Das Merch X Cotton
Differences in Cotton Fabric
Conventional x Organic x Recycled
How often do you look at your clothes labels to check what fabric are they made from? I bet more than a half of your wardrobe consists of clothes made out of cotton. It is the most popular non-food crop in the world. It takes 50% of the textile industry and gives jobs to about 250 million people. India and Pakistan stand in the forefront of cotton growing countries worldwide, which implies that this industry has a huge impact on developing countries. But what kind of impact that is in terms of health and environment.
There are three types of cotton that are used in textile production these days: conventional, organic and recycled. Let’s look more closely at each one of those.
If you would go through articles circling in the media about conventional cotton, you would notice that it is often named as the “dirtiest” crop on earth. It is due to the resources we need to grow and harvest it. It takes about 25% of the world’s agricultural chemicals and 10% of fertilizers, while only 3% of world’s arable land is used for its cultivation.
To produce 1kg of conventional cotton requires a staggering 26 thousand liters of fresh water while only 3% of world’s water resources is fresh water and only ⅓ of that could be used for drinking. In addition, 2 billion people live in countries that already experience water scarcity and this number is projected to rise.
As mentioned before, around 250 million people are working in the cotton growing sector and most of them are located in developing countries. People there are working excessive hours for minimal wages and are exposed to the chemicals used to fertile the soil. Various studies state that there are increased numbers of cancer caused deaths, miscarriages and poisonings in cotton growing regions. To sum up, someone has to pay the price for you to buy cheap apparel. So do you agree that there are more than enough incentives to look for more eco-friendly options, right?
Growing cotton organically is more demanding than it appears on a first glance. It involves cultural practises, natural fertilizers and biological controls instead of relying on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Using no genetically modified seeds is at the core of necessary cultural practises, but these also include cover crops, strip cropping, grazing etc. and all such and similar practises needed to be incorporated into a larger farming system. All these practises when combined to a larger system pave the way to good humus and biodiversity management. But how exactly do these practises make organic cotton distinguishable from its counterparts? To make it short and simple, we’ll explain two main ones that have the biggest impact.
Soil fertility. Instead of feeding plants with chemical fertilizers, organic farmers feed the soil and consequently soil microorganisms through biological digestive processes feed the plants. Simply put, chemicals are changed to animal manure, compost and soluble rock powders. Throughout the media you can find statements that organic cotton requires even more fertilizers than conventional, however do not make a mistake – there is a difference between putting artificially created chemicals to the soil and natural fertilizers that are biological food for organisms living in a soil. On the other hand, over fertilizing is always a problem in both conventional and organic farming because too much of it destroys the balance of microorganisms in the soil, therefore plants are no longer productive.
Crop rotation. It is a basic traditional agricultural practice. It involves the sequencing of different crops on farm fields, which diversifies farms system economically and biologically. The core benefit of it is the broken cycles of insect pests and plant diseases. Therefore there is no need to employ artificial pesticides anymore. It also helps to increase soil’s fertility, for example, inclusion of forage legumes can be the main source of nitrogen for subsequent crops.
Additional benefits. To be able to market cotton as an “organic”, grower must be certified by a third party. Certification involves on-farm inspections and certification fees. Best known example of mentioned certification in the cotton world is the Global organic textiles standard (GOTS) that is described in our previous blog post(add link).
Third party independent certification combined with government regulations ensure that “organic” labeled cotton was grown and harvested in the most environmentally friendly way currently possible. In addition, most certifications also check for the social practises and well-being of farm workers. Since, cotton growing industry is labor intensive, especially in developing countries even child labor is exploited. Hence, certified organic cotton farms also pave the way for better life quality in developing countries.
While organic cotton tackles the environmental issue from the very beginning of the cotton’s lifecycle, recycled cotton has a different purpose. There are two sources of recycled cotton: post-industrial and post-consumption.
Post-industrial. It is mainly the fabric that remains after the cutting process. Cutting plans are created in order to have as little fabric leftovers as possible, however those are not perfect. This source makes the biggest part of cotton that is meant to be recycled.
Post-consumption. Garments, towels and other textiles made from cotton that were already used and would go to landfills if not recycled. Recycling process from these materials involve more work and higher costs compared to post-industrial cotton. It is due to color differences, mix of fibers that make up the fabric etc.
The actual cotton recycling process is mainly mechanical: fabrics are manually sorted by color, then they go through a shredding machine that shreds fabric into yarn and crude fiber. Then, the raw fiber is spun back into bobbins to be reused again. However, throughout this process there is a quality reduction in the final fabric since during shredding there is a lot of tension put on fabric, therefore fibers easily break and get entangled. Quality reduction limits application of the recycled cotton, therefore it has to be mixed with other fibers. In addition, because of quality reduction, cotton cannot be indefinitely recycled, meaning that recycling only delays the time till used cotton products would be burned or end up in the landfill. Also, collecting, processing and shipping used cotton products or fabric remnants for recycling reduces the benefits of recycling, but resources that can still be saved are staggering.
Looking at the bright side, recycling cotton brings significant benefits. Since growing it is a highly resource intensive process, by recycling it we can save up to 18 thousand liters of fresh water, 80% of energy and 95% of chemicals that otherwise would be needed to produce 1kg of virgin cotton fabric.
It should be clear by now that relying only on conventional cotton is not an option anymore and we should turn to more sustainable solutions because it is the “dirtiest” crop in the world.
To put it simply, organic cotton is a more long-term option since it changes the growing process fundamentally, while recycled is just the way to reuse resources that were already needed to produce it in the first place. However, it is not the permanent option since with current technologies it cannot be recycled indefinitely.
For now the best way would be to combine both organic and recycled cotton into the larger production framework: produce from organic, gather fabric remnants left after cutting and use them for recycling.
There is still a long way to go to the ultimate goal to create a fully sustainable circle economy model in the cotton industry, however, choosing more eco-friendly options that are already available is a great start!
I hope that now it is more clear how conventional, organic and recycled cotton differ and you can make more informative decisions about which products are best for you and the environment.