First, lets look at conventional cotton which accounts for around 22% of global fibre usage. Large quantities of water, pesticides and fertilisers are all used to grow cotton plants. Consider this: Cotton is grown on 2.4% of the world’s arable land, however it accounts for 11% of the world’s pesticide use and 24% of insecticide use. Cotton also uses a lot of water: 1kg of cotton, the amount required for a pair of jeans and a t-shirt - can use up to 20,000 litres of water. The amount one person uses . Cotton is largely responsible for the depletion of 80% of the Aral sea through water diversion to irrigate crops, which has had severe flow on impacts to local communities. Habitat conversion and water pollution from cotton growing has also impacted other major ecosystems including the Indus Delta in Pakistan and the Murray Darling River in Australia. Conventional cotton is mostly grown with genetically modified seeds (GMO) and sprayed heavily with Roundup (in which the primary ingredient is glyphosate, linked to cancer) and other toxic pesticides—and these persist in the environment - the soil, the water and the air - as well as the fabric even after manufacturing.
Cotton itself does not absorb dye well and needs to be treated with chemicals to ensure colour retention. These include heavy metals used in the dyeing process which are toxic and many are rated by REACH as hazardous substances of concern. Chemicals such as formaldehyde are often used in the finishing of the fabric to provide crease resistance, particularly when the garments are being packed in a container and shipped around the world.
This does not paint a healthy picture. Who wants all those chemicals rubbing up against their skin, let alone in soils and waterways. There are better options, starting with organic.
COTTON PICKERS AT THE CHETNA ORGANIC COTTON COLLECTIVE
Organic cotton - No GMO's, no pesticides and no insecticides.
Look for GOTS, OEKO-TEX, Bluesign and Cradle to Cradle Certified products. Oeko-Tex and Bluesign both focus on managing chemical inputs at the textile and garment stage, and Cradle to Cradle measures material health, as well as social justice, material reuse, renewable energy, and water stewardship, and they have a fashion-specific vertical. For organic cotton, GOTS is the most highly regarded standard as it considers the fibre from its land source, and can certify all the way through to the finished garment stage.
Also look at brand websites to understand their chemical policies. This year, Target released a chemical-reduction policy with the goal of full ingredient transparency (including fragrances) for beauty and cleaning products by 2020; by 2022 they will remove PFCs and flame retardants across their product lines. Other mission-driven brands that are very active in pursuing safer and more ethical manufacturing practices include Outerknown, Stella McCartney, Patagonia, Mara Hoffman, Eileen Fisher, Prana, and Coyuchi. Truly transparent companies will make their fibre and chemical strategies readily available on their websites.
Organic cotton cultivation does not allowed toxic pesticides or insecticides and GMO seeds are banned. Certified organic cotton production also bans heavy metals, toxic azo dyes, chlorine bleach and formaldehyde, and ensures that workers rights are protected. Child and forced labor are also banned, both of which are prevalent in cotton producing countries like Uzbekistan, where government workers force children to spend the summer months picking cotton.
Fairtrade cotton is also a good option as this method of production ensures cotton farmers receive a fair price and that health and safety protocols are in place. Farmers are trained in the use of sustainable methods of cultivation and production, and hazardous chemicals and GMOs are banned.
Recycled cotton is cotton fibre which is made from old cotton garments and textile waste. This is becoming more widespread with the advance of technology, however the nature of the mechanical process of breaking down the old fibres means that it needs to be blended with virgin yarn to ensure strength and durability. Innovative sustainable brands MUD Jeans and Armed Angels use this fibre and are worth checking out. These brands have been awarded our endorsement.
The good news about cotton is that it is biodegradable - in the right conditions. If its an organic cotton sweatshirt made with no added trims, you can plant it in the garden at the end of its life and it will breakdown. Now thats Sustainable.
Certifications to look for
GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified organic cotton. Textile and garment manufacturing can also be certified.
OCS (Organic Cotton Standard) certified
Fairtrade Labelling system
GRS (Global Recycled Standard)
ORGANIC COTTON WORKERS IN INDIA
IMAGE: KOWTOW CLOTHING