The ubiquitous cotton t-shirt. A wardrobe staple and one of the most common items of clothing that crosses fashion lines and goes from designer chic to everyday wear.
It’s the taken-for-grantedness of the cotton t-shirt that allows it fly under our environmentally conscious radar. I mean, it’s just a t-shirt, right? And Cotton is better than polyester, right? I started wondering what the true cost of cotton was and what the alternatives are. Are they really any better options?
How Bad Can Cotton Be?
Cotton is one of the most polluting crops, requiring the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. Newer, genetically-modified cotton can ward off some pests but is not effective in all cases. Cotton causes soil degradation and requires a considerable amount of irrigation, often from nearby water sources to grow.
The effects of cotton production are a global environmental issue from a number of perspectives. To grow cotton some of the most hazardous pesticides, developed during WWII as nerve agents, are used to keep insects away. After harvest, cotton is transformed into yarn through a treatment process using another set of hazardous chemicals that break down the fibres to make them manageable.
In many cotton-growing regions, the pesticides end up in potable drinking water through contamination of wells and poor chemical storage. The natural process of water evaporation and precipitation results in chemical residues, like pesticides, falling on both rural and urban populations. The cotton production industry disproportionately affects regions of economic development where state regulation of chemical and pesticide use are more lax.
According to the International Trade Forum, “cotton is just about the most chemical-intensive crop on the planet, accounting for just 2.5% of farmland worldwide, yet contributing 25% to all fertiliser use and 10% of chemical pesticides (which are also a major source of illness for agricultural workers)”.
The vast environmental cost to growing cotton is amplified during the production process. The cost in water to produce a cotton T-shirt is an astounding 2,700 litres of water. That’s roughly enough water to support 3 people, drinking 2 litres per day, for a year. According to Soil Association, a trade organization based in Scotland, the choice of an organic cotton T-shirt saves 2,457 litres of water.
Soil Association research found that in comparison to the production of conventional cotton, organic cotton reduces the: amount of bluewater (water taken from groundwater or surface water bodies via irrigation) involved in production by 91%; potential for global warming by 46%; and demand for primary energy by 62%. Social benefits of organic cotton farming include: increased income from organic premiums; food security through crop rotation; increased independence from seed companies; improved health thanks to the elimination of toxic agrochemicals; and better local infrastructure.
Consumer demand for organic cotton currently outstrips supply. Unfortunately, some of what makes it to market as organic cotton is actually fake. To combat this growing concern a Blockchain startup, Bext360, has created a partnership to explore the efficacy of using Blockchain “tokens” to trace organic cotton from the farm to the finished product. Using this type of supply chain management, consumers can be confident that the cotton they buy is authentically organic.
Other companies, like Levis and Eileen Fischer, have started to combine cotton and hemp to create new collections that don’t solely rely on cotton production. Fast-fashion retailer Zara has vowed to use only sustainable fabrics and be zero-waste by 2025. Market demand for organic and sustainable fabrics is growing, but it will be up to us to make informed choices to make sure we’re getting the real deal.
Organic cotton is a better alternative to conventional cotton, as long as it’s truly organic. Like checking the nutrition details on food products, check the tag of your garments before you buy. Having fabric details and knowing the country of manufacture helps you to make an informed decision before you purchase.
There are many other options out there, as well.
- Lyocel: made from wood pulp
- Modal: made from Beech trees
- Recycled polyester, cotton, or wool
- Textile exchange offers a comprehensive fibre overview.