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Is cotton a sustainable material?

15 January 2023 | 4 Min Read

You’re looking at the sustainable fashion options, and you finally ask yourself the question “is cotton even a sustainable material?”. Great question! Making sustainable eco-friendly choices begins with questioning our habits, beliefs, and current understanding of the world. Cotton is such a widely used material in fabrics, but is it really a planet-saving option? Is organic a better option? Where is it even grown? We’ll delve into all of that 👇 

Table of Contents

    What is cotton? 

    Cotton is a naturally occurring plant that produces fluffy white balls of fiber - cotton balls that you get in packets look pretty much exactly how they appear on the plant! A large amount of cotton grows in the USA, China and India, with many other nations around the planet able to produce this vital plant. 

    With its ability to grow across a large part of the planet, cotton is an incredible fiber that gives the entire planet access to a material that can transformed into our favourite garments and household objects. At least, that helps to reduce miles from the field to the end user in many cases… but we all know we’re not always getting products made just down the street from us. We’ll touch on this later. 


    What types of cotton are there?

    Now I know you’re probably not a genomics expert, so we won’t get too deeply into the specific varieties and breeds of cotton. However, we can really break down the ethical side of cotton, and the standards or stamps of approval to look out for. 

    Standard cotton - this is likely the usual stuff that’s been mass produced with maximum yield expected by the grower. This would include using synthetic fertilizer, chemical crop protection products and likely creating large areas of a monoculture. Although this form of growing is improving, their are other ways. 


    Organic cotton - this is grown without the aids of chemistry to grow. If you’re against the use of synthetic chemicals and their environmental impact, this version could very well be the option you choose to go for. 

    Fair Trade - you may very well associate this stamp of approval with chocolate, coffee and other confectionary. However, Fair Trade cotton is that which is grown with farmer, worker and supply chain fair practices. 


    Other certifying bodies - It's not just the guys at Fair Trade that you should look out for! There are loads of charities and organizations that assist with the workers rights and standards to improve the ethical side of our purchases, so have a look at what brands they may be associated with, or even supporting!


    Recycled cotton - If you dispose of your garments correctly, they could be re-used and recycled, and turned into something brand new! Now, this isn't going to completely remove the carbon footprint of the new item, as the sorting, collection, and recycling process still require energy and fossil fuel usage currently. However, it's better than leaving items to rot in a landfill!

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    The issues with cotton

    The thing with cotton is that it’s a very thirsty plant. A single kilogram of cotton can require 10 to 20 tonnes of water to feed the plants adequately! We’re unfortunately in a world with reducing fresh water resources, so even with organic growing practices, the footprint of this crop can still be massive. That's before the potentially damaging growing practices that can lead to ecological damage, simply to satiate our need for a new t-shirt. 


    As we touched on earlier, we may grow a large amount near to where we live, but for a lot of us, we still end up purchasing products that have been made thousands of miles away from us. The carbon emissions to get an object from wherever that may be to our front doors could be massive! So, it's well worth checking the country of production and materials, especially if they differ. 

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    What cotton should I choose to be eco-friendly?

    It’s not all doom and gloom. The fact of the matter is, if you’re here, you’re making the right steps towards a greener and better future regardless! 


    If we were in your shoes (sustainable or not), take the time to look up the standards or certifying bodies that are associated with the brands you buy from. Check the tags for the word “organic”, and do these small things to simply make slightly better informed decisions. 

    We can’t highly rate thrift shopping or upcycling enough to further reduce the impact on the planet, but we do understand that new purchase feeling. 

    Clothing doesn’t just end at cotton, so do your research and look at what other options there are too!

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