[Sustainable Tuesdays] Not all cotton is made alike

Is all cotton made alike?

Welcome back to my fortnightly Sustainable Tuesdays series. Today, I’m covering cotton, a material that is as ubiquitous as it is taken for granted. But is all cotton made alike?

When we buy cotton garments or fabric with a certain content of cotton, we don’t usually give too much thought to what that actually means. I mean, it’s more important to ensure the content of cotton vs. man made fibres, the design of the fabric or the garment, the drape or the fit. Some manufacturers will highlight such qualities as organic, Better Cotton, or Fairtrade. But what do those claims actually mean and how do they compare against conventional cotton?

What is the issue with cotton anyway?

Main thing is, we use a lot of cotton!! Current estimates for world production are about 27 million tonnes or 120.4 million bales annually, accounting for 2.5% of the world’s arable land. China is the world’s largest producer, followed by India and USA. Sheer spread of crops due to high demand are bound to cause environmental and social issues. Here are the main ones.

Water: Cotton is an intensely water thirsty crop. Recent NASA images have showed the disastrous state of the Aral Lake in Central Asia, which has been reduced to 15% of what it used to be in the 1970s. This was caused by intensive cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The environmental impacts are obvious, but it also affected the livelihoods of the communities on its shores. Images in this article.

This is just one high profile example, however overall irrigation practices to support cotton have impacted other countries as well, as 73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land. Statistics show that it can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton, which in turn equals one t-shirt and a pair of jeans (dependent on thread count), as documented in the WWF report ‘The Impact of Cotton on Freshwater Resources and Ecosystems’. Makes you think twice about throwing that t-shirt in the bin after just one season’s use, right?

Attribution: Kimberly Vanderman via Wikimedia

Chemicals: Another environmental impact of conventional cotton are pesticides. According to Pesticide Action Network, conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. Nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides are sprayed on cotton fields each year — accounting for more than 10% of total pesticide use and nearly 25% of insecticides use worldwide. There are concerns about potential environmental impacts (on pollinators and other insects), and on the farmers themselves. They can be at risk because they are lacking training on how to properly handle the chemicals used, or even basic protection equipment, such as gloves or goggles and therefore risk exposure to dangerous substances, claimed to cause cancer, birth defects, growth stunt and other serious illnesses.

Soil: Pesticides can also affect the soil degradation by reducing its nutrient and water retention capacity. As a consequence, farmers can face declining yields and have to increase production inputs.

People: Cotton also has social impacts, as often in poorer regions the farmers’ incomes are subject to volatile world commodity markets. Often the money obtained from the cotton harvest is less than the cost of the pesticide and seeds and  more and more farmers are driven into debt. Single ‘cash crops’ can reduce families’ food security, as farmers prefer to grow crops they can get money from, as opposed to food crops. This is an issue  particularly in regions with unstable climatic conditions, since in bad years they are unlikely to have enough money to buy food.

Attribution: Claude Renault via Wikimedia

The good news is that the global community is actively trying to take steps to address these issues, by creating standards to ensure both the farmers, fabric producers, clothing manufactures and the consumers make the right choices throughout the life cycle of the cotton fibre and products. The certification standards, like organic, Better Cotton or Fairtrade each focus on specific aspects, but all of them certify that the cotton used is better from an environmental and/or social perspective than conventional cotton.

Organic cotton

Cotton is truly organic if it bears the appropriate certification. Anyone can say they produce organic, or that their fabric is organic, but only the certification can ensure that the standards are correctly applied.

In the EU, the Council Directive on Organic Farming defines production and certification requirements of organic crops. In the USA and in Asia, the National Organic Program (NOP) respectively the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) do the same. This refers to the way the crops are produced.

Source: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/

For cotton fabric, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is recognised as the world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibres. Fabric must contain a minimum 70% content of organic cotton to be GOTS certified. GOTS standard will ensure that the fibres and all the chemical production inputs adhere to a series of strict environmental and social criteria. You can read more on their website here.

The ‘organic’ attribute focuses mostly on the environmental aspects of fibre and fabric production:

– it is produced without the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides. Instead methods such as crop rotation are adopted to discourage the development of pests, and natural predators are encouraged. This has obvious health and environmental benefits, but it does require a lot of training and is more labour intensive.

