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Cotton requires a lot of water but is mostly grown in arid conditions. This means that large amounts of water are used to grow cotton every year. This “virtual water” needs to be considered when you purchase your cotton products. According to studies, it can take more than 2,700 litres of water to produce enough cotton for just one t-shirt.
However, this high level of water wastage isn’t only due to irrigation – it is also commonly a result of inefficient water usage and pollution due to pesticide use (more on pesticides later).
Another way water gets polluted along the way is the use of chemicals in the production and dyeing process. It is also very expensive to safely dispose of the hazardous chemicals often used in fabric dying. Due to pressures to produce clothing cheaper, this often results in the contamination of river systems. In fact, in China, it is estimated that 70% of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the fashion industry.
When we buy our cotton goods, we need to be aware that we are also buying many litres of “virtual water” – this sounds arbitrary, but think about it this way: in India alone, a country where 100 million people have no access to safe drinking water, the water used in cotton production would be sufficient to provide 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year.
Cotton is one of the most common and most used fabrics. This natural fibre is light and breathable which makes it a wardrobe staple. But growing cotton can be problematic: conventional cotton is one of the thirstiest and most chemical-intensive crops to grow. It requires a lot of pesticides and, as a result, has a negative impact on the planet, and the people who grow it. Organic cotton, a more sustainable alternative to conventional cotton, has been booming in the last few years. It aims to minimise the environmental impact of cotton production by trying to remove harmful pesticides and other chemicals from the production process. Check if your organic cotton is GOTS-certified to ensure high standards in production.
If you’re looking for the most sustainable cotton, however, go recycled. Recycled or upcycled cotton is made using post-industrial and post-consumer cotton waste. According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, recycled cotton is a more sustainable alternative to both conventional and organic cotton. It has the potential to help reduce water and energy consumption, as well as help keep cotton clothes out of landfill – which is why we consider it one of the most sustainable fibres on the market.
Organic cotton is a good sustainable solution, which is grown without the use of pesticides, from seeds which have not been genetically modified.
Organic farming practices avoid using harmful chemicals while aiming for environmental sustainability and the use of fewer resources. Chemical-free agricultural land even stays fertile much longer than land which is hampered by the constant use of pesticides, so organic cotton farmers generally have a longer cotton commodity lifespan than otherwise.
The benefits are clear; using fewer pesticides means that the health of workers improves dramatically, communities can live in relative health with access to clean water and food supplies, and the land has a longer lifespan because it is not being damaged by chemicals.
On the social front, organisations, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), have been working to make sure organic textiles also enhance (or at least do not harm) people’s lives.
GOTS covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of textiles, ensuring that both environmental and social standards, such as safe and hygienic working conditions, no workplace discrimination and fair pay rates, are respected.
By seeking out organic cotton alternatives to everyday products, you can quickly act ethically and sustainably by encouraging the production of cotton grown without pesticides and reduce harm for the planet and people!
However, organic cotton production is not perfect: because organic cotton yields fewer fibres than GMO cotton, it requires more plants and so more land to produce. Plus, before the organic fibre is turned into your favourite t-shirt, it requires lots of processing and dying, which are also very chemically intensive. Unless the item garment is GOTS certified, it can be hard to tell if the dyes used in production were organic or not.
Nowadays, using the word ‘Organic’ can be in incredibly persuasive: beware of greenwashing and of fashion brands claiming to do better when they are still not addressing other vital issues.