Today, we’re talking about one of the most used fibres in the world, cotton, which is well-loved and often chosen by sewers and fashion lovers alike. But what are your choices for more sustainable cotton?
I’m so glad to see so many more conversations lately around sustainability in fashion and also in the sewing community. But as a sustainable fashion professional, I often get really frustrated and annoyed at the crazy amount of greenwashing and false claims that are being made by brands and retailers. Some I’m sure, come from not knowing, but I do suspect some cases of wilfully ignoring or sidestepping the true stories.
And while the government and public bodies have a responsibility to manage the validity of claims, I think that well-informed customers are equally important in holding people responsible for doing the right thing all the way down the supply chain and talking about how much or how little they are doing in a correct way.
So, is there such a thing as more sustainable cotton? How can you tell and what to look out for when choosing your clothes and fabric?
WHAT IS THE ISSUE WITH COTTON ANYWAY?
In case you haven’t seen it yet, I really recommend watching Stacey Dooley’s 2018 BBC documentary, Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, though I really struggled to find anywhere still showing it. Although I did find it quite sensationalist, it does highlight quite starkly the impacts of the fashion industry, and cotton in particular, on the environment. For many people, this was the first contact with these issues, but hopefully, it did raise some questions and change behaviours.
In a nutshell, here’s the problem…
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. The sheer spread of crops due to high demand is bound to cause environmental and social issues. Here are the main ones.
Cotton is an intensely water-thirsty crop. Recent NASA images have shown 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 well documented in the above documentary.
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?
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.
Pesticides can also affect soil degradation by reducing its nutrient and water retention capacity. As a consequence, farmers can face declining yields and have to increase production inputs.
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.
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, Cotton Made in Africa, REEL, Fairtrade etc 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.
In 17/18, the share of preferred cotton (more sustainable cotton) was 22% of the total cotton grown around the world, which was an increase of 4% in 16/17 to a total of 6m metric tonnes (vs. 26.6m metric tonnes conventional).
All volume data in this article is from the Preferred Fiber & Material Market Report 2019 by Textile Exchange.
So let’s discuss a bit more about what these mean and how can you recognise more sustainable cotton, and more importantly, how can you know what is claimed is true.
WHAT IS IT AND WHY IS IT BETTER?
While we are all fairly familiar with the word ‘organic’ (sometimes also called bio or oeko/eco in some countries), in relation to cotton, it refers to cotton cultivated in accordance to the principles of organic farming.
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.
The ‘organic’ attribute focuses mostly on the environmental aspects of fibre 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 lower environmental impacts
- organic cotton has also positive social impacts, better health for the workers, lower production costs.
This all sound amazing, and we should all be buying nothing but organic, right?
Well, nothing is black and white, unfortunately.
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 organic 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).
As a result, the availability is reduced and the cost of organic cotton can be high, and clearly higher than conventional cotton (or other types of ‘better cotton’).
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR?
Unfortunately, the ‘organic’ claim is not legally protected in all territories. So pretty much anyone can claim to be selling ‘organic’ cotton. But without some form of certification, this is misleading at best and fraud in the worst-case scenario.
There are two main certifications schemes for organic cotton: GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and OCS (Organic Cotton Standard).
A certification scheme ensures the physical traceability from the organic farm to the organic product you are buying. This can be yarn, fabric or garments. Both require full chain of custody, i.e. all actors in the chain must have a valid GOTS or OCS certificate and that the forward selling transaction is also verified.
GOTS is recognised as the world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibres. Fabric must contain a minimum of 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.
OCS is mostly a chain of custody standard, guaranteeing that the product contains organic cotton fibres. However, they do not look at the chemical processing, environmental or social aspects. It is possible (and very likely) that even if the fibre is organic, the processing, manufacturing and dyeing and finishing is not organic. Although not at powerful as GOTS, OCS is still important, as it ensures that the farmers are paid for their work and you are supporting the organic cotton industry. The cotton content can vary for OCS, from OCS100 (100% organic cotton) and OCS Blended (min of 5% organic cotton).
To note that in any of the above cases, the content of organic cotton must be stated along with the certification. Also, it is required that organic and conventional cotton are never mixed, so you have the guarantee that the final product contains only organic fibres, but there could be a mix of cotton and other fibres (like polyester, Tencel, etc).
More info on organic cotton and the difference between the two certification schemes can be found on this website.
If you see retailers (yarn, fabric or garments) selling organic textiles without stating the certification, call them up on it. Email them and ask to confirm how do they know that what they are selling is really organic. And if they can’t provide the answer, vote with your wallet.
