• Announcement
24. July 2023

The "Initiative for Sustainable Agricultural Supply Chains" (INA) has conducted and published a comprehensive study on the environmental impacts of different cotton production systems. The study addresses the information needs of decision-makers and buyers, as highlighted by expert groups of the German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles. Expanding on existing studies, this research focuses on actual impact data from various cotton cultivation methods, enabling a more realistic assessment of their environmental effects. The findings emphasize the need for data collection and sharing among industry stakeholders to establish a robust monitoring framework and ensure the availability of good and reliable sustainability data.

“It was truly surprising to discover the vast number of LCAs (Life Cycle Assessments) and LCA-related studies that have been conducted in the field of cotton and textile production. However, it was equally striking that there have been only few endeavors to bring the results together. This paper presents a comprehensive Meta-Analysis of LCAs available for the cotton and textile industry, incorporating information and results from over 200 publications. By doing so, it facilitates a thorough comparison of LCA data from more than 80 different studies.”

Jens Soth

Senior Advisor

HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation


The study begins by presenting the requirements of relevant cultivation systems and introduces the concept of life cycle assessment (LCA). It provides an overview of different standards systems, their labels, organizations, and current production quantities. Additionally, the standards systems are compared with agricultural practices aimed at mitigating risks to agricultural production systems identified by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These practices include measures to improve soil health and fertility, selection of suitable cotton varieties based on local conditions, controlled use of fertilizers and pesticides, and support for biodiversity.

Interestingly, the study reveals that the standards and cotton production systems largely align with these recommended practices, with the main differences relating to the handling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Furthermore, the study examines the limitations of the life cycle assessment concept in an agricultural context, such as challenges in defining clear assessment boundaries and significant variations in input and output values in cotton cultivation. Despite these issues, the study underscores the importance of LCAs as a critical analytical tool for assessing environmental impacts.

In the second part of the study, a secondary analysis and LCA comparison were conducted based on over 80 publications on cotton and textiles. After filtering the evaluated standards systems, 11 studies were thoroughly assessed. This comparative analysis yielded several key findings.

Methodologically sound LCAs demonstrate that sustainability standards systems, including organic cotton, Better Cotton, and Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), significantly reduce the environmental impact of cotton production compared to conventional methods. In fact, a comparative LCA revealed that within the examined regional context, organic cotton has the lowest environmental impact.

The study highlights that thoughtful and well-managed use of agrochemicals is a primary reason for the superior environmental performance of sustainable cotton systems. Regarding greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable cotton systems consistently show lower values, with organic cotton having the least impact. However, findings on water consumption vary significantly, indicating the need for a discussion on appropriate water management practices aligned with locally available resources.

Regarding toxicity, the available data are incomplete, making conclusive evaluations impossible. Nevertheless, the study suggests that CmiA and Better Cotton perform better in this category due to their moderate use of agrochemicals compared to conventional cotton. Organic cotton, which completely avoids the use of agrochemicals, would likely have an even better profile if the toxicity category were fully considered.

Based on the assessment results, the study provides valuable recommendations for stakeholders in the textile and cotton sectors. It emphasizes the importance of supporting sustainable cotton as a natural fiber, regardless of the differences between the evaluated standards systems. A unified demand for sustainable cotton from the textile sector could have a significant impact.

Furthermore, the study encourages collaboration and data sharing among industry stakeholders, including farmers, to establish a robust data and monitoring framework. Only the collection and availability of solid data on the aforementioned categories can ensure that reliable analyses of the different environmental impacts of various cultivation systems continue.

By supporting sustainable cotton and promoting data collection efforts, stakeholders can contribute to an environmentally conscious and responsible supply chain.