– farmers may receive an ‘organic premium’, that can help encourage them to move away from the potential higher yields of pesticide crops. Read a report from Benin on impacts of moving to organic cotton farming.

– organic cotton is not Genetically Modified. This is an entire debate in its own right, but at the moment, the organic certification guarantees that no GM seeds have been used.

– organic cotton certification requires water and soil management practices that have a lower environmental impacts

Organic cotton yarn Source: Pachuko Organic Cotton via Wikimedia

Organic cotton has also positive social impacts, better health for the workers, lower production costs, however, the transition from conventional to organic cotton farming is not smooth and can be costly for the farmer. The fields have to be free of chemicals for three years for the cotton to be certified as organic, during which the yields are lower and they do not benefit from the orgaic premium. Another argument also takes into consideration the fact that some organic agriculture can require more land for the same amount of resulting raw materials, which can also have a social impact (the crops might be used for food)

If you would like to buy organic, make sure you check the claims of the producers (GOTS lists manufacturers on their website) and the content of organic cotton in the fabrics/garments.

BCI – Better Cotton Initiative

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a not-for-profit organisation stewarding the global standards for Better Cotton, and bringing together cotton’s complex supply chain, from the farmers to the retailers (source: BCI website).

Better cotton is a standard to which the signatory organisations adhere, pledging to use cotton from sustainable sources. Organic is not always available, is more expensive and sometimes is not necessarily the right solution. But that doesn’t mean that there are not better options other than conventional cotton.

Source: http://bettercotton.org/

BCI aims to become a mainstream solution, enabling more and more organisations to make better purchasing decisions and be transparent about their cotton supply chain. They also work with farmers and producers of different sizes, aiming for positive social impacts. In 2013, 3.7% of all the cotton produced globally was Better Cotton. By 2020, they want this figure to be 30%.

BCI does not exclude other standards, like Organic or Fairtrade.

BCI is a good alternative to organic, and you may already be buying this without even realising, as some of the companies that are part of BCI are household names: IKEA, Levi’s, Puma, H&M, M&S.

One of the differences with BCI cotton is that it aims to get the most value from the money invested by the signatory brands in improving cotton production. So instead of requiring expensive segregation that adds to the cost of cotton bought, the money goes straight to the projects to help farmers and the environment. This means it’s very rare to see BCI on products, but brands will declare on their website what proportion of cotton they use that meets BCI standards. This has allowed BCI to achieve much greater coverage of cotton production than other sustainability systems and making it a truly mainstream solution.

Visit the BCI website for more information. http://bettercotton.org/


Fairtrade (a trade mark of the Fairtrade foundation) refers less to the way the crops are grown or the fabrics manufactured, and focuses more on the social impacts of the products we buy on the livelihood of the producers. As stated on the Fairtrade webiste, Fairtrade cotton was launched to put the spotlight on these farmers who are often left invisible, neglected and poor at the end of a long and complex cotton supply chain. Fairtrade encourages sustainable cotton production and is the only standard to provide economic benefits, through a guaranteed Fairtrade Minimum Price and additional Fairtrade Premium for seed cotton farmers. A Fairtrade minimum price is set to cover the cost of sustainable production for that product in that region. The premium is the additional sum of money paid on top of the Fairtrade minimum price that farmers and workers receive which can be invested in social, environmental and economic developmental projects to improve their businesses and their communities.

Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine – Own work via Wikimedia

Fairtrade also encourages farmers to get organised in cooperatives, to increase their power of negotiation and get better deals from ginneries. Studies have shown that fairtrade cotton has helped towards gender equality, because women tend to be paid directly (instead of through the men of the family) and get a vote in the co-op organsations.

When you buy products with the Fairtrade Mark, you ensure that the money you spend will help support such projects and the communities that benefit from them. You can read more about the Fairtrade Cotton Program here.

Thank you for bearing with me for such a long post.

Happy Sustainable Tuesday!



