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  • Gianni Romano

Exploring Sustainable Cotton Alternatives

Updated: Jan 6


Sustainable Cotton


In the complex and ever-evolving landscape of the global fashion industry, cotton's prominence is undeniable. As a natural fibre cherished for its comfort and adaptability, cotton also lies at the centre of a crucial sustainability discussion. At. Lyfcycle, we recognise the importance of this conversation and aim to highlight the main challenges with conventional cotton and discuss more sustainable alternatives. This exploration is vital for fashion stakeholders aiming to make well-informed and ethical choices.


Cotton is a Staple

Cotton, one of the most widely used natural fibres in the world, has a history deeply intertwined with human civilisation. Its origins trace back thousands of years, with evidence of cotton use dating as far back as 6000 BC in the Indus Valley Civilisation of ancient India. The unique properties of cotton, such as its ability to absorb and release moisture quickly, its durability, and its comfort against the skin, made it a highly sought-after material even in ancient times.


The versatility of cotton has ensured its lasting popularity in the textile world. It can be woven or knitted into fabrics of varying weights and textures, making it suitable for a wide range of applications, from delicate undergarments to sturdy denim jeans. Cotton’s natural breathability makes it a go-to choice for clothing, especially in warmer climates, as it allows for air circulation and helps in absorbing moisture, providing comfort to the wearer. Additionally, cotton has been a favourite in home textiles like bedding, towels, and upholstery, thanks to its softness and durability.


The Conventional Cotton Conundrum

Conventional cotton, a staple in the textile industry, is one of the most prominent textile fibres in history. Its lauded for its high yield and crop resilience, but cotton production also comes with significant environmental and social drawbacks.


Cultivation and Impact

Conventional cotton farming heavily relies on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, contributing to soil degradation and water pollution. Approximately 16% of the world’s insecticides and 7% of pesticides are used in cotton farming (Pesticide Action Network UK).


Water Usage: This crop is one of the most water-intensive, requiring about 2,700 litres of water to produce a single cotton shirt (World Wildlife Fund). The Aral Sea disaster, largely attributed to cotton farming, starkly exemplifies this issue.


Economic and Social Aspects: Despite its economic viability, conventional cotton farming often leaves small-scale farmers vulnerable to market fluctuations and the high costs of chemical inputs. This raises concerns about long-term sustainability and fairness.


cotton alternative

Organic Cotton - A Green Vision

Organic cotton represents a pivotal shift towards more environmentally friendly and socially responsible cotton farming.


Farming Practices

Organic cotton farming practices prioritise environmental and human health, prohibiting the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. This method relies on natural processes like crop rotation, composting, and biological pest control to maintain soil health and reduce harmful impacts on the ecosystem. Organic farmers also focus on water conservation and use non-GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds, preserving biodiversity and soil fertility.


By avoiding toxic chemicals, organic cotton farming ensures safer working conditions for farmers and reduces pollutants in the environment. The result is a sustainable, eco-friendly approach to cotton cultivation, yielding a product that meets the growing consumer demand for environmentally responsible textiles.


Challenges

Organic cotton farming faces significant challenges, including lower yields and higher production costs due to the absence of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. This often results in higher retail prices, making organic cotton products less accessible to a broader market. Additionally, organic farming methods are labor-intensive and can be unpredictable in pest and disease control. There's also the issue of cross-contamination with conventional cotton and the rigorous, expensive certification process for organic cotton, which poses a substantial barrier for small-scale farmers. These factors collectively underscore the need for innovation and support in the organic cotton industry to enhance its feasibility and accessibility.


Certifications and Standards

Standards such as GOTS and OCS maintain the integrity of organic cotton, ensuring environmental and social criteria are met. However, as of 2021, organic cotton only represents about 1% of the global cotton production, highlighting the need for increased adoption (Textile Exchange).


Recycled Cotton - An Incomplete Circular Solution

Recycled cotton is at the forefront of the movement towards a more circular and sustainable fashion economy. Whilst it's not a complete solution, recycling cotton can be a cost effective way to reduce the environmental footprint of cotton textiles.


recycled cotton

The Recycling Process

The recycling process for cotton textiles starts with the collection and sorting of cotton waste, which includes both pre-consumer and post-consumer materials. Sorted by colour and quality, the cotton is then cleaned to remove impurities. Fabrics are then shredded and pulled into individual fibres, a process known as carding. These recycled fibres, typically shorter and less robust than virgin cotton, are often blended with other fibres for added strength and then spun into yarn. The yarn is then woven or knitted into new fabric, which may undergo various finishing processes like dyeing and printing.


