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Good Cotton

Published 08 / 09 / 2020
Cotton can be both environmentally and ethically problematic, so how do we make sure we’re wearing ‘Good Cotton’ or wearing it consciously?

Good Cotton

Hi, I’m Jessica, GSC’s intern.

Sustainability is my passion, fashion is my first love and both are at the heart of what we do at GSC. Therefore, I have embarked on a self-education journey and I want to share it with the GSC network.

During summer, we all find ourselves reaching for the light and breathable material, cotton. As great as it feels to wear, cotton can be both environmentally and ethically problematic, so how do we make sure we’re wearing ‘Good Cotton’ or wearing it consciously?

As most people know, normal cotton is detrimental to the environment, and communities, but here are a few quick statistics as to what the actual impact is:

  • 6% of pesticides and 16% of insecticides in the world are used in cotton growing. [PAN UK]
  • It takes 150g of fertilizer to make 1 cotton t-shirt [DW Online]
  • It takes 20,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton [WWF], which is roughly 2720 litres to make 1 t-shirt (the amount a person drinks in three years) and 8183 litres to make one pair of jeans [Tree Hugger]. Such over-production has led to the destruction of the Aral Sea.
  • 83% of this water becomes run-off water pollution [Cotton, Inc].
  • 20% of overall water-pollution comes from chemical dying processes and textile treatment [World Bank]. This contaminates the water supplies of local communities and affects biodiversity.
  • As a delicate material, child labour has been and is still widely used to pick the raw material.

Organic cotton is much better, but not perfect. It is considered a ‘preferred’ material, rather than a ‘sustainable’ one.  While it uses the same amount of water, it does not use chemicals or fertilizers. This reduces the environmental impact significantly as there is less pollution or soil degradation.

Virgin materials are always going to have some impact, however, so recycled or upcycled cotton is undeniably the best source, but it too has limitations. Recycled materials often need to be blended with virgin materials and will eventually lose all its strength. Upcycled materials have a limit to their reuse and there will be offcuts, but they themselves do have the capacity to be recycled.

There are of course alternatives to cotton that have less of an impact, such as Hemp, Lyocell and Bamboo, but cotton is a popular material for a reason.

So how do we wear cotton responsibly?

Increase length of wear: Invest in high-quality pieces, rather than single-wear items. Extending the life cycle of a garment, especially cotton, by just nine months can reduce the water footprint by 5-10% [The Conscious Challenge].

Trust your source: There are several certification bodies including our client Positive Luxury, that do the work for you to find and certify a source and supply chain, so you can trust your purchases are good. These bodies often also support causes to directly invest in making cotton more sustainable.

  • The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibres and certification requires adherence with high-level environmental criteria along the entire supply chain as well as compliance with social criteria.
  • Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA) is an internationally recognised standard for sustainable cotton from Africa, committed to protecting the environment and helping social causes by investing in communities directly.
  • Cotton Connect runs the REEL Cotton Code, educating farmers on sustainable practices and helping reduce environmental impacts, providing transparency and traceability from farmer to store.
  • The Better Cotton Initiative is a global not-for-profit organisation and the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world, existing to make global cotton production more ethical for those who produce it, more environmentally friendly and more sustainable for the industry’s future.
  • Fairtrade does not ensure particular environmental standards, but demands high social and ethical standards, so that all people in the supply chain receive a fair pay.

Shop consciously: Choice is a powerful weapon in our personal arsenal, and if we choose to put our money where our mouth is on environmental issues, the industry will have to respond. Be conscious of both the amount of clothing you are buying, and the standards of the company you are buying it from.

Apps such as ‘Good for You’ make it easy to check the sustainability and ethics behind a company. They have done the research for us to give brands a simple sustainability and ethics rating to help consumers choose and reward fashion brands that do good.

The Rs: When it comes to sustainable and conscious shopping, engage the 4 famous R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle – and even consider a fifth R, ‘rent’. Our client Front Row is a perfect option for this.

by Jessica Phillips