Understanding Cotton

CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Cotton is the most popular natural fiber used in clothing (and the second most popular fiber, period, after Polyester). It’s a soft, breathable fiber that comes from the the boll of the cotton plant. Certified Organic Cotton is grown much more responsibly than conventional cotton and is a great, biodegradable, ethical and comfortable choice for our clothes.

Qualities of Cotton
  • Breathable – great next to the skin, and cool in the summer.
  • Very Absorbent – often used for items such as towels because it can hold up to 27 times it’s weight in water.
  • Soft/Not Itchy
  • Not as warm as other natural fibers like wool
  • Easy to dye due to it’s natural white colour and absorbency.
  • No Static Cling – Can’t hold electrical charge
  • Will shrink substantially during first wash
  • Will wrinkle
Care for Cotton
  • Washing in cool water will reduce shrinkage and use less electricity
  • Ideally cotton should be air dried (to decrease electricity usage by 60% in our laundering process)
  • If you choose to put cotton in the dryer, remove it before it is fully dry. Cotton has a natural amount of moisture in it, and removing it can weaken the fibers over time and cause your garment to wear out faster. (Washington Post)
  • Cotton can wrinkle (not as easily as linen, but much more than polyester), and may require ironing.
    • It can be ironed on fairly high heat without becoming shiny.
    • Ironing uses a fair amount of electricity, so if wrinkles are minimal or can be removed by letting it hang while having a shower, those are good alternatives.
  • Hang clothes to prevent wrinkles that might need to be ironed out before wearing. Hanging outside the closet to a day or two between wears might allow the wrinkles to fall out and also freshen up any lingering odours.
Benefits
  • Cotton is completely biodegradable and will decompose in six months if left in the environment.
  • It’s breathability, softness, and absorbency make it comfortable and easy to wear.
  • It requires relatively minimal carbon to produce (as compared to polyester – which is a product of crude oil).
  • It is animal cruelty free.
  • It is fairly easy to care for and accessible.
  • It is recyclable – although most downcycled (not made into another garment, but into items like carpet or stuffing)
Disadvantages
  • Because cotton is so absorbent, it is easy to stain and holds odours. This might require more frequent washing, or make the shirt unwearable if the stains are severe.
    • 60% of the energy used in the life cycle of a cotton T-shirt is related to postpurchase washing and drying at high temperatures (Environmental Health Perspective)
  • Cotton growing uses a large amount of water. It takes 2700L of water grow non-organic cotton for one T-Shirt. That’s about 33 bathtubs full of water, or enough for one person to drink over 900 days. Even more water is used every time we wash them (which we do often, as they absorb odours)
    • An example of how water consumption of cotton can have a massive environmental impact is the Aral Sea (more on that here and here), which had two major rivers that feed into it diverted for irrigation of cotton crops by the Soviet Union and has since shrunk massively in size, destroying the livelihoods and health of the people who lived around it and turning previously fertile land into desert.
    • The impact of cotton’s water usage depends on where it is being grown. Areas with more rainfall and natural water sources will not see the impacts in the same way that arid locations would – where water might be diverted from other uses, like drinking water, to feed crops.
  • Non-Organic Cotton uses about 1/3 lb of chemicals to grow cotton for one t-shirt, primarily insecticides and fertilizers. It may also contain chemicals from bleaching, special treatments (like to prevent wrinkles) or dyes.
  • It is difficult to tell where non-organic cotton is sourced from (ie.Uzbekistan or Israel or America) because it is often sold in mass markets and blended with other cotton. So the cotton you wear might be grown in Texas, or it might be grown in Uzbekistan, where the government mobilizes a million people a year to work in the cotton fields in what is called forced adult labour. (Cotton Campaign)
Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is certified by one of a number of organizations (primarily the Global Organic Textile Standard or the United States Department of Agriculture). Due to the strict rules laid out in order to market cotton as organic, we can be sure that organic cotton was grown with no genetically modified seeds, no pesticides or fertilizers, processed with no harsh chemicals (including chlorine bleach), and that workers were treated ethically.

Instead of pesticides and fertilizers, organic cotton farmers use mechanical and manual weeding, crop rotation (planting different crops each year to increase soil fertility and reduce the breeding cycles of pests that feed on specific crops), intercropping (planting several crops together), mulch, introduction of predator pests, etc to control pests and insects. By not using pesticides, we prevent pesticides from being washed through the soil and into our rivers and lakes – and our drinking water. (How Eco Is Organic Cotton? The Facts on 7 Questions)

Organic Cotton is reported to initially (while transitioning from conventional cotton fields to organic) use more water to grow a crop, but over time organic cotton will use less water to grow. Water consumption has been reduced by 60% in the Indian State of Gujarat by supporting farmers who use drip irrigation. (Naked Fashion: The New Sustainable Fashion Revolution)

Additional Resources:

The World According to Cotton (Zady)

Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry (Environmental Health Perspective)

(Video): Cotton’s Water Footprint: How One T-Shirt Makes A Huge Impact on the Environment (World Wildlife Fund)

Sustainable Cotton Production and Processing (Sustainable Cotton Project)

The Aral Sea Crisis (Columbia University)

The Global Organic Textile Standard 

Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester (Stockholm Environment Institute)

Minney, S. (2011). Naked Fashion: The new sustainable fashion revolution. New Internationalist Publications

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