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’s 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!
The basic process of cotton cultivation is a simple one and has been around in some form or another since approximately 5,000 BC:
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
From field to factory to our wardrobes, organic cotton is much more sustainable than traditional cotton for several reasons:
You can find organic cotton used in covers and linings in various eco-friendly products, including organic and sustainable mattresses, organic crib mattresses, organic mattress toppers, wool comforters, natural pillows, and many more.
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:
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 is when existing cotton fabric (clothes, towels, bedding, etc.) 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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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. But, 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!
Are you happy buying conventional cotton? Or are you already a convert to more sustainable alternatives? Drop me a line and let me know.