Cotton is a complicated issue. We consume so much of it in the fashion industry – cotton is used for 40% of all clothing produced globally, and it makes up 90% of all natural fibres used in the textile industry! Although many people may assume that it’s a good material simply because it’s a natural fibre, it’s a lot more complex than that. There are upsides and downsides to using cotton, from its water consumption to the fact that it can biodegrade, so it can be hard to get your head around the issue.
Here at Revival Collective, we’ve put together an intro guide to some of the big topics surrounding cotton, to help you make more informed choices about what you wear.
One of the main issues with cotton is that it takes a lot of water to produce. It may seem like a positive trade off compared with synthetic fibres that use fossil fuels, but irresponsible water use can have huge negative impacts.
To give you an idea of the amount of water cotton uses, let’s compare it with polyester, a synthetic material. To produce 1KG of polyester, it takes 17 litres of water. To make the same amount of cotton, it takes 3800 litres! However, it also takes half the amount of energy to produce this cotton. So there’s a trade-off here – fossil fuels versus water.
All this water has to come from somewhere, which can have devastating consequences on the landscape. One example of this is the Aral Sea, in central Asia. This once large body of water has now been reduced to just 10% of what it was, and the growth of cotton was a large contributing factor to this. Redirecting water from natural sources also means that local communities can be left without a reliable source of water.
Pesticides are chemicals used on crops to kill pests and other life that can affect how crops grow, like insecticides (for insects), herbicides (for weeds and other plants), and defoliants (encourages lack of leaf growth or kills off leaves and foliage from plants).
The cotton industry uses a lot of pesticides. In 2009, cotton accounted for 3% of crops worldwide, yet it used around 10% of the world’s pesticides, and, specifically, 25% the world’s insecticides. Most cotton grown is non-organic, so these pesticides are used to grow crops as efficiently as possible. The use of defoliants also means that machinery can be used to pick cotton more easily, since there are fewer leaves in the way while the machines pick the actual cotton from the plants.
Cotton farmers use pesticides because it means cotton can be grown more efficiently, and more can be grown in a smaller space. In the last 80 years, the amount of land dedicated to growing cotton hasn’t increased significantly, yet we’re producing three times the amount of cotton – and this is largely due to the use of pesticides.
What’s the issue with pesticides? While in the short term it helps to keep cotton cheap since so much can be produced, it has damaging long term effects. The use of land to grow one crop and one crop only leads to a loss of biodiversity in the local area, as well as reduced soil fertility, which can render land useless.
It also leads to water pollution! As well as using a large amount of water, it also contaminates it in the process, so any water that is put back into the system is often so contaminated it can no longer be used safely.
What about organic cotton?
So, if pesticides are such a huge issue, let’s discuss organic cotton. Organic cotton is cotton that has been grown without the use of pesticides or any synthetic chemicals. For cotton to be considered organic, it must have been grown this way either originally on the land it’s on, or for three years. So, if cotton is grown on a new green field without chemicals, it’s organic. But if a non-organic cotton farmer wants to start growing organic cotton, it won’t be considered organic until it’s been grown in that field without chemicals for three years. In those three years, it’s called transitional cotton.
This is a problem that we as consumers can help to address. Here’s the problem: non-organic cotton is easy to grow in large quantities and sells well. Organic cotton is produced in much smaller quantities on the same amount of land, but sells at a higher price. Transitional cotton? Not a lot of people are interested in that. It can’t be produced in the large numbers that makes non-organic cotton so lucrative, yet it can’t fetch the higher price of organic cotton since it isn’t technically organic. So, farmers don’t have a financial incentive to switch to organic cotton! In fact, it’ll likely lose them a lot of money.
So, as consumers, we can help with this by showing a willingness to purchase transitional cotton. If we can demonstrate that people will buy it and make sure it’s profitable, hopefully cotton farmers will be able to make a living from it while they transition into organic cotton.
Is it all doom and gloom?
Of course not! There are plenty of upsides to using organic cotton. First – it biodegrades! Is your organic cotton t-shirt getting past its prime? Fine, pop it in the compost bin! Of course, there are plenty of things you can do in your own home to help reduce the carbon footprint of cotton, like wearing it for as long as it lasts and not over-washing it (washing machines use a lot of energy!), but ultimately a benefit of organic cotton is that it won’t contribute to the huge amount of landfill we have.
Also, as mentioned earlier, cotton takes half the amount of energy as polyester which really reduces the carbon footprint of its production. There are other ways that organic cotton uses less energy too. For example, the fact that it doesn’t use pesticides means that it avoids any energy that goes into the pesticide production. Organic cotton also more commonly uses actual human people to pick the cotton, rather than machines, since it isn’t using defoliants to clear the foliage away for the machines. So that means that any energy in building and using those machines is avoided as well! Of course, we then need to make sure the working conditions for these pickers are good.
Ethics and Organic Cotton
In many cases, organic cotton growers or companies that purchase organic cotton have strong social values, so much organic cotton is also fairly traded, for example. If a farmer is concerned with making sure the cotton is organic, chances are they’ll likely also have strong values in other areas of ethics and environmentalism and will look out for the working conditions – or they may do this because its what their buyers want. This is often also carried on up the chain of the cotton, so, for example, water-soluble fabric dyes are commonly used on organic cotton, rather than synthetic dyes which contaminate the water used in the dyeing process.
Can we completely switch to organic cotton?
Not really. As we said earlier – much more non-organic cotton can be produced than organic cotton in the same amount of space. Which means that if we wanted to switch all of our cotton to being organic, we would run out of space. Ultimately, the thing that needs to change is our buying habits. While we continue to consume so much, and demand such low prices, the fashion industry is forced to take measures like the use of pesticides in order to meet the demand.
So what can I do?
Here’s where you have to make some decisions. When it comes to environmentalism, there is rarely a straightforward answer, and once you solve one problem another arises. One thing you can do to help the fashion industry as a whole is to reduce the amount you buy, as real, significant change can only be made once demand for clothing has gone down and we have room to change the way we produce clothing.
When you do choose to buy clothes, think carefully about the fabric. Don’t write off transitional cotton, as by purchasing it you’re demonstrating that it can sell, and creating an incentive for non-organic farmers to switch to organic farming.
There are also other natural fibres you could look for as an alternative to cotton. Organic flax/linen is becoming more popular, as it takes a comparatively very small amount of water to grow, which eliminates one of the main issues surrounding cotton. For softer, warmer fabrics, many people would suggest organic wool as a good alternative. However, this is where you have to make some decisions about what your priorities are, as wool may not be a viable alternative for you if you are vegan. Ultimately, when it comes to living a sustainable life, at a certain point you sometimes need to think about your values and what your priorities are.
Buying organic, natural fibres is a great way to go and is a much more conscious choice than buying non-organic or synthetic materials. A great way to know you’re making a good choice with your purchase is to buy from a company you trust. There are plenty of fashion brands out there with great sustainable and ethical values, and they choose carefully where they source their fabric, how it is treated, and have high standards for working conditions. And by putting your money into brands that care, you’re demonstrating to the fashion industry that being a conscious company pays off.
What are your favourite fashion brands that use organic cotton? Tweet us @revival_collect!
Sustainable Fashion and Textiles – Kate Fletcher (Book)
Style, Naturally – Summer Rayne Oakes (Book)