#MaterialMonday: Cotton & Organic Cotton

Cotton Boll

#MaterialMondays is a series of informative (and not overwhelming, we promise!) posts that breaks down what’s what in fabrics. Our goal is to equip you with knowledge and tips that will inform your buying choices so that they are made with sustainability and the environment in mind.  If you liked this post, be sure to share!

Post by Contributing Writer Iris Chau.


Who knew that a little plant could hold so much potential and power? It’s hard to say what the fashion industry would look like without cotton. Cotton fabric has an estimated history of 7,000 years, and today, it is easily one of the leading ‘cash crops’ of North America and the world. Cotton is one of the most heavily used and bought fabrics. A “100% Cotton” on a care label is all you need for a garment to boast a little prestige. Cotton deserves the attention it gets — after all, it’s comfortable, soft, breathable, and has a natural look and texture that synthetics like polyester just can’t replicate.

But we’ve got to ask — is cotton sustainable?


is cotton sustainable?

A brief timeline of the mighty cotton plant is as follows: cotton takes five months to grow, cultivates in warm climates, and all parts of the cotton plant have use. Obviously, the cotton fiber, or ‘fluff,’ is the most important, but its lint (short fuzz) is used for cellulose and its seed is used for oil. In brief, cotton has to go through a simple process before it gets turned into fabric. The processing involves removing sticks, seeds, and debris from the harvested cotton, and then cleaning the cotton until it is pure enough to be turned into yarns — that then get spun into fabric. Most of our cotton in the world comes from China, India, Uzbekistan, the United States, Brazil, Pakistan, and Turkey. Cotton growing provides work for millions of farmers around the world.

Cotton fabrics are sustainable, in the sense that cotton is a plant-based fiber and it is natural. Unlike synthetic fabrics made from polyester or acrylic, cotton is biodegradable and can break down without leaving anything behind. It’s also a renewable source that we can grow more of when it wears out. Cotton is also long lasting and better quality than many other fiber options out there. In some cases, like in bedding, cotton gets softer over the years and can increase in quality. The breathability, combined with the durability of cotton also means it doesn’t retain odors as easily — so it doesn’t require a lot of washing. It’s low maintenance, energy reducing, and a timeless fabric to wear. If it doesn’t smell, don’t wash it!

On the flip side, cotton production has a lot of negatives, most notably its water footprint. Cotton requires a lot of water to produce, so much so that the Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan today is completely dried up due to cotton production. Growing cotton is so water-intensive, it consumed 256 gigaliters of water between 1997 and 2001. To make matters worse, the demand for cotton production has in part made it a very chemical intensive process, requiring large amounts of pesticides and herbicides. In a 2017 report by the Pesticide Action Network UK, it was revealed that cotton production is the fourth largest consumer of agricultural chemicals. These chemicals stay behind long after cotton production, affecting the surrounding environment and its soil, water, air, and health of human beings. After some reflection, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Cotton is everywhere — not just in our clothing but in our drapery, towels, Q-Tips, shoes, and accessories — and it is available in affordable prices. When the cotton industry realized the demand, it had to do whatever it took to prevent threats of productivity needed to fulfill those demands.

However, it’s important to note that cotton production differs from country to country — not all cotton farmers use heavy amounts of chemicals and water. Some farmers, like that in Australia and Turkey, are well-known for being able to reduce their chemical use while also producing the highest cotton yields in the world. This is due to a unique system called Integrated Pest Management (IPM), where the behavior of pests are studied using a science-based approach, and utilized so that the crops can retaliate and prevent pests in ways other than chemicals. Countries like India and China, however, generally do not have the same standards as their IPM-enabling counterparts, but are the top two leading cotton producers in the world.

Cotton

This leads us to organic cotton. Organic cotton is grown from natural and untreated seeds, and generally, the use of typical agricultural chemicals is reduced significantly throughout the whole process of weed control, harvesting, whitening, and finishing the cotton. The standard of organic cotton is controlled by the GOTS (The Global Organic Textile Standard) and companies producing organic cotton goods have to search for cotton that has this specific certification.

According to GOTS, the production of organic cotton must meet the following:

  • At all stages through the processing organic fibre products must be separated from conventional fibre products and must to be clearly identified

  • All chemical inputs (e.g. dyes, auxiliaries and process chemicals) must be evaluated and meeting basic requirements on toxicity and biodegradability/eliminability

  • Prohibition of critical inputs such as toxic heavy metals, formaldehyde, aromatic solvents, functional nano particles, genetically modified organisms (GMO) and their enzymes

  • The use of synthetic sizing agents is restricted; knitting and weaving oils must not contain heavy metals

  • Bleaches must be based on oxygen (no chlorine bleaching)

  • Azo dyes that release carcinogenic amine compounds are prohibited

  • Discharge printing methods using aromatic solvents and plastisol printing methods using phthalates and PVC are prohibited

  • Restrictions for accessories (e.g. no PVC, nickel or chrome permitted)

  • All operators must have an environmental policy including target goals and procedures to minimise waste and discharges

  • Wet processing units must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment, including the disposal of sludge. The waste water from all wet processing units must be treated in a functional waste water treatment plant.

  • Packaging material must not contain PVC. Paper or cardboard used in packaging material, hang tags, swing tags etc. must be recycled or certified according to FSC or PEFC

(GOTS, 2019.)

Cotton Field

The downside to organic cotton is that, like organic groceries, it can often be more expensive than regular cotton. Organic cotton is also obscure; there is no shortage of debate out there on whether or not organic cotton is truly better for the environment over regular cotton. For example, a single organic cotton plant yields less fiber than a conventional cotton plant, since the latter has been genetically engineered for a higher yield. This means that it takes more work and more resources to yield the same amount of organic cotton to conventional cotton. There is also controversy over how much water it takes to produce organic cotton — some say it takes three times more water, and some say it is the same. However, the disparity amongst these facts are likely due to different farmers having different practices and ways of maintaining the health of their soil. And, to blur our moral compass a little bit more — growing organic cotton still requires naturally derived chemicals that some suggest can be just as harmful to the environment than conventional ones — though there’s less mainstream evidence of this.  

But there’s hope amidst this cotton controversy. There’s a way to reduce the amount of pesticide and chemicals used. There’s a way to help farmers be efficient while saving water. There’s a way to be profitable but still be mindful of the environment — and that’s with education. Organizations like the Better Cotton Initiative specifically work with farmers in developing countries to implement more effective practices that ultimately reduce the amount of chemicals and water needed. For example, they equip farmers with the resources and knowledge to naturally manage pests and water usage, nourish soil, and replace harmful chemicals with better alternatives. In one of their first partnerships in India, pesticide use saw an 80% reduction and water usage a 50% reduction, just by giving farmers accessibility to better management systems and technology. Over one million farmers are licensed with the Better Cotton Initiative and have made a commitment to continuously use more sustainable agricultural practices.

So the best answer we can offer is this: cotton is sustainable, as far as sustainability goes in the world of fashion. No matter what, consumption of any kind, fashion or not, will require resources and energy. Demanding a 100% percent sustainable option for such a high-demand commodity is nearly impossible in a capitalism driven society. Cotton may not be the idealist, perfect answer we are looking for, but there are organizations dedicated to making it better.

What can we do? Buy less. Choose quality pieces that last. Look for organic when possible. And treat your cotton well — after all, it’s a mighty little plant with a lot of potential.