We rely on our environment to provide us with essential services and resources, including food, water filtration, weather defence, and many others. Our natural ecosystems need diversity of plant and animal life to offer these services.
Unfortunately biodiversity is in decline, reducing the overall resilience and health of the natural world around us. Worldwide, the WWF found that there was an average decline of 68% in populations tracked over 46 years. A similar story can be found in Britain, where 56% of species have declined in population in recent decades and many face risk of extinction. This depletion in biodiversity puts the health of our land at risk.
What Causes Biodiversity Loss?
All businesses rely on natural systems, either directly or further “upstream” through their supply chains. From natural fibres in clothes, to mining metals from deep underground to build microchips, to growing fruit and vegetables, there is a cost to natural resources in everything we produce.
As the world is constantly ploughed, dug and adapted to keep up with our consumption, natural systems are under increased strain. Our damage to natural habitats around the world displaces nature and on occasion pushes species to extinction.
Let’s imagine a simple design of shoes now, with a rubber sole, canvas (cotton) body and cotton shoelaces. We’ll ignore the plastics used to bond and protect the materials for this example and just thread all the pieces together. Yes they may fall apart with our poor sewing skills, but at least they are plastic free!
Cotton: What’s the Biodiversity impact?
Cotton is the most widespread non-food crop worldwide. The crop requires large amounts of water to produce, and often aggressive agricultural practice will deplete and degrade soil.
Cotton often requires the use of fertiliser and pesticides to produce sufficient yield, leading to severe pollution of land and water, affecting local populations and wildlife.
There are several coalitions of growers, manufacturers, retailers and government bodies encouraging more sustainable and environmentally friendly production of cotton, although much cotton production still causes severe harm to the environment.
Organic cotton is arguably more sustainable to grow, as it doesn’t involve polluting pesticides in the growing process. On average you’re having to use more land to grow the same amount of cotton (approximately 30% more (1)), but you are less likely to degrade or pollute the land (which may mean more land is used in the long term as depleted land can no longer be used as effectively). Currently only 1% of cotton produced is organic, and despite common misconception, it’s not too much more expensive (only 5 – 20% more expensive at source (2)).
India and the USA are the world’s top cotton producers, and the largest exporter of cotton is China, with approximately 25% of total global exports. World cotton production and consumption have risen from 7 million metric tons in 1950/51 to 26 million tons today, equivalent to an average annual increase of nearly 300,000 tons – that means more land, more water, more pollution and more impact to wildlife and biodiversity.
Let’s assume we’re using organic cotton so we only need to worry about the indirect impact of the pollution against the land we’re using. We’re also importing the cotton from India (where 51% of organic cotton was produced last year, (2)).
India is an amazingly diverse country, where tens of thousands of species of all variety make their home. There are several especially rich regions for biodiversity, including the Western Ghats, which is both an organic cotton production region, and biodiversity hotspot – inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2012.
There are hundreds of local reptiles, birds, mammals, amphibians and plants which are endemic (only found in the region), such as the Lion-tailed macaque. Cotton can be grown alongside or in rotation with other crops, but it is still likely that almost all species will be displaced by agricultural expansion.
The impact of cotton has a potential catastrophic impact on biodiversity. Our growing consumption of cotton means more land, and therefore more habitat lost for native wildlife, from plants to amphibians and birds.
Rubber: What’s the Biodiversity impact?
Last year almost 14 million tonnes of rubber was produced worldwide, for a variety of purposes, and the planet’s rising thirst for rubber has a significant impact on the countries that produce it.
Using rubber for the soles of shoes is not new. Apparently indigenous groups tapped the gummy white sap of the rubber tree and dipped their bare feet into it before drying them by the fire. When the sap hardened, it formed a rubbery protective layer which protected their feet on long walks through the rainforest.
The Rubber Tree (Hevea brasiliensis), once native to the Amazon rainforest, has now spread around the world with the majority of rubber harvested in South East Asia, and predominantly in Thailand.
Thailand now has millions of hectares of monoculture rubber plantations across the country, often having replaced rich and diverse lowland forest. Over 85% of rubber plantations here are intensely farmed monocultures, where little other plant diversity can be found.
