements have also reduced insecticide use by 95 per cent, in conjunction with integrated pest management schemes such as refuge crops.

“We’ve got an incredibly successful program with the CSIRO and we know that around half of the yield improvement has come from genetics,” Kay says.

A more controversial claim of achievement by the cotton industry pertains to its water use. The Cotton Australia website claims Australia has the most water-efficient industry in the world and that its farmers use 48 per cent less water to grow one bale of cotton than they did in 1993. But for environmentalists who have long questioned whether cotton should be grown on the world’s second-driest continent, this is an oversimplification.

“Cotton is a thirsty crop,” says Professor Quentin Grafton, a leading academic on water economics. “That isn’t going to change.”

Grafton says classifying the industry’s water use as efficient is a misuse of the term. “What they’re talking about is water productivity – productivity is the ratio of output to input,” he says. “They’re growing more cotton for the water they’re using, but that does not mean that they are using less water.”

Although several cotton farmers have been prosecuted for stealing water during the past decade, Grafton says the vast majority are operating within the law. “The issue is the way the law allows them to extract water in that it [allows] too much,” he says.

The water licensing system allocates each farmer a certain amount of water that they can use to irrigate whatever crop they choose. The amount varies depending on rainfall and the needs of the community and the environment. When not enough water is available, farmers generally choose to grow a different crop.

“Whether they grow cotton or whether they grow corn or soybeans, they will use that amount of water,” says Kay. “The reason they grow cotton is because it gives them the best returns, because there is a global market for Australian cotton.”

From a sustainability perspective, cotton’s water footprint is just one puzzle piece.

“Cotton is a particularly greenhouse gas-intensive industry,” says Mark Howden. “Compared with a wheat crop, you get a lot more nitrous oxide from a hectare of cotton because there are high levels of nitrogen added.”

Adam Kay acknowledges that synthetic nitrogen is a big part of the industry’s carbon footprint. “The nitrogen fertiliser component is possibly half of our footprint,” he says. Nitrogen is essential for plant growth and healthy yields.

While he acknowledges the benefits of cover crops and that legumes can pull or fix nitrogen into the soil, he says “what you’d need to do is demonstrate that there’s an actual advantage to that”, because if “that was working, we’d had massive adoption.”

According to Kay, traditional cotton farmers have always used these techniques but they are implemented in addition to synthetic fertilisers. “When you take the cotton off, it might take 100 kilograms of nitrogen off,” he says. “If you don’t replace the nutrient, then what’s going to happen to your soil?”

For farmers such as McCalman, this reliance on synthetic fertiliser is a thing of the past. He describes it as “like weaning yourself off methadone – getting yourself off the drugs as a grower and trying to get a more natural system [in place]”.

Howden is confident the Australian cotton industry will continue to gravitate to sustainable practices, supported by innovations such as solar tractors and solar pumps for water systems, particularly as global pressure builds. In June, the European Commission proposed new rules to restore damaged ecosystems across agricultural land and halve pesticide use by 2030.

“When the EU moves, it raises the bar for other suppliers,” Howden says, “so what we’ll see is a continuing push downwards in terms of inputs from fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides et cetera.”

“One of the core points which is relevant here is that the cotton industry in Australia has shown itself to be pretty responsive to changing social values and I expect that will continue in the future as requirements to respond to greenhouse gas emissions build.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "Farm to label".

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