Is Cotton a Renewable Resource? 7 Key Pros & Cons Revealed

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Stephanie Cole
With her Master of Science in Renewable Energy Engineering (MSREE) from Oregon Tech, Steph is supremely well qualified to write on all aspects of sustainable living. She has already achieved a zero carbon footprint and her goal is to help as many other people as possible do the same. Her other hobbies include music, yoga, swimming and horror movies.
Stephanie Cole
Updated: March 15, 2024

Cotton is a natural fiber that comes from the cotton plant. It’s used to make clothing, bedding, and other textiles.

But is cotton a renewable resource, or should we be trying to avoid it?

Maybe people consider cotton an eco-friendly option because it is technically renewable (due to the fact it can be replanted and harvested multiple times).

However, several environmental concerns associated with growing cotton might surprise you.

In this article, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of using cotton as a renewable resource and offer some alternatives that might just help you save the planet…one shirt at a time!

How Cotton Is Made

how is conventional cotton made

The basic process of cotton cultivation is a simple one and has been around in some form or another since approximately 5,000 BC:

  • Seeds are planted.
  • The cotton plants grow and mature.
  • The cotton crops (often called cotton bolls) are harvested.
  • The cotton is spun into thread or yarn.
  • That thread or yarn is used to make fabric.

The Positive Side Of Cotton

More Than Just A Fabric

Almost the entire cotton plant is used, and there is very little waste.

For example, cotton seeds are used in cooking, cattle feed, and oil production.

Clothing Comfort

It’s no accident that cotton is one of the most popular fabrics for clothing.

Cotton is a breathable fabric that is more comfortable than synthetic fibers. It’s a natural fabric that’s gentle enough to be worn against the skin. It absorbs water readily and grows stronger when wet.

It can withstand higher washing temperatures than synthetic fabrics, so it’s easier to sanitize

The Negative Side Of Cotton

Intensive Farming Techniques

Demand for cotton is increasing year on year, and as a result, farmers are under pressure to produce more.

This has led to the widespread adoption of intensive farming techniques, which, while they may boost yields in the short term, can have a devastating effect on both the environment and the long-term sustainability of cotton production.

Chemical Use

Using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is now commonplace in cotton farming, leading to soil erosion and water contamination.

These chemicals can also end up in the finished product and remain present even after multiple washes.

Then we have the toxic dyes some manufacturers use to color the final cotton fabric.

Impact On Water Resources

Cotton production is thirsty work! It’s estimated that around 20% of the world’s irrigation water is used to grow it.

This significantly impacts water resources, particularly in areas where water is already scarce. In India, for example, it takes around 22,500 liters of water to produce just one kilogram of cotton, according to the Guardian.

Not all countries are quite so wasteful. The same article states that the global average is 10,000 liters per 1kg of cotton. Thanks to irrigation systems, US cotton uses 8,000 liters per kg. But that’s still a lot!

Soil Degradation

Intensive cotton farming practices also lead to soil degradation and desertification.

According to National Geographic, “throughout the past 40 years, the Earth has lost a third of its arable land to erosion and degradation”.

This is not all the fault of intensive cotton farms, but it’s a significant contributing factor.

Shrinkage Issues

Cotton fabric is susceptible to shrinking and wrinkling, so it’s usually washed and pre-shrunk before being stitched into clothes, etc. This is another drain on water and electricity.

Cotton fibers are often combined with synthetic fibers (polyester, for example) to help address the shrinkage issue. However, this cotton processing often makes the end product less sustainable and comfortable than 100% cotton.

Sustainable Cotton Alternatives

is organic cotton a sustainable alternative

Organic Cotton

From field to factory to our wardrobes, organic cotton is much more sustainable than traditional cotton for several reasons:

  • Organic cotton is grown without the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides. Meaning it’s much better for the environment.
  • Organic cotton is grown using less water than traditional cotton.
  • Organic cotton farming is less intensive and doesn’t destroy the land. Organic farming actively encourages the rewilding of areas to benefit local wildlife.