Environmental Benefits

Recycled cotton offers significant environmental benefits by reducing waste and conserving natural resources. It minimises the need for virgin cotton, thereby saving water and energy typically used in conventional cotton farming and production. Recycling cotton can save more than 20,000 litres of water per kilogram of cotton recycled, compared to virgin cotton production (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).


Additionally, recycling cotton reduces landfill waste as it repurposes textile scraps and used garments. This process also decreases the carbon footprint associated with the production of new cotton, contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.


Quality and Applications

Recycled cotton fibres are generally shorter and less durable than virgin fibres which presents challenges in manufacturing, but advancements in recycling technologies are improving their quality all the time. Typically, most garments can't use more than 50% recycled cotton and still maintain durability and hand feel so recycled cotton needs to be blended with other fibres like virgin cotton, lyocell or polyester.


Better Cotton - Bridging the Gap

The Better Cotton Initiative provides a pragmatic approach to enhancing the sustainability of global cotton production. The cost of Better Cotton is lower than organic cotton and is more widely accessible for most brands sourcing cotton products, both have contributed to its significant rise in popularity over recent years. At the end of 2022, Better Cotton accounted for 22% of global cotton production (Better Cotton Initiative)..


better cotton initiative

[Credit: Asim Hafeez For CABI]


Better Cotton’s Philosophy and Methodology

Better Cotton aims to revolutionise cotton production by emphasising sustainability and ethical practices. Their methodology involves training farmers in sustainable agriculture, focusing on efficient water usage, reducing chemical use, and improving soil health. They also prioritise fair labor practices and the welfare of farming communities. By collaborating with stakeholders across the supply chain, Better Cotton strives to make environmentally friendly and socially responsible cotton production mainstream, creating a more sustainable and ethical cotton industry.


Comparative Analysis: BCI cotton is more sustainable than conventional cotton but differs from organic cotton regarding environmental standards and chemical use. Organic cotton is generally considered to be a better environmental alternative to BCI, but it's also a more premium option.


Other Sustainable Cotton Types

Whilst Better Cotton and Organic Cotton seem to be the most widely talked about, some other sustainable cotton alternatives are gaining recognition in the industry.


Fair Trade Cotton

Fairtrade cotton emphasises fair pricing, good working conditions, and equitable trade for farmers and workers. It guarantees a minimum price and a premium for community investment, empowering farmers in developing countries and safeguarding them from market fluctuations. Fairtrade certification enforces strict labor standards, including workers' rights and prohibiting child and forced labor. Fair Trade cotton production increased by 15% in 2019 (Fairtrade International).


Regenerative Cotton

There's a trending focus on 'regenerative farming' which prioritise restoring environmental health, focusing on soil rejuvenation, biodiversity, and ecosystem balance. Techniques like cover cropping and no-till farming improve soil fertility and conserve water, while reducing chemical usage. This approach not only yields cotton but also aids in carbon sequestration, addressing climate change. Regenerative practices offer lasting environmental benefits and enhance the resilience of cotton production.


Conclusion

The journey towards sustainable cotton sourcing is multifaceted and complex. Each alternative to conventional cotton, from organic to recycled, offers unique benefits and challenges. For brands, the choice often involves balancing environmental ideals with commercial realities. Organic cotton, while environmentally superior, comes with higher costs, making it less accessible for some. Understanding the nuances of each option is crucial for brands committed to ethical practices.


Lyfcycle stands at the forefront of this endeavour, dedicated to championing sustainable cotton. Our commitment is not just in sourcing but also in educating the broader fashion community. By advocating for responsible practices and promoting awareness, Lyfcycle plays a pivotal role in steering the fashion industry towards a more sustainable and conscientious future, one garment at a time.


This is the first of its kind in our new Eco Textiles Series, where we will delve deeper into eco-friendly alternatives to conventional textile fibres and manufacturing processes.


Comment to request specific topics for future editions!


Editors Note

  1. Pesticide Use in Cotton Farming: Pesticide Action Network UK. "Pesticides and Cotton." Website Link

  2. Water Usage in Cotton Production: World Wildlife Fund. "The Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt." Website Link

  3. Organic Cotton Production Statistics: Textile Exchange. "2021 Organic Cotton Market Report." Website Link

  4. Water Savings in Recycled Cotton: Ellen MacArthur Foundation. "A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion's Future." Website Link

  5. Better Cotton Initiative Production Statistics: Better Cotton Initiative. "2020 Annual Report." Website Link

  6. Growth of Fair Trade Cotton: Fairtrade International. "Fairtrade Cotton Program." Website Link

  7. Consumer Trends in Sustainable Fashion: McKinsey & Company. "Fashion on Climate." Website Link

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