  1. 10 February 2015 / 11:40 PM

    This is a great post. Have you ever read “The travels of a t-shirt in the global economy” by Pietra Rivoli? It is an eye opening read from an economic and environmental perspective. We all want cotton fabric (me especially), but it does come at a cost. Unfortunately, nearly all (affordable) fabric is produced using unsustainable methods; it keeps me awake at night!

    • Alex
      11 February 2015 / 8:44 AM

      No, I haven’t, I wll put t on my Kindle wish list! Thanks for recommending.
      Very good point about price though, I would only sew with sustainable fabrics, but they are so expensive!! It stops me from experimenting when I’m cutting into a £45/m peace silk or hemp organza. Any specialist sustainable fabric shops in Australia? We are lucky to have at least 2-3 good ones here and I will try to buy more such fabric. I really want to make my wedding dress out of either peace silk or bamboo silk.

      • 11 February 2015 / 10:45 AM

        Hi Alex, Nicki from Perth is hosting a “one year, one outfit” challenge where the participants have to make an outfit from totally locally sourced materials. Info here https://thisismoonlight.wordpress.com/2015/01/12/one-year-one-outfit-more-info/. You might like to join us all? We have some local hemp shops and there is a bamboo manufacturer in Qld, but they are pretty thin on the ground. I shall await your wedding dress with anticipation. I saw you on GBSB today – so surreal! It was lovely to hear your voice and see you working.

  2. 10 February 2015 / 11:54 PM

    Super article!

    • Alex
      11 February 2015 / 8:41 AM

      Thanks Meg! I’ve learnt a lot myself while researching for it.

  3. 11 February 2015 / 6:59 AM

    smashing article. i spent a bit of time late last year looking at an organic cotton project in Southern Ethiopia which had managed to increase yields by up to 100% by going organic. They’ve been teaching farmers how to identify ‘farmers friends’ i.e. to identify the useful insects and birds. Previously Ethiopian farmers thought all insects were bad so heavily treated their crops with pesticides to create a barren wasteland. When I left there wad hope that H&M was going to become a buyer.

    • Alex
      11 February 2015 / 8:40 AM

      Wow, I’m actually jealous you actually got to see it first hand! All my ‘knowledge’ is Internet based, plus I picked the brain on my colleague who is a specialist in sustainable raw materials. The Guardian article has a similar story, where they put a stone in one pocket for a bad bug and a stone in the other picket for the good bug. Fascinating!
      I like these posts because I learn a lot while researching for them too. Just hoping the sewing people don’t find them boring :).

      • 11 February 2015 / 9:15 AM

        Yes I’m lucky I have a job that takes me places like this. I actually wrote a short blog post about the trip – wish I could have read your blog first though! One of the issues someone raised with me is in Australia organic cotton is a dirty word due to the water use. I’ve had some dealings with NGOs that are working with large buyers to reduce water usage such as Water Witness http://waterwitness.org/.

        Here’s a link to the short blog post I did. I’d love to write more pieces like yours but the time it takes to research can be limiting can’t it? https://lfkingsewing.wordpress.com/2014/11/15/can-my-sewing-hobby-actually-make-a-difference-to-poverty/

    • Alex
      11 February 2015 / 8:41 AM

      Thank you! I really hope it’s as interesting for other people as it is for me. 🙂

  4. 11 February 2015 / 2:13 PM

    This is so brilliant and useful Alex, thanks for all your research and putting it out there! Love you on GBSB too 🙂

  5. 11 February 2015 / 6:36 PM

    Excellent post, very interesting! Love it! 🙂

  6. nekoralie
    11 February 2015 / 6:39 PM

    Very interesting post! Loved it! 🙂

    • nekoralie
      11 February 2015 / 6:41 PM

      Sorry about the double comment, I thought it didn’t work! 😉

  7. 13 February 2015 / 2:34 PM

    It’s fascinating to find out the cost to the environment of producing cotton. Another good reason to re-use as much fabric as possible, rather than it going to landfill, given the amount of resources used to make it. Ps…. very hard luck that you left the sewing bee, I honestly thought you were safe for another week::

    • Alex
      14 February 2015 / 5:26 PM

      Thanks Chris, it really was sad. I blame bad strategy and lack of practice :). But good experience.

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