With qualities of breathability, lightness and softness, cotton is currently the most used fibre in clothing production. However, cotton has recently been under the spotlight, with claims that the cotton in your clothes is harming not just the environment but the people who are involved in cotton production.
Cotton is made from plants and is a natural product that can be regenerated, does not require intensive chemical processes to turn it into fabric and is biodegradable. Also unlike other popular fabrics such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, cotton – when machine-washed – does not release micro-plastics into the oceans (and hence into the tissue of fish we eat). Cotton, in theory does appear to be a great natural fabric.
Why is conventional cotton considered bad?
When you look at the way conventional cotton is currently produced it all starts looking not so "natural". Conventional cotton production uses more pesticides and insecticides than any food crop in the world (According to pan.uk-org, conventional cotton covers 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of the world’s insecticides). Pesticides and insecticides are both damaging to the ecosystems that they are used in as well as contaminating nearby water sources; have major health implications for those that work in cotton production; and are linked to a cycle of debt for small cotton farmers in developing countries (agrochemicals and genetically modified seeds are sold on credit at the start of the season and will put farmers in debt if the crop does not yield expected returns).
Cotton is also a very thirsty crop; according to worldwildlife.org it takes 2700 litres of water to make a single t-shirt from conventional cotton. This is an issue with water scarcity with conventional cotton grown in many countries where a large proportion of the population don’t have access to safe drinking water. The devastating legacy of water consumption and conventional cotton has been blamed for such environmental disasters as the drying up of the Aral sea in Uzbekistan. Also, conventional cotton doesn’t sit too well with ethical sourcing as according to the US Department of Labour, conventional cotton is one of the goods most commonly produced using forced labour and child labour.
What are the sustainable alternatives?
When you consider that cotton is an important crop for developing countries and can employ up to 7% of labour in these countries (WWF), abandoning cotton would have a devastating effect on the economies of the developing world. There are, however, some initiatives that have been implemented to make cotton a more transparent and sustainable fabric:
The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)
The BCI is a non-profit organisation to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future, by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity. The BCI does this by educating farmers on sustainable farming practices and better working conditions and in return for adopting these practices the BCI connects supply to demand through the BCI member network. These members have committed to BCI cotton in their supply chain. To find brands who use BCI cotton you can look on the BCI database.
Organic cotton is cotton that is grown without insecticides, pesticides and fertilisers and cannot be grown from genetically modified seeds. Growing cotton with organic farming methods supports biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, does not affect the health of farmers or those working in the supply chain and uses less water than conventional cotton farming.
Organic cotton claims cannot be made without certification and the current worldwide leader in certification of organic cotton is GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard). GOTS has very strict standards to achieve certification that go beyond just the fabric and address sustainability and ethical issues along the whole supply chain.
- GOTS textile products must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibre, and “made with organic” contains a minimum of 70% certified organic fibre.
- All chemical inputs (i.e. dyes) must be evaluated for basic requirements regarding toxicity and biodegradability.
- Less water is used and other resources such as electricity need to be managed.
- All operators must have an environmental policy addressing minimising waste.
- GM is banned.
- GOTS certification also includes meeting social criteria based on the International Labour Convention which includes such things as child labour, minimum wages, working hours and harsh or inhumane treatment.
As you can see, not all cotton is born equal in terms of its impact on the environment and the people in the supply chain. Other than recycled cotton (which is currently not readily available), GOTS cotton is clearly the most sustainable and ethical cotton available, while conventional cotton is best avoided. However, In the 2015/16 growing season approximately only 0.51% of all grown cotton was organic.
So why is so little organic cotton produced?
Firstly GOTs certification has very strict standards along every step of the supply chain to gain certification that requires education and skill. Soil also has to be free of chemicals for at least three years and this loss of income for these three years, for many farmers, is not feasible. Secondly, as GOTs audits all aspects of the supply chains, special finishes (i.e. dyes) and processes do not currently have an “organic” method, so the final garment could not be classified as GOTs. Thirdly, organic cotton is currently a bit more expensive than conventional cotton as organic cotton costs more to produce and brands who want to reduce costs to increase margins are not incentivized to use organic.
It is worth noting that the pricing for cotton is not a level playing field as the price of conventional cotton doesn’t factor in the externalities such as the higher CO2 output, harmful affects to the environment, farmers’ health and forced child labour.
Organic cotton will only become mainstream if more consumers demand organic cotton by switching to brands or products using GOTS organic cotton. Consumers can also campaign for their favourite brands to switch to organic cotton via product reviews and the Contact Us page. The increase in demand for organic cotton will hopefully lead to more farmers switching to organic methods. For farmers in developing countries, non-profits such as PAN (Pesticide Action Network) are working with farmers to support them during this process.