Model twins Brett and Scott Staniland talk organic cotton, and why it might not be the answer for ethical fashion
Published: 3 September 2021
This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod
This article first appeared in our ‘Why organic is the answer’ issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 03 September 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
Cotton, estimated to make up 33-40% of global textile production, is the most widely used fibre in the fashion industry. It’s used in denim, flannel, canvas and many other fabrics, for everything from dresses to comfy sweats and jeans.
The problem? Cotton is thirsty! In fact, it’s one of the world’s most water-intensive plants.
Studies suggest that 2,000-3,000 litres of water are required to produce the cotton required for just one T-shirt.
Another issue with conventional cotton is the way in which it’s grown: cotton farming is responsible for 16% of all insecticide use. These chemicals can harm the environment in many ways; they contaminate water sources, poison farmers, harm animals and transform into greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are a lot more dangerous than CO2!
Crops also develop a resistance to pesticides, meaning more are required and therefore more are produced.
Is organic cotton the answer?
Organic cotton, which accounts for less than 1% of all cotton production, is not grown using synthetic pesticides or insecticides and is not genetically modified.
However, the natural pesticides used for organic cotton may not be a foolproof solution; they can also be harmful and, if less effective than chemical versions, used in greater quantities.
Another issue with organic cotton is around yields, which speaks to our consumption issues! Due to its genetically enhanced features, farmers can grow more conventional cotton in a smaller area; more land and plants would be required to grow the same quantity of organic cotton. As a result organic cotton requires even greater volumes of water.
It is worth noting that water isn’t really ‘used’; depending on the water system it can be ‘borrowed’ and reused, so long as it’s not contaminated, or come from rain water.
ALTERNATIVES TO COTTON
Certified organic European flax linen is naturally resistant to bugs; it needs no pesticides and minimal fertiliser. It is not genetically modified and doesn’t require irrigation or defoliants, creating a ‘zero waste’ aspect. Grown in France, the Netherlands and Belgium, it doesn’t have to travel as far, either! It can be used in many garments and, of course, in bedding and upholstery.
Don’t be mistaken: your clothes won’t get you high. Hemp is technically a weed – and it grows like one! It requires far less water than cotton, grows quickly and naturally resists insects. Hemp is also a regenerative plant, which enriches the soil rather than depleting it. The fibres are long, strong, durable and biodegradable.
Bamboo can be harvested without killing the plant and is one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth. It also consumes more CO2 than trees and can survive on rainfall alone. Be sure to look out for the ‘organic raw bamboo’ label as some other forms are treated using toxic chemicals, or are semi-synthetic versions with rayon/viscose.
With cotton farms mostly situated in tropical and subtropical environments there’s a heavy dependence on irrigation, which brings its own issues.
This is all before we consider the distance cotton travels before ending up in our wardrobes. It’s far.
Slow it down
While organic and non-virgin cotton is the way to go for now, we must question why we are so dependent on this one material.
It might be soft, durable and breathable, but surely there are less impactful alternatives. We’ve highlighted a few we feel are worth a look (see below).
The bottom line is shop less, but better – and buy non-virgin materials wherever possible. Slow it down!