PART 2 - WHAT CAN YOU DO TO REDUCE THE NEGATIVE IMPACT OF COTTON
In the previous post I outlined some of the negative impacts that cotton production has on the environment as well as on farmers and garment workers’ lives and health. And remember, cotton t-shirt is just an example here, in fact about 25% of all out clothes are made from cotton like jeans, shirts, socks and undergarments for example. Cotton is the most important natural fiber used in textiles, so changing the entire process of farming and production will require some time and serious steps from the world’s governments and industry stakeholders. But what can we, consumers, do today to help accelerate these changes? Here are a few things that we can certainly and easily do to make a difference!
1. ORGANIC COTTON
Organic cotton is produced according to organic farming standards, which does not allow the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and GMO seeds. Organic cotton has significant environmental benefits: it is less harmful to the soil and groundwater than conventional cotton, since it doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers, and it encourages diversified crop farming which in turn fosters biodiversity. It uses significantly less water, because it is often rainfed instead of irrigated, and less energy than conventional cotton (according to Textile Exchange LCA on organic cotton, it uses 88% less water and 62% less energy*, but other reports may show different numbers). It has greater social and economic benefits: farmers are not exposed to chemicals, they produce different food crops as part of crop diversification, which improves their food security and provides additional income. These farmers have to undergo organic practices and quality management trainings, so they are often well supported by international organizations and implement Fairtrade work policies. Almost all organic cotton producers encourage women farmers, unlike in conventional cotton where they are prevented from participating due to the high risks of hazardous chemicals handling. Therefore, more women farmers especially in developing countries get access to trainings and can get their financial income and independence. Today, organic cotton still only accounts for less than 1% of all cotton production, but global demand is growing and is expected to increase significantly over the next years. To ensure you are indeed buying organic, look for these labels when buying you t-shirt: GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) – also certifies that there was no hazardous chemicals used in the fabric dying process, or OCS (Organic Content Standards) as well as FAIRTRADE – this certification not only ensures positive impact on people but also on the environment as it doesn’t allow the use of GMO seeds. To learn more about these and other certifications and standards go to my “sustainable certifications” guide.
2. RECYCLED COTTON
This is another good option, since it is made from used garments and textile leftovers, therefore helps reduce overall fashion industry waste. Recycling technologies are still in their development stages though with many challenges and limitations, they don’t always produce best quality yarn. But if you chose to buy recycled cotton item, look for these labels: GRS (Global Recycled Standard) RCS (Recycled Claim Standard) to ensure it is truly made from recycled fiber. Evrnu company from the US believes that creating a new fiber out of discarded textiles including cotton over and over again without losing its qualities is possible. They have developed a unique technology called NuCycl that literally extracts the molecular building blocks of the original fiber (cellulose in case of cotton) and creates a new fiber that has same if not better qualities as the original fiber! First garment prototypes made from this innovative yarn were a “cotton” hoodie in collaboration with Adidas X Stella McCartney and LEV’S iconic 511 jeans! The technology is not yet available to consumers, but the company is planning to implement Nucycl on a mass scale in the very near future. Meanwhile, you can already help by recycling your clothes with your local recycling facilities where possible.
3.OTHER MORE SUSTAINABLE FABRICS
Your t-shirt can be also made from other fabrics yet feel and wear almost same as a cotton t-shirt (if not better!). There are a few natural and semi-synthetic fibers with similar characteristics to cotton but a lot more sustainable as they don’t require nearly as much water and energy and far less or no chemicals to grow and make it. My favorites are LINEN (made from natural plant fiber which can grow easily even in poor soil) and LYOCELL (semi-synthetic fabric made of cellulose /wood pulp). I will write more in detail about cellulosic fabrics, so make sure you don’t miss my new posts!
4. CARING BETTER FOR COTHES
Caring for our clothes better can save a significant amount of water and energy. Technically, washing, drying and ironing one t-shirt over its lifetime consumes more energy than growing cotton and producing it. An average washing load requires about 150 litters (40 gallons) of water, and one load of drying uses 5 times more energy than a washing machine. If we avoid tumble drying and ironing all together, we help reduce our t-shirt’s carbon foot-print buy 1/3! If we all practice these simple steps, we can certainly achieve that:
- Wash less often, no really next time you are about to toss your t-shirt in the laundry bag, take another look or smell 🙂 , and make sure if it really needs a wash.
- Wash in cold water using cold-water detergent, don’t waste more energy needed for hot washing.
- Wash on a short cycle – do you really need to wash your cloth for 3 hours if 30 minutes can do the trick?
- Don’t use drying machine, if possible. Especially if you live in a house or have a balcony in your apartment, use a drying rack or make a clothesline in your backyard and line dry your t-shirts instead.
- Don’t bother ironing, if you line dry your cotton t-shirt it usually dries perfectly flat and doesn’t wrinkle, then hang it in your closet or fold it neatly in a drawer
So next time you want to buy another logo t-shirt like me (cuz I love them! 🙂) or any cotton clothing, please take a moment to look at the label and see where it was made, if it has a certified organic or recycled standard label, read a brand story on the hangtag if available. And then make a better choice by opting for organic or recycled cotton, buy from a brand that supports local cotton farmers and their families, provides education to their kids, a brand that offers transparency in their supply chain and adheres to Fairtrade standards.
And don’t forget the laundry tips!