girl in white cotton t shirt under white cotton sheet

Across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan lies the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest body of inland water. Actually a saline lake, the Aral Sea previously covered 26,000 miles (67,300 square kilometers) of East Asia — today, it is about one-tenth of its original size.

What dried up this massive marvel? Simply put: Us. In 1918, the Soviet Union decided to divert water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers for agricultural irrigation, specifically cotton production. Cotton was (and still is) a valuable export, so policymakers were eager to expand its cultivation; however, cotton is hugely water-dependent. Engineers knew the irrigation system would diminish the Aral Sea, because it relied on steady flows of freshwater from the two rivers; but they had no idea of the long-term consequences.

By the 1980s, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya basically dried up before reaching the lake, causing it to shrink rapidly. While fields of cotton flourished, supplying factories globally, the Aral Sea continued to shrink — and environmental & humanitarian issues grew. By attempting to maximize cotton production, humans caused devastating damage to the Aral Sea and surrounding areas.

dried lake with canoes

An Ecosystem and Its Communities, Destroyed

One of the biggest problems caused by the desertification of the Aral Sea is the remaining salt from the evaporated lakewater. As more of the seabed is exposed, there is less water (and no vegetation) to brace wind gusts, causing salt — over 40 million tons now — to blow into surrounding towns and fields, polluting the air & soil. The wind also carries toxic dust containing fertilizers and pesticides from the fields, causing further pollution. The rapid change in the ecosystem also accelerated climate change, causing increasingly cold winters and hotter, drier summers.

Back in the 1960s, the Aral Sea was full of life. It hosted a booming tourism industry, and a fishing industry that provided 13% of the Soviet Union’s fish stocks. Millions of citizens relied on these industries; but when commercial cotton sucked up their most valuable resource, the industries evaporated, leaving inhabitants at a complete loss. The Aral Sea transformed from a cornerstone of the local communities, to their greatest burden.

While people overseas profit from cotton, these communities suffer from its effects. Increased salt has made the remaining water unfit for drinking, and has killed off the fish that citizens relied on for business and for food. Increased salt levels in the soil are also rendering the land unfit for any growth. Additionally, the fertilizers and pesticides in the constantly-swirling toxic dust cause horrifying health consequences, including: kidney diseases, respiratory issues, and cancer. While the environmental effects of this man-made disaster are evident, the suffering of these citizens is often overlooked.

To better visualize, watch this clip from BBC’s “Stacey Dooley Investigates: Fashion’s Dirty Secrets.” BBC took down the documentary, at the request of big brands who benefit from cotton production — But this quote captures Stacey’s relatable reaction to the issue:

“I feel like we understand what plastic does to the Earth…but did I know cotton was capable of this? Of course I didn’t. I had no idea.”

cotton plants in a field

A Steady Trickle of Hope

The shrinking Aral Sea is a cautionary tale regarding water conservation and responsible manufacturing; however, the story isn’t over. In 2005, the World Bank and Kazakh government created the Syr Darya Control and Northern Aral Sea Project, which is gradually restoring the lake’s water levels, decreasing salt levels, and reintroducing species of fish to help the Aral communities.

Some global brands are also helping to improve commercial cotton production: For example, Levi’s has started replacing cotton with earth-friendly hemp, and their new “Water<Less” technologies eliminate 96% of the water normally used during denim production. Stella McCartney is rethinking apparel production, by implementing sustainable methods in every step of their supply chain and partnering with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to promote the need for circular economies.

These efforts are reducing society’s reliance on cotton at the highest level, but there are also ways for consumers to contribute.

What Can You Do?

First, get to know the cotton you’re buying. Organic cotton is better than normal cotton, because it requires less water and no pesticides. Buying Fairtrade cotton is also beneficial, because it ensures the use of ethical practices and protection of workers. Look for these labels when buying cotton products:

Next, demand that more brands use cleaner cotton. If a brand’s sourcing information isn’t publicly accessible, take action and contact them: through their website, on social media, or by email. If a product/brand does not use organic or Fairtrade cotton, consider finding a more sustainable alternative — Good On You’s Ultimate Guide to Fair Trade Fashion Brands is a great resource.

Furthermore, spread the word about the cons of cotton, as well as the impact of mismanaged sourcing & manufacturing. Like the shrinking Aral Sea, the negative effects of cotton production are usually out of our sight — so it is important that we as consumers educate ourselves on where and how our products are made. Our voices are strongest when we are informed and united. It’s up to us to highlight issues like the shrinking Aral Sea by weaving conscious consumerism into our lifestyles.