Cotton is the most widespread profitable non-food crop in the world. Its production provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labor in developing countries. Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton.

The global reach of cotton is wide, but current cotton production methods are environmentally unsustainable—ultimately undermining the industry’s ability to maintain future production.

Bringing cotton production in line with even minimally acceptable environmental standards is a challenging task. WWF is working with a coalition of global partners to promote the sustainable production and use of cotton in a variety of ways.

Handle with Care

Understanding the hidden environmental costs of cotton
Cotton T-shirt


Indus River, Sind, Pakistan

It is estimated that 97% of the water in the Indus River goes towards producing crops like cotton.


Cotton’s most prominent environmental impacts result from the use of agrochemicals (especially pesticides), the consumption of water, and the conversion of habitat to agricultural use. Diversion of water and its pollution by cotton growing has had severe impacts on major ecosystems such as the Aral Sea in Central Asia, the Indus Delta in Pakistan and the Murray Darling River in Australia.

Water Scarcity

Production and processing of cotton uses a large amount of water. Some experts contend that cotton is the largest user of water among all agricultural commodities. Surface and ground waters are often diverted to irrigate cotton fields, leading to freshwater loss through evaporation, and inefficient water management.

Soil Erosion and Degradation

Cotton cultivation severely degrades soil quality. Despite the global area devoted to cotton cultivation remaining constant for the past 70 years, cotton production has depleted and degraded the soil in many areas. Most cotton is grown on well-established fields, but their exhaustion leads to expansion into new areas and the attendant destruction of habitat.


Conventional production practices for cotton involve the application of substantial fertilizers and pesticides. Pesticides threaten the quality of soil and water, as well as the health of biodiversity in and downstream from the fields. Heavy use of pesticides also raises concern for the health of farm workers and nearby populations.

Water Contamination

Runoff of pesticides, fertilizers, and minerals from cotton fields contaminates rivers, lakes, wetlands, and underground aquifers. These pollutants affect biodiversity directly by immediate toxicity or indirectly through long-term accumulation.

What WWF Is Doing

Cotton factory, Faisalabad, Pakistan.

WWF works to promote sustainable production, reduce damage to freshwater systems, and encourage the use of advanced irrigation technology and more ecologically sound growing methods. WWF is working with farmers, government agencies, buyers and investors at key stages of the market chain—from the field to the clothes shop—in a joint effort to promote more ecologically and ethically sound cotton.

With support from IKEA, WWF began a pilot project to promote better ways of growing cotton. Due to its immediate success, the project evolved into a multi-stakeholder organization called the Better Cotton Initiative.

Farmers that adopt the Better Cotton standards commit to:

  • minimize the harmful impact of crop protection practices;
  • use water efficiently and care for the availability of water;
  • care for the health of the soil;
  • conserve natural habitats;
  • care for and preserve the quality of the fiber;
  • and promote decent work.

Farmers that adopt these best management practices are growing healthier cotton, with less pesticide, fertilizer and water overruns. For instance, 97% of the water in the Indus River goes towards producing crops like cotton. Now over 75,000 Pakistani farmers have reduced their use of water by 39 per cent, helping reduce pressure on the Indus River.

In addition, the Better Cotton Initiative helped these farmers reduce pesticides by 47 per cent and chemical fertilizer by 39 per cent across over 300,000 hectares in 2012. Yields are just as good, and there is an average 11 percent increase in income compared to farmers who are still using conventional practices.

How You Can Help

Father and daughter hang laundry outside

By hanging your laundry—skipping the drying and ironing—you can reduce your t-shirt’s carbon footprint by a third.