There are countless examples of damage to local wildlife in South East Asia from expanding rubber plantations. For example, more than 70 per cent of the 75,000 hectare Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia was cleared for rubber between 2009 and 2013. The sanctuary is classified internationally as an “important bird area”, with many unique and rare bird species in the region, and several threatened species of Gibbon.
Some farms are adopting agroforestry measures (growing other species amongst rubber trees) to increase biodiversity and ecosystem health within the rubber industry. These measures have shown improvement in biodiversity in rubber plantations (3) and therefore adding a lower cost to wildlife compared against traditional rubber farms, however this is still only practiced in a minority of farms (less than 15% in Thailand).
Whereas we can easily buy organic and sustainable grown fabrics – they’re certified and then labelled appropriately in shops, it’s almost impossible to find a sustainably grown rubber bike tyre or shoe! The Sustainable Natural Rubber initiative (SNR-i) was launched in 2015 to raise awareness around sustainable rubber farming. This will require much greater buy-in from governments before the consumer can make a choice about where they purchase their rubber from.
Let’s assume we’re purchasing our natural rubber from Thailand, which produces the most rubber worldwide. Rubber is grown in plantations that would have replaced diverse lowland forest, displacing the majority of wildlife in the process.
In Southern Thailand, you could expect lowland forests to be a habitat for Woodpeckers, Broadbills, Warblers and many more rare or threatened birds. Furthermore, a variety of vegetation and plantlife would have been cleared, which would also serve as habitat for thousands of insects, frogs and lizards.
Bird species richness (the variety of species in a given space) has been found to drop 60% when forest is converted to rubber plantation (4), and arguably similar or greater drops would be found for other species too.
In addition, large continuous Monoculture plantations can also lead to loss of soil quality, which reduce land resilience and can lead to disastrous events such as landslides, damaging vast swathes of land in the process and impact wildlife beyond the boundaries of the plantation.
Can we be Nature Positive?
Unfortunately it’s clear that many of our purchases have a far-reaching impact on global biodiversity. The process of growing the building blocks of your shoes will have affected countless species in the countries it is produced.
We’ve used international examples here, but the same story can be told in Britain. There are no cotton or rubber plantations, but much of our land is still a mosaic of agricultural spaces which is pushing native species to the fringes of our landscapes and to the edge of existence.
The worrying losses in biodiversity that we are witnessing, which is connected and exacerbated by climate change, mean that we can no longer continue with business as usual and we must take action now.
Regenerative agriculture and agroforestry are practices that can make the growing of cotton and rubber more sustainable and nature-friendly. However, all agriculture has an impact on local wildlife, and ultimately there needs to be space where plant and animal life are not interfered with.
Nature is not just a pleasant sight to witness on weekend walks, but a network of life that we fundamentally rely on. We can no longer ignore the biodiversity crisis that we are witnessing. I am hopeful that as awareness is raised for these issues we can build a new relationship with the natural world, with mutual respect for the services that all wildlife provides us, from the largest rivers to the smallest fungi.
Regenerative agriculture is not a “one size fits all” prescriptive practice. Instead, it considers the local geography and a series of measures that support resilience as well as build and nourish our ecosystem. Over time, regenerative practices can increase production and naturally reduce the need for external inputs. If regenerative practices are implemented successfully, the biodiversity and health of the agricultural ecosystem can be improved, giving economic benefit to farmers involved.
Regenerative practices usually address a single element or set of practices within the system. Standard practices include no- or low-till plowing, cover cropping, multi-use systems, agroforestry, rotational farming, precision agriculture, integrated pest management, etc.
Agroforestry involves the cultivation and use of trees and shrubs with crops and livestock in agricultural systems. Agroforestry seeks positive interactions between the trees and elements involved, aiming to achieve a greater biodiversity and diversity of ecological processes, offering greater output from the land than is possible through conventional agriculture.
- Forster, D., et al., Yield and Economic Performance of Organic and Conventional Cotton-Based Farming Systems – Results from a Field Trial in India, PloS One (2013)
- Organic Cotton Market Report 2020, Textile Exchange (2020)
- Warren-Thomas, E., et al., Rubber agroforestry in Thailand provides some biodiversity benefits without reducing yields, Journal of Applied Ecology (2019)
- Aratrakorn, S. et al., Changes in bird communities following conversion of lowland forest to oil palm and rubber plantations in southern Thailand, Bird Conservation International (2006)