BCI – BETTER COTTON INITIATIVE
WHAT IS IT AND WHY IS IT BETTER?
The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a global not-for-profit organisation and the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world. BCI exists to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future.
Better cotton is a standard to which the signatory organisations adhere, pledging to use cotton from sustainable sources. The number of signatory organisations has increased massively in the last few years, as it’s a practical way of increasing the volume of more sustainable cotton the brands buy. Brands that have already reached 100% more sustainable cotton (the majority of which is BCI) are Ikea and M&S in the UK.
In 2017/18, 19% of all the cotton produced globally was Better Cotton (including equivalent schemes that are accepted such as ABRAPA, CMiA and myBMP).
The main difference in the BCI model uses a system called mass balance. This is different from how organic cotton works, called ‘physical segregation’, which means that it is not mixed with other cotton types.
Mass balance means that cotton grown to BCI standard may not physically be present in your garment or fabric, but the required amounts of BCI cotton have been purchased to cover the same volume acquired by the brand. This has allowed BCI to achieve much greater coverage of cotton production than other sustainability systems.
Watch this quick video that explains it. Understanding mass balance is important, as it also applies to other commodities, such as sustainable palm oil.
One aspect for which BCI has been criticised is that it accepts GMO seeds as part of the programme, which is not the case with other standards. This makes sense in places because treated seeds have better pest resistance and reduce the need for insecticides. But for many people, it’s an ethical issue.
So why is BCI better, if I can’t know for sure if BCI cotton is in my garments? BCI is mainly an education programme for farmers. This is important because it helps them work smarter, using less water, chemicals and pesticides, which in turn is better for the environment, but also for their families, as they spend less on chemicals and have better yields. You can read more about BCI impacts here.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR?
BCI works mainly with brands, so it will be quite difficult, if not impossible, to find BCI fabric. However, by supporting brands that have converted to BCI, you are helping better farming practices, with social and environmental benefits.
BCI has very specific comms rules, so brands are not allowed to claim sustainable cotton on products, on labels or online. So if the brand has already reached 100% BCI, they can communicate that and assure the customers that all the cotton products purchased are contributing to the BCI programme. This becomes a bit more complicated when only a percentage of the brand’s profile is BCI.
However, it’s important to still support the growth of BCI, as it has its place in the mix of sustainable cotton options and is the only one that is available at scale and at an affordable price.
Here is the Leaderboard of BCI sourcing companies. Feel free to get in touch with your preferred brand and let them know you want to see them sourcing more BCI if they are not signatories.
WHAT IS IT AND WHY IS IT BETTER?
Fairtrade (a trademark 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 website, 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.
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 organisations.
The Fairtrade standard has environmental requirements (banned chemicals, use of rainwater, etc) and bans GMOs. Here is a good summary of all its characteristics. Fairtrade Organic cotton is also available.
Fairtrade accounted for 0.06% of cotton grown in FY 18/19, 16,906 mt in total (Textile Exchange).
To note that Fairtrade principles and the Fairtrade mark apply to many types of products and raw materials.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR?
Fairtrade products are very easy to identify because of the very well know Fairtrade Mark.
The Mark is used only on products certified in accordance with Fairtrade Standards and on promotional materials to encourage people to buy Fairtrade products.
OTHER AVAILABLE STANDARDS
The list here is quite long, so have a look at the very comprehensive list offered by the Textile Exchange.
Here are a few examples that you might have seen in the shops.
Cotton Made in Africa is an initiative of the Aid by Trade Foundation (AbTF) that helps African smallholder cotton farmers to improve their living conditions. Growers must meet minimum environmental and social requirements for their cotton to qualify as CmiA.
CMiA is BCI equivalent and accounted for 2.17% of world sustainable cotton production.
myBMP is a voluntary farm and environmental management system which provides self-assessment mechanisms, practical tools and auditing processes to ensure that Australian cotton is produced according to best practice.
MyBMP allows GMOs and uses a mix of rainwater and irrigation. It also has a list of banned chemicals.
MyBMP accounted for 0.86% of world sustainable cotton production in FY 17/18.
SAVE THIS FOR LATER ON PINTEREST
Although efforts are being made to grow cotton better, preferred cotton still only makes up around 1/5th of the total cotton volume worldwide. And predictions are that the production will only increase.
So, although choosing better options when buying fabric or clothes is definitely a good thing to do if you have to purchase new, undoubtedly the best thing overall is to use what already exists, what has been already produced. So shop your stash if you are a sewer, swap with friends or buy fabric from charity shops (check out my post on the most sustainable fabric). And choose #secondlhandfirst if you can when buying clothes.
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