How Sustainable Is Cotton?

12269958899?profile=RESIZE_710xThe fashion industry places a heavy burden on the planet. It is responsible for 10 percent of global greenhouse emissions and is the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply. The huge number of resources required to manufacture clothing include oil, land, water, pesticides, dyes, and other chemicals. Even the final disposal of clothing depletes resources. What about natural fibers like cotton, or even organic cotton? Let’s review the sustainability of various fabrics.


As much as we love the idea of cotton being a soft, breathable, all-natural fabric, it is not yet fully sustainable. Cotton uses about 2.4 percent of cultivated land but accounts for 5.7 percent of pesticide use to defend against pests like bugs, spider mites, and disease. The manufacturing of pesticides involves potent greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, which not only pollute the air but also deplete the soil, resulting in a loss of biodiversity. Cotton is a water intensive crop, and the runoff from artificial irrigation can pollute surrounding waterways, which poisons fish and other wildlife. Pesticides affect humans as well. According to the BMC Public Health journal, more than 40% of farmers are poisoned by pesticides, resulting in chronic diseases, cancer, infertility and birth defects.

What about organic cotton?

There is a growing demand for organic cotton. In 2018, 36 major brands, including Adidas, ASOS, H&M, and Burberry, pledged to use 100% sustainable cotton by 2025.

Organic cotton that is really organic has a smaller environmental impact than conventional cotton and uses 91 percent less water. It also uses non-GMO seeds, supports soil fertility, and is free of pesticides. However, supply chains are messy and convoluted, and unfortunately, they are not as transparent as they should be. A New York Times investigation discovered that companies like Control Union, EcoCert, and OneCert, which provide organic certification systems in India (the biggest producer of cotton in the world), were prone to fraudulent activity, so “organic cotton” may not really be organic at all. A Times expert asserted that as much as 80% of Indian cotton was not organic cotton, and most of the supply chain was implicated in “smoke and mirrors.” The EU no longer accepts “certified organic cotton” from the companies above.

There are also human rights issues. According to Draper's, a fashion industry news source, around 200,000 children aged 14 or under work on cotton farms. Other reports have surfaced that thousands of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China, which produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton, were being forced to pick the crop by hand. 

According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Indexrecycled cotton is a better alternative to conventional cotton and organic cotton because it uses post-industrial and post-consumer cotton waste, which helps reduce water and energy consumption and keeps cotton clothes out of landfills.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which includes brands like Allbirds and ASOS, recently launched an Organic Cotton Accelerator in India and Pakistan to create lasting, necessary change in the industry.

Nonprofits like the California based Regenerative Organic Alliance, founded by brands including Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s, along with the organic agriculture research pioneer the Rodale Institute, are working to create ethical and transparent supply chains. The ROA has a stringent certification program, and farmers must demonstrate that they aren’t using pesticides, depleting the soil, or exploiting people or animals.

The Better Cotton Initiative, the world’s leading sustainability initiative for the cotton industry, works with nearly three million farmers across 26 countries to produce cotton under its Better Cotton Standard, which strives to utilize sustainable and ethical farming practices to protect soil health, water management, and ethical good working conditions.

While cotton is touted as all-natural, clean, breathable fabric, it cannot be considered truly fully sustainable just yet, but it is getting there. In the meantime, there are more sustainable choices.

More Sustainable Fabrics Than Cotton:

Hemp, which is derived from the stem of the hemp plant, tops the list of sustainable fabrics.  It requires no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides and is naturally pest-resistant, antimicrobial, and UV-resistant. It needs a relatively small amount of land and water to grow, can thrive almost anywhere, and cleans air and soil. Hemp fabric has a high oxygen content, which prevents anaerobic bacteria from settling in, and it is eight times stronger and four times more durable than cotton fiber.

Linen, which is made from the stem of the flax plant, requires minimal water, no pesticides, and can grow in poor-quality soil. It is breathable, moth resistant, and grows stronger after every wash. Just be sure to buy organic linen with eco-friendly dyes so it is truly sustainable and bio-degradable.

Tencel is a cellulose fabric that is made by dissolving wood pulp. It is touted as being 50 percent more absorbent than cotton and requires less energy and water to produce. Tencel is created by Lenzing, the giant Austrian textile corporation, and is produced in a closed-loop system, so 99 percent of the chemicals used to break down the wood pulp are recycled, with minimal waste and low emissions.

Bamboo is considered a renewable resource because it grows back quickly after being chopped down. This sustainable crop sequesters (absorbs) carbon dioxide and produces 35 percent more oxygen than trees. The caveat is that as the industry grows, deforestation takes root, which leads to the creation of monoculture forests. Monoculture occurs when a farmer plants just one species of tree, such as bamboo, and this affects biodiversity and soil health. Bambu Batu, a platform that educates the world about bamboo, asserts that the industry can avoid going the same destructive route as palm oil plantations have in part by effectively managing the crop and mixing it with other species such as cacao trees. This practice is apparently more common in bamboo plantations in Indonesia (the third largest bamboo producer in the world) and other plantations in Southeast Asia, but less common in China.

Fruit leather is a truly futuristic textile. Check THIS out to learn how pineapple leaf fiber and other byproducts of fruit can sustainably produce high-end textiles.

What can you do?

Avoid synthetic fabrics made from petroleum, which include polyester, spandex, rayon, nylon, and acrylic. Manufacturing nylon, for example, creates nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Synthetic clothing also sheds microplastics every time they are washed and take hundreds of years to biodegrade. Last year, SCOCO published an article on the dubious sustainability of making clothes from recycled water bottles.

Avoid buying clothes with “easy care,” “wrinkle-resistant,” or “stain-free” labels because that indicates they have been chemically treated.  Ideally, we should opt for naturally dyed fabrics that come from fruits, vegetables, tree bark and roots. Unbleached, undyed clothes also conserve resources, prevent pollution, and are environmentally safer.

Whenever you buy clothing, sheets, towels, or other fabrics, look for legitimate certification labels that ensure the fabric is free of toxic chemicals, including National Organic Program, Fairtrade, Organic Content Standards, Global Organic Textile Standard certification, Soil Association, and Oeko-Tex. 

Sources and further reading:,So%2C%20Is%20Linen%20More%20Eco%20Friendly%20Than%20Cotton%3F,chemical%20inputs%20compared%20to%20cotton.

Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash

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  • Good to know more about a product we all know and love to cozy up with.
  • Great explanation of different types of cotton fibers, eco-friendly alternatives, and the farm-to-fashion supply chains!
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