Check out these organic cotton statistics to see the latest data on what proportion of cotton grown is organic, and how it affects the environment.

Recycled Cotton

Recycled cotton is an excellent alternative to traditional cotton. Recycled cotton is made from, you guessed it, recycled cotton and textile products!

The benefits of using recycled cotton are:

  • It reduces the amount of textile waste that goes to landfills in the U.S.
  • It reduces the amount of textile waste that’s incinerated.
  • It reduces the amount of textile waste that’s shipped from the U.S. to developing countries (to usually be disposed of in environmentally disastrous ways).
  • While recycling cotton uses resources such as water and electricity, the amount needed is significantly lower than growing and manufacturing cotton from scratch.

However, it’s not all upside. Recycled cotton fibers are often shorter than new cotton fibers. This can result in a poorer quality fabric and increased pilling.

Upcycled Cotton

Upcycled cotton is when existing pure cotton fabric (such as clothes, towels, or 100% organic cotton sheets) is reused for another purpose rather than being thrown away.

This prevents material from going to landfill and does not need the water and electricity used by recycled cotton.

Some examples of upcycling cotton include:

  • Cutting old cotton towels into squares and using them as a reusable alternative to baby wipes and family cloths.
  • Stitching an old organic cotton duvet insert into an old cotton bedsheet to make a DIY eco-friendly dog bed.
  • Using old cotton towels and sheets for dust/paint covers when redecorating.
  • Cutting patterns off old clothes and stitching them on new ones for a new and unique design.

Cotton Sustainability Certification

When shopping for sustainable cotton, you should keep an eye out for certification from well-known and respected organizations, such as:

These certifications help give you peace of mind that the cotton you’re buying is sustainable and the manufacturer is not trying to greenwash their product.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is All Cotton Compostable?

Cotton is a natural fiber that decomposes relatively quickly, so you might think all cotton is compostable. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Cotton clothing and other items are often treated with chemicals that make them less biodegradable. So, while cotton itself is compostable, many cotton products are not.

Does Cotton Make Good Insulation?

Yes. Building insulation made from recycled cotton fiber is becoming popular for green building projects.

It has a high R-value and is also non-toxic (providing a natural flame retardant is used).

What Is A Cotton Gin?

A cotton gin is a machine that helps to remove the cotton from the seeds. Eli Whitney invented this machine in 1793, revolutionizing the cotton industry.

Cotton gins are still used today, and they help make the process of removing the cotton from the seeds much faster and easier.

The Final Word

So…is cotton a renewable and sustainable resource?

While conventional cotton is renewable (if you plant an old cotton seed, a new cotton plant will grow), it’s not sustainable due to the immense strain it puts on the planet’s natural resources.

Cotton has the potential to be an excellent sustainable, renewable, and biodegradable fabric. However, the demands of consumers, the textile industry, and fast fashion brands for cheap fabric have driven manufacturers into using unsustainable, cheaper processes.

However, some of the alternatives I’ve discussed in the article are, without a doubt, sustainable.

Wherever possible, steer clear of conventional cotton and instead go for organic or recycled cotton that uses less raw materials and natural resources. Or, maybe even consider ditching cotton altogether and experimenting with different sustainable fabrics.

I hope this article has provided some clarity on what can quickly become a very confusing topic!

Get In Touch

Are you happy buying conventional cotton? Or are you already a convert to more sustainable alternatives? Drop me a line and let me know.

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Stephanie Cole
Stephanie Cole
With her Master of Science in Renewable Energy Engineering (MSREE) from Oregon Tech, Steph is supremely well qualified to write on all aspects of sustainable living. She has already achieved a zero carbon footprint and her goal is to help as many other people as possible do the same. Her other hobbies include music, yoga, swimming and horror movies. - As Seen On
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