While it’s important to know who made our clothes, what’s in our clothes matter too. So we’re back with another Fabric 101 to share the facts you should know about the materials you wear every day. This time we’re discussing another one of fashion’s most popular fibres: cotton. Cotton is popular for all the right reasons — it’s breathable, lightweight and comes from a plant, so it’s naturally the sustainable fashion movement’s material darling. However, that doesn’t mean this labour-intensive fabric doesn’t have an impact on people and the planet. With excessive use of pesticides, water and resources, cotton has its drawbacks too. Read on to unravel this fibre’s secrets and learn why it remains one of fashion’s favourite fabrics.
What is cotton?
The cotton plant comes from the Gossypium family which is essentially made up of cellulose, an insoluble organic compound from the plant’s structure. It has naturally soft, cushiony fibres referred to as the cotton boll, from which workers source the fluffy particles to spin into yarn. Cotton plants need plenty of sun, no frost and a large amount of rain. They easily grow in tropical and subtropical regions like India where it’s known to originate from.
If size was ever an indicator of quality, cotton is the perfect example. The longer the individual cotton fibres are, the softer and more durable it is — great for clothes and extra fancy bed sheets. The longer fibres are called extra-long-stable (ELS) cotton fibres, measuring as long as 1.77 inches (like Egyptian cotton, but better).
For those after the absolute best, look for Supima. It is a type of ELS cotton fibre originating from the Pima Indians. Enabling them to preserve their craft, they partnered with the US government to continue making the most luxurious cotton in existence. Most importantly, the Pima Indians make Supima cotton with the highest certifications and organic cultivation practices in place.
Cotton has hundreds of uses, from true 100% denim jeans to shoestrings, and there’s a number of reasons why it is so popular in the textile industry.
How is cotton made into fabric?
From planting the cotton seeds to processing it in a cotton gin, making cotton is a very involved and intense process — as all good things should be! The first step is defoliation, where workers remove the leaves from the cotton plants during picking. Then, automated gins separate cotton from the boll, removing any dirt, seeds and lint, to compress up to 60 raw bales weighing 500 pounds each in the space of an hour.
The textile manufacturers then transport the cotton bales to the textile mills, where workers clean, fluff and card the fibres. Carding creates long ropes from the short cotton fibres, which are then ready to spin and weave. Once they spin the yarn, factory workers expose them to various chemical treatments before dyeing.
Cotton is naturally white or slightly yellowish. So factories will chemically treat it to avoid discolouration, even if they don’t dye it. Now depending on how it is weaved, it can form the cotton for t-shirts, denim jeans, towels or bed sheets.
Where does cotton come from?
Cotton grows in nearly all tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including the U.S., China, India, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Brazil, and Turkey. The word cotton originates from the Arabic word “quton”. History traces the production of cotton as far back as the fifth millennium B.C in ancient India! Today, India and China are frequently tied as the largest cotton producers in the world.
Only after the Industrial Revolution did new technologies and inventions come about, such as spinning wheels and mechanical cotton gins. These automated tools cut down all manual work needed to separate seeds from cotton and compress bales of cotton, by tenfold! These technologies produced slightly longer and stronger fibres, thereby yielding better quality fabric. This put the USA and Britain ahead of the rest of the world.
However, cotton was also the foundation of slavery in the south-most states of the USA, Egypt, Brazil and India, and these countries depended on the plant both economically and politically. Cotton exports put the USA on the world economic map, as the shining stars of industry and capitalism.
After the USA had a fall in production during and after the Civil War, with the (almost) abolishment of slavery, this war was a litmus test for industrialisation. The USA had to experiment if a booming economy could resist the loss of labour. If the pillars of American success were formed on the backs of slavery, expropriation and colonialism, producing ‘King Cotton’ as it was then called, it was proof that profit reigned higher than the lives of those slaving to make it. Sounds a bit familiar when we think about how fast fashion companies produce…
What is cotton’s impact?
Knowing cotton’s history is only a part of the story, with the real questions about cotton’s impact on our environment and economy still surfacing now as we move towards greener practices. The cotton industry still focuses on the highest yield at the lowest cost. As a result, these practices negatively affect the soil and the hands working to harvest them.
Gallons and gallons and…gallons
It takes 10,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of cotton. To put things in perspective, producing one tee takes 2,700 litres. This is the equivalent of one person’s drinking water for over 3 years! In many regions, where there isn’t enough rainfall to grow cotton, farmers use water from wells and nearby rivers to irrigate the fields. This can greatly diminish river flows and deplete groundwater.
In Uzbekistan and India, farmers commonly use irrigated groundwater for cotton. This makes their water reserves unsafe for drinking, thus a large portion of the population suffers from poor health.
After a time, the soil suffers from salination and changes in pH levels. This renders it impossible to welcome any form of agriculture after farmers harvest the cotton. Often, cotton farmers’ only option is to abandon barren fields, destroyed by the crop it once grew.
Chemicals and pesticides
Farmers need to use agrochemicals, such as pesticides and fertilisers, to control pests feeding on crops. Cotton also accounts for 16 per cent of global insecticide use, more than any other crop. But these chemicals cause pollution to the soil and water channels such as groundwater, waterways, rivers, which can be harmful to communities living on the banks. It destroys aquatic ecosystems, causing oxygen-starved dead zones completely devoid of marine life.
