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Cotton is one of the most contentious materials in the fashion industry. It has been touted as a marker of sustainability, with certified organic and recycled being the obvious choices for retailers to add to their “eco” capsule collections. But most of this plant-derived textile is also known to have very problematic supply chains, at every point of manufacture. So is cotton a sustainable fabric? The good news is that big businesses are stepping up and consumers are becoming more conscious of their shopping habits and importantly, from whom they buy. Find out the lowdown on the main concerns of cotton, what’s being done to address the issues and what you can do as a shopper.
Let’s begin with the one on everyone’s minds: unethical labour practices. The Xianjiang region is the cotton producing capital of China. You may have recognised the name as it’s been mired in allegations of Uyghur concentration camps. According to the BBC, although the country comes in second to India as top exporter, it accounts for a fifth of the world’s cotton supply. But it doesn’t stop there. Nine of the world’s top producers of the textile, including Uzbekistan, are known to practice forced labour. Put two and two together, it’s likely that you’ve got traces of exploitation sitting pretty in your wardrobe. But thanks to the Cotton Pledge, by 2025, a great host of companies have committed to using a clean supply chain. If this is making your stomach churn and it’s not even dinner time, check some of your favourite brands on the list and if they are – you can be a little more assured shopping there in the future.
A report by the Environmental Justice Foundation states that nearly a kilo of insecticide is used per hectare of cotton. And most of these types are considered extremely harmful to even humans, by the World Health Organisation. Other impacts include long term damage to the eco-systems and the soil, making it unfit for agriculture long term. The good news here, is that organic cotton is a viable alternative and one that we’ve seen soar in popularity. By 2025, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) aims for 30% of the world’s cotton to be accredited. As for now, if you’re unsure on which brands produce this, take a look at their published list of members.
Then there’s the issue of cotton being an incredibly water-intensive plant to grow and treat. So you may have heard the statistic that a pair of jeans uses 10,000 litres of H20. That’s in reference to the global water footprint average, where one kilogram of fabric requires that much – it’s impossible to even picture that! But WWF breaks it down like this: a T-shirt takes 2, 700 litres of water. This equates to about 900 days worth to sustain a person.
Ways to do better
- Look for organic or preferably recycled cotton
- Look for OEKO-TEX certified fabric, which means its been tested for over 100 harmful substances
- Wash full loads of laundry
- When you do need to restock your wardrobe, shop with brands that have signed the Cotton Pledge and use Better Cotton.
- Take care of your cotton pieces, to avoid having to buy many more. The good news is that has high tensile strength, so lasts longer than most garments.