How Sustainable is Cotton?

Naman Bajaj
March 25, 2024

Cotton is one of the most commonly used fibers in clothing. It is known for being washable, breathable, absorbent, and durable while providing a comfortable touch and feel. Cotton is found in a wide range of garments, from jeans to jerseys.

It is an all natural fiber and is biodegradable, but is cotton sustainable?

The problem with cotton farming

At first glance, cotton appears to be a harmless crop that is picked, deseeded, and spun into yarn and fabric. But conventional cotton farming has its fair share of problems:

  • Cotton producers use pesticides and insecticides to keep away insects. Cotton farming accounts for 4.7% of the world’s pesticide and 10% of its insecticide sales. These chemicals pollute the water supplies, damaging the ecosystem around the plantation. According to a study, these hazardous pesticides can also be detected in our clothes.
  • Chemicals used in the dyeing process also end up in the waterways and pollute them. In China, which is one of the major producers of cotton, around 70% of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the fashion industry
  • Cotton, a water-intensive crop, ironically thrives in warmer regions with scant rainfall. As a result, these crops rely on irrigation, which diverts water resources. Cotton's substantial water usage has even significantly contributed to the shrinking of the Aral Sea in Central Asia.
  • Another significant issue with cotton is its impact on the soil. The irrigation water used for cotton crops often contains impurities such as salt, which infiltrates the soil and can render it unusable within a few years. When the soil becomes infertile, cotton farmers relocate to new territories, often created by clearing forests, which further harms the ecosystem.

Despite these challenges, cotton has the potential to become a sustainable crop, a transformation that's already underway in some areas.

The rise of organic cotton

Compared to conventional cotton, organic cotton is a more sustainable choice. It avoids any chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. It also uses a more sustainable process of picking and processing cotton, which saves energy and water resources.

A lifecycle assessment revealed that organically grown cotton requires 91% less water and its processing uses only a third of the energy required for conventional cotton.

But organic cotton only accounts for 1% of the global cotton production. Price wars with larger conventional cotton companies often ensnare the farmers who cultivate organic cotton.

As consumers, we can promote the growth of organic cotton by purchasing clothes bearing one or more of the following certifications:

  • Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) focuses on sustainable cotton growth and sources at least 10% of its cotton as Better Cotton, with plans to increase it by 50% in five years.
  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) ensures the entire production process from farming to clothing production is organic, with two label grades based on the percentage of organic fibers used.
  • Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC), a new certification, extends the USDA Certified Organic standard by also focusing on soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness.
  • bluesign works with facilities that ensure safe chemistry practices from fiber to finished product, considering consumer and environmental health.
  • Cradle to Cradle (C2C) promotes material and product circularity, focusing on products that protect clean air, climate, water, soil, and social fairness.
  • OEKO-TEX focuses on chemical safety with its STANDARD 100 certification, ensuring the final product is free from over 3,000 different toxic chemicals.

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Naman Bajaj
March 25, 2024

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