Cotton is one of the most widely used fabrics in apparel manufacturing, contributing to one-third of the total global textile fiber content. It is a natural fiber that comes from the seedpod of the cotton plant and is used to make several fabric types at every price point. The reason why this fabric is so popular with sourcing managers comes from its sheer versatility - it’s durable, a good heat conductor (which makes it comfortable in warm weather), absorbs water, and retains dyes well. It’s also cheap to produce and easy to generate high revenues with.
Cotton’s popularity has grown tremendously over the last 50 years - with its share of the retail apparel and home furnishing market growing from a historic low of 34% in the 70s to more than 60% today in the U.S. About two-thirds of that total use is converted into apparel, one-third into home furnishings, and the rest into industrial products.
The Wasteful Side of Traditional Cotton
The cotton production process, from seed to closet, leaves several harmful impacts on the environment, the land, and even human health. Here is a quick rundown of the facts:
- One kilogram of cotton production uses up 20,000 liters of water. To put that in greater perspective, one pair of jeans or one T-shirt uses up 2,700 liters of water in production. That is about three years’ worth of drinking water. Larger textile mills expel as much as 2 million gallons of wastewater per day.
- Traditionally cultivated cotton uses "large amounts of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizer—almost a third of a pound," says the OTA (Organic Trade Association), "to grow one pound of raw cotton." These fertilizers are harmful for the environment as they kill microorganisms that are responsible for generating nutrient-rich organic matter, reducing soil’s future fertility. The chemicals also affect freshwater habitats and organisms. Moreover, the nitrogen oxides released during cotton production and these fertilizers together add to greenhouse gas emissions.
- The nonprofit Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) reports that cotton uses just 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of total global insecticides. The pesticides and other chemicals used for large cotton plantation yields can be detrimental to human health. According to the World Health Organization, some of the compounds found in them are known carcinogens. This poses a great threat to the health of not only the farmers who are constantly exposed to these crops, but also the general population wearing the resulting clothes.
Does Recycling Cotton Fabric Work?
Recycling cotton can be defined as converting cotton fabric into cotton fiber that can be reused in textile products. The recycling happens mainly during two different stages of the cotton product life cycle: the first stage includes scraps of yarn and apparel by-products in factories, while the second stage is post-consumer and includes garments, towels, and other household items to be repurposed.
Recycling and repurposing clothes has the potential to reduce the amount of apparel that ends up in landfills every year. Also recycling cotton fabric takes up less water, dyes, energy, and other chemicals since the fabric has already been completely processed. Upcycling instead of creating new materials also reduces the cost of production.
Related: Read about how retailers can promote a more sustainable denim industry through recycling practices.
However, recycling cotton does have some notable drawbacks. The majority of cotton recycling occurs through a mechanical process that is harsh and puts a strain on the fiber content, eventually making it less durable and reducing its original quality. “Specifically, fiber length and length uniformity will be impacted, which will limit the end-use application,” (Cotton Works). Recycled cotton fibers also have higher risk of contamination from other fibers and “cost more than virgin cotton yarns”.
Pros of Organic Cotton
Organic cotton is 100% naturally cultivated cotton that does not use any synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, or pesticides. This reserves soil fertility, and gives farmers a healthier lifestyle. According to Textile Exchange, organic cotton also reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 46% simply by avoiding the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanical farming methods.
Because organic cotton doesn’t use GMOs (which usually require more water) and is mainly rainfed, not irrigated, it helps conserve huge amounts of water that conventional cotton does not. In fact, 95% of the water used to grow organic cotton is green water (rainwater and water stored in the soil).
Organic cotton, being 100% natural, has longer fibers that make it more durable, hypoallergenic, and better suited for sensitive skin. Finally, the higher cost to harvest and process organic cotton ensures a better and ethical wage rate for those farmers.
Organic cotton has been gaining momentum recently, with more and more apparel companies setting goals to go completely organic while sourcing raw materials, or at least proposing to blend amounts of organic cotton with conventional ones. Global production of organic cotton had tremendous growth between 2016/17 and 2017/18, increasing by 56%. Apparel giants like Inditex, H&M, and Nike were some of the biggest investors behind the growth.
Cons of Organic Cotton
Organic cotton, though a more sustainable material, is less efficient when it comes to using land and water. Because of the lack of pesticides and GMOs, organic cotton has way lower yields on the same amount of land than traditional cotton. This also adds to the total amount of water needed to harvest more cotton.
The term organic cotton usually starts and ends with harvesting the cotton and processing it into cotton fibers. It is important to note that the process afterwards, like dyeing, packaging, transporting, and other steps along the supply chain also contribute to the total sustainability score. Therefore it is important to source cotton certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). GOTS “covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of textiles, ensuring that both environmental and social standards are respected,” (Good On You).
Other Fabrics to Use Instead of Cotton
Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant species that is grown specifically for the industrial uses of its derived products. It is more durable than cotton and therefore has a longer lifespan, unlike cotton which gets weaker over time. Hemp also requires a lot less water and land to grow, although a lot of energy is needed to transform it from fiber to textile products.
Flax is the fiber used to produce linen, a softer, more breathable, and anti-microbial fabric than cotton. Flax plants also require less water to grow and source, although organic linen is less available than organic cotton and requires more labor to harvest.
Tencel is a wood-based fiber that is processed from the pulp of sustainably harvested eucalyptus trees. It is softer, more breathable, and less prone to wrinkling than cotton. It is also very biodegradable, making it close to being a perfectly green raw material. However, Tencel isn’t as widely available and can be expensive to produce.
Bamboo is made from grass and can be grown without the use of pesticides, toxic chemicals, or external irrigation. It also contributes to soil fertility and makes a soft fabric that is very comfortable to wear.
It is important to recognize what conventional cotton has been doing to biodiversity and the ecosystem. It’s taking up significant chunks of some of our best resources like fertile land and drinkable water, while also contributing to an industry that is second only to oil in generating the most waste globally. However, there are ways to evolve and cut down on cotton use by adopting options like organic cotton and other alternatives, and repurposing the rest in textile production. As we saw, none of them is a surefire solution as they all come with their list of pros and cons. What matters is that fashion brands realize which raw material is best suited for their business goals and adjust accordingly.