Cotton from Field to Garment
It’s proven difficult to assess the full environmental impact of fashion, though there are clear signs that the sprawling industry has a part to play in climate change. According to the the United Nations, fashion’s complex supply chains and wasteful tendencies use up more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined. Additionally, the industry accounts for about 10% of global carbon emissions, 220 million tons of which come from the 27 million tons of cotton produced around the world annually.
While cotton’s popularity has endured over time, the industry has also found itself entangled with controversy for its exploitation of the planet and people every step of the way– greatly contributing to fashion’s overall environmental impact. So how exactly does a crop which seems quite useful cause so much damage and what is the industry doing to change that?
Cotton usually begins its life in fields throughout the Southern US, China, and India. Before seeds are even planted the soil must be tested, fertilized, and often tilled. Often, fertilizers get lumped in with pesticides harming the makeup of the soil. However, when employed properly, organic and mineral fertilizers can increase yields while still benefiting the land.
Cotton is notoriously a thirsty crop and debate over which process– organic or conventional– uses the most water has been waging for years. Vogue Australia aimed to clear things up, explaining that “According to a 2017 report by the Textiles Exchange, organic cotton uses 91 per cent less ‘blue’ water (from groundwater and surface-water bodies, such as freshwater lakes and rivers) than conventional cotton.” This means that most organic cotton is grown with rainwater, instead of irrigated, which lowers its overall impact.
However, some experts have argued that organic cotton takes more water to grow because it produces lower yields, requiring more land and resources. The same Textiles Exchange report claims that conventional cotton uses nearly 2,000 more gallons of water than organic cotton to make a t-shirt. However, Quartz reported in 2017 that recent data from Cotton Inc. found that an organic cotton t-shirt would require 660 gallons of water, while a conventional cotton product would only use 290 gallons. Regardless of which type of cotton conserves the most water, all of these numbers are alarming when coupled with the fact that, as of last year, 1 in 3 people globally do not have access to safe drinking water. The cotton industry as a whole is using up an obscene amount of water.
Pesticides present another environmental and health hazard– specifically within conventional cotton farming. According to The World Counts, conventional cotton farming accounts for 16% of all insecticides and 7% of all herbicides used worldwide -over $2 billion is spent on pesticides in the U.S. each year. Pesticides and synthetic fertilizers contain a myriad of toxic chemicals deemed hazardous by the World Health Organization, including nitrous oxide, a chemical compound that is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Organic farmers are able to avoid this dirty work by growing multiple crops (“polycropping”). The technique can reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides– enhancing the soil health and greatly reducing water pollution.
Conventional or organic, lets skim through the harvest mechanics. In the case of conventional cotton, mechanized cotton pickers pull the fiber from the plant, which is packed into bale-like units and sent to the gin. Ginning is the process which mechanically separates the cotton fiber from the seed. The fiber, or “lint”, is then sent to textile mills or exported depending on the farm.
At the mills, the lint is cleaned and carded– a process which combines and pulls the fibers together to create one length. The stretched fibers, or “slivers”, are then combed via machine to remove any debris or impurities. then slivers are twisted and drawn together into yarn which is fed into a loom to be woven into fabric.
While some small cooperatives around the world still use handlooms, most natural textile weaving is done by machine for efficiency. According to the Ecotextiles blog, “There is no dramatic difference in the amount of energy needed to weave fibers into fabric depending on fiber type. The processing is generally the same whether the fiber is nylon, cotton, hemp, wool or polyester.”
Before the cotton fabric can be cut and sewn into a garment, the material must be treated. Conventional methods will first use a slew of chemicals, heat and bleach to further clean the cloth. To make sure dyed color lasts on the fabric or to achieve the basic-white-tee look most consumers know well, the unfinished material must be bleached.
This stage involves large amounts of energy, water and waste though it’s hard to pin down exactly how much, as each producer uses a different combination of finishing techniques. Transparent brands have trustworthy certifications for their finished products. For example the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) ensures that companies follow strict guidelines from fiber to finish. This includes the banning of chlorine bleaching, toxic heavy metals and formaldehyde as well as proper water management and wastewater treatment.
From information published in a 2005 study conducted by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the average carbon footprint of US organic cotton was 60% less than the footprint of conventional cotton grown in the US. The footprint of organic cotton grown in India was somewhat higher, and this information doesn’t account for the cotton production giant that is China.
The cotton industry has surely changed in the last 15 years, and conclusive evidence for or against organic cotton remains elusive, but organizations like GOTS and the Better Cotton Initiative are working hard to ensure processes which result in minimal environmental damage and proper care for people along the supply chain. With data being gathered and disseminated by these organizations, producers and consumers have the opportunity to create a safer cotton industry. We’re entering a new era of organic cotton, one which is more inclusive, smarter and stronger.