What is cotton?
Cotton is a renewable plant seed fibre derived from the cotton plant. It is the second most commonly used fibre in the textile industry after polyester. Most of the world’s cotton is grown in India where each bloom is usually cross-pollinated and picked by hand. The cotton fibre is processed into lint in a ginning mill, and the lint is then sent to a textile mill to make into yarn or cloth.
Recycled cotton is the most environmentally friendly type… Organic, rain-fed is next best
What should I know?
Although cotton is a ‘natural’ and ‘renewable’ resource, conventionally grown cotton has a hugely damaging impact on people and the environment. Cotton is a very thirsty crop and it’s irrigation causes water scarcity in the main regions where it grows. Conventional cotton is grown using terrifying quantities of hazardous pesticides that are harmful to the farmers, contaminate the land and the local water supply, and are still present in toxic levels in the end products posing health risks to users.
Poor working conditions, slavery and child labour are still devastating issues in conventional cotton production. Volatile global markets, crop failures, expensive pesticides and fertilisers, and the extensive use of GM seed are all factors perpetuating poverty in cotton farmers. Cotton is more often than not a genetically modified crop (3rd most common GM crop in the world after corn and soy) leading to the loss of biodiversity. Patent laws mean farmers have to buy new GM seeds every year, and this locks vulnerable growers into vicious cycles of debt causing untold social and mental health issues.
The good news is that organic cotton vastly reduces human and wildlife health hazards compared to conventional cotton. Organic cotton is grown without harmful chemicals or the use of GM seed. Using fewer pesticides means workers, local communities, and the land are all far healthier. When produced sustainably, cotton can have a positive impact, providing millions of farmers with the income they need to improve their lives.
What can I do?
- Avoid conventional cotton at all costs, it’s cheaper for you but at a devastating price to others and the planet
- Recycled cotton is the most environmentally friendly type
- Organic, rain-fed is next best
- Look out for Fair Trade certification for higher social, economic and environmental standards
- Look out for GOTS certified organic cotton to avoid false organic claims (the organic standard addresses social criteria too)
- Look out for OEKO-TEX® 100 certification for assurance of no substances harmful to human health
- Better Cotton Initiative, BCI, certifies cotton produced with less chemicals and better social impact, though it’s not as rigorous as organic standards and does allow the use of GM seed
- Help your cotton products to last longer and save energy by washing at lower temperatures and avoiding tumble-drying
- Reduce waste by up-cycling your old cotton textiles at home, or recycle locally if available
- In landfill organic cotton should biodegrade within 5 months, however be aware of toxic dyes, blended fibres and trims that will hinder biodegradability
Learn more here…
A quick guide to organic cotton – https://goodonyou.eco/know-your-product-a-quick-guide-to-organic-cotton/
The sustainability of cotton in more depth – https://cfda.com/resources/materials/detail/cotton
Biodegradability of cotton – https://www.the-sustainable-fashion-collective.com/2014/10/09/cotton-biodegradable-good
Scary cotton statistics – https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/clothing
Buy more sustainable cotton here