Especially in areas where cotton farming is less mechanised, farmers expose themselves to toxic chemicals on their skin and in the air, they breathe (and yes, this is regardless of how much protection they use or not).
In addition, synthetic fertilisers emit a lot of greenhouse gases during their production and use. Once the 4th largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has now turned to dust. It is spreading 43 million tonnes of pesticide-laden dust into the air every year. The Aral Sea region suffers from the highest rates of throat cancer in the world, representing 80 per cent of the cases of cancer.
Labour-free cotton will remain a pipe dream as long as farmers and cotton workers continue to face various exploitative practices. Up to 100 million smallholder farmers in more than 100 countries worldwide depend on cotton for their income. They are at the very end of the supply chain, and face being stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, with reduced life expectancy and multiple succeeding generations of servitude.
Often working with unsafe practices in place, exposed to toxic chemicals during production, these farmers develop severe health problems for which they are unable to afford any form of treatment. Even some of the world’s biggest cotton industries including China, India, USA, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan and Turkey have reported child labour. More common than you think, living in poverty means children get roped into working long hours with little to no pay, at the expense of their education, all in hopes to support their starving families with large harvest quotas.
Exhausted, heat-stricken, malnourished, and even physically and/or sexually abused, these forced labourers work in unbearable conditions. Sometimes, farmers commit suicide by ingesting those very pesticides they work with. Research find forced labour in Turkmenistan to be an internationally recognised concern. 80% of Turkmenistan’s cotton exports go to Turkey, Europe’s second-largest apparel supplier. This means any cotton garments from Turkey could have the blood, sweat and tears of forced labour in any part of the supply chain. Care to have a look in your closet to see what garments are made in Turkey?
However, new initiatives are implementing better practices in lieu of how cotton controls the lives of millions working in the industry. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a global not-for-profit organisation and the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world. BCI exists to better global cotton production – for people and the environment. Some of its aims are to use water efficiently, conserve natural habitats and promote ethical work.
What about organic cotton?
Granted, we’re seeing a push for more organic and ethical cotton these days. But, we need to know what organic even means before jumping on the wagon. Cotton not made with chemicals isn’t automatically organic – it has to be certified. Certain organisations set the standard to what organic cotton is, such as the European Union’s organic standards organisation and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
To be certified as organic, cotton cultivators must also promote sustainability within the communities where they operate. The organisations must fairly compensate organic cotton workers and ensure minimum environmental degradation. Most notable among them is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), an organisation specifically focused on providing consumers with access to safe and sustainable organic fabrics.
Farming organic cotton is less likely to contribute to global warming, acidification, and eutrophication than the conventional route. Even techniques such as drip irrigation are important in areas with marginal irrigation needs, as it can save excess water. Sustainably growing cotton also means planting it where rainfall is sufficient, avoiding groundwater irrigation altogether! Research finds organic cotton cultivation also reduces the negative impacts of cotton farming on local water quality as well as biodiversity. Organic cotton is also non-allergic, and much better to sensitive skin.
However, there are two sides to every story. Organic cotton does not yield as much as conventional cotton, meaning a single cotton plant produces more fibre (mainly because of how it can be genetically modified to do so) than its organic counterpart. Thus organic cotton needs more plants, land, water and the works to just reach the target. Approximately farmers use 1,098 litres of water to grow sufficient cotton to make a shirt from a conventional cotton plant. However, it takes close to 2,500 litres of water for an organic one instead.
How to care for cotton clothing
Pretreating any stains before washing, washing like colours together and in colder water will prevent any discolouration. Cotton also tends to shrink, so the cold water trick works well as a pre-wash and during daily washing cycles. Hang dry to avoid excess pilling and lint buildup from dryers. To avoid wrinkles, just gently stretch and straighten them on the drying line – less ironing needed then!
If you no longer want a pair of jeans or some old 100% cotton t-shirts, there are lots of options before the garbage chute. Think about donating or selling your old clothes – your trash can be someone else’s treasure! Even try your hand at repurposing some old dresses into cleaning rags or handkerchiefs. If you’re good with your hands, a pair of scissors and some thread, turn a ratty band tee into a tote bag or even a chew toy for your pets!
Cotton recycling involves blending it with other fabrics to make up for the degradation of quality. We cannot recycle it forever like polyester. Since it is natural and completely biodegradable, you can compost it!
Our final verdict
Some of these facts would shock those who love this soft fabric, but does that mean we boycott it? Cotton production has a lot to improve before we hail it as the king of sustainable fashion. However, it’s all about weighing the pros and cons and being aware of the bigger picture. It is important to make sure we know where our clothes come from, who made them and under what conditions to truly make a decision.
That is why we suggest buying cotton that is certified by any reliable organisation like BCI or USDA. This ensures better traceability within the supply chain. While organic is not perfect, it’s still a good alternative to the conventional. We always promote buying mindfully, buying less and buying better quality. We also support companies who proudly follow ethical and sustainable standards. By making these small decisions now, we can shift the industry to care about the people involved as much as what they make.
This guide is part of our What The Fabric! series, a bunch of useful guides that deep dive into the materials we wear every day. For more from the series, go here.