Sustainable Fashion: Organic Cotton

Rozie Apps
Tuesday, 9th September 2014

Permaculture provides solutions to sustainable living, whether it is food, energy, housing or economics. One industry that needs to become more sustainable is the clothing industry. Organic cotton is one solution.

Clothing is a huge part of our daily lives. The vast majority of us wear clothes everyday. It keeps us warm in the cold winter months, dry in the rain and cool on warm days.

For many it is not just a necessity, it is a statement of personality.

Clothing is also, in majority, an unsustainable and unecological industry. The harvesting of materials devastates ecosystems, the production process pollutes environments and uses slave labour, and the final product soon becomes a throw away item. 

It will take time and a huge amount of work but it is vital that this industry evolves. Luckily, there are various organisations already leading the way and there are alternatives to the cheap, unethical and ecologically damaging garments on the high street.

With this in mind, we are launching a series of articles exploring the problems and solutions that the clothing industry need to explore/face up to. 

This first article looks at organic cotton, an alternative ethical and environmentally friendly material.

What is Cotton?

Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is a soft, fluffy staple fibre that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants. The plant is a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including the Americas, Africa, and India. The fibre most often is spun into yarn or thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile, which is the most widely used natural-fibre cloth in clothing today.

According to the Eden Project's website, "Cotton is the world’s biggest non-food crop and makes half of the world’s textiles, explosives, oil, cattle food, toothpaste. It has survived competition from synthetics but at the expense of heavy fertiliser and pesticide use and its shocking history of labour exploitation."

"More chemicals are sprayed on cotton than on any other crop. Today cotton takes up less than 3% of the world’s farmed land but uses a quarter of the world’s pesticides! Newer safer chemicals have been developed, but they cost more. So, cheaper, more toxic chemicals are used in developing countries, causing about 20,000 unintentional deaths a year." (Visit www.edenproject.com to find out more about cotton.)

The cotton industry helped finance the British Empire and played an enormous part in the slave trade.

Through toxic chemicals and terrible working conditions, the cotton industry has always been destructive, which is why it is so important to make changes in terms of how it operates.

"In the USA alone, an estimated 800 million pounds of pesticides are used on cotton each year. In addition, conventional cotton textile manufacturing involves bleaches, formaldehyde, and other chemical finishes, as well as other chemical processes. Almost 1/3 pound of synthetic chemicals is utilized for each pound of conventional cotton. Traces of these chemicals remain in the finished product, even after repeat washings. The chemicals used to grow conventional cotton may have serious adverse effects on human health and the environment," Fibre2Fashion.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is a more positive and sustainable alternative. It is made from non-genetically modified plants that are grown without the use of any synthetic agricultural chemicals such as fertilisers or pesticides. This makes it better for the environment, the climate and the health of the people involved.

Instead of using fertilisers, farmers will either: use organic sprays such as garlic, chillies and soap that get rid of the wrong insects without affecting the good ones; or they will companion plant, using other species inbetween the cotton to deter and confuse pests. Many cotton pests prefer maize, sunflower, sweet sorghum, pigeon pea and ocra to cotton, so these are used as trap crops, keeping pests away from the cotton plants. The Textile Exchange have an indepth guide to companion, decoy and trap crops that can be used against various different pests. To find out more visit HERE.

According to Fibre2Fashion, "Organic Cotton is buttery-soft, and gets even softer with each washing. It's stronger and more durable than most other fabrics. Color-grown cotton (un-dyed) actually gets bolder in colour over time. Organic Cotton is a better long-term value than other fabrics and the future."

Unfortunately, less than 0.1% of global cotton production is organic.

According to Textile Exchange's annual report, in 2012, 138,813 million tonnes of organic cotton was produced, with 74% grown in India. There were 214,905 recorded farmers across 18 countries. For more stats on organic cotton and the countries growing it, visit HERE.

Why organic?

Organic cotton is not only softer on your skin, but it has huge positive environmental impacts too.

Without the use of pesticides, beneficial insects remain in the ecosystem, biodiversity is conserved, soil has higher organic matter content which prevents soil erosion, and any water run-off is safe from chemicals which protects surrounding plants, waterways and therefore anyone who uses that water. It is also safer for the farmers, who are not breathing in or digesting harmful pesticides and herbicides.

Organic cotton provides high quality products that are soft and breathable - much kinder to the skin.

Creating Biodiversity 

In large plantations of standard cotton, there isn't a wide variety of plant species. This affects the variety of insect and animal species; instead of nature balancing out populations in a varied food chain, a monoculture exists that allows pests to thrive. Standard cotton farming techniques involve spraying quantities of synthetic chemical pesticides on the crop to keep pests under control.

Organic cotton production involves replacing the synthetic pesticides and fertilisers with natural ones, then using crop rotation and mixed planting to encourage biodiversity (permaculture in action).

Carbon Footprint of Organic Cotton

Nitrogen fertiliser is a source of emissions in conventional textile crop farming. To produce just 1 tonne takes 1 tonne of oil, 7 tonnes of greenhouse gasses and 100 tonnes of water. Organic farmers work with nature to feed the soil and control pests. By choosing organic, local and seasonal, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint.

The Soil Association have certain criteria to be met, stating: "Our standards ensure that the chemicals used in processing textiles meet strict requirements on toxicity and biodegradability, and textile manufacturers must also have a waste water treatment plant and a sound environmental policy. In contrast non-organic manufacture uses tens of thousands of acutely toxic chemicals, including heavy metals, formaldehyde and aromatic solvent, many of which are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and have been associated with cancer, birth defects and hormonal and reproductive effects in wildlife and humans." (www.soilassociation.org)

Water Conservation

Cotton is a thirsty plant, needing 20,000 litres of water per kilogram to grow; provided by irrigation. Our friends at Rapanui, grow their cotton in a valley in India, where monsoon rains provide 95% of the water needed to grow the plant. The water conservation ethos extends to the factory where a closed loop system filters and reuses 93% of all the waste water in the dyeing stage. A vast improvement on past efforts to service cotton fields, like the Aral Sea disaster.

Labour ethics and organic cotton

The conventional cotton industry is known for using forced and child labour in poor working conditions for unacceptable pay. This is another negative aspect of the industry. However, ethical labour is becoming part of several organic cotton certification bodies audits which is a step in the right direction. There is obviously the Fairtrade network that helps provide farmers with a fair wage but this doesn't always mean the farmed product is organic, and this doesn't focus on the labourers and factory workers who turn the cotton or other material into its sellable garment.

The Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) has taken on this challenge, working with 80 member companies, across 120 brands, to improve labour conditions in factories across the globe. Currently FWF are active in 15 countries across Asia, Europe and Africa where garments are made. FWF have an affiliates scheme and ambassador scheme to enable companies involved in various stages of the clothing industry to make changes. These can be in the production of the clothing or distribution.

Permaculture clothing

Permaculture magazine have teamed up with Rapanui, an ethical UK based clothing company, to launch its very own permaculture clothing range (alongside other select items). Rapanui produce beautiful t-shirts and sweaters that a comfortable as well as artistic, using organic cotton, bamboo and eucalyptus. Rapanui also use safe dyes, sustainable materials and source their products from factories that follow the Fair Wear principles. We feel strongly about sustainable fashion and know our readers do too… It's great to have companies like Rapanui out there already designing and making the changes needed available.

Next time, we will be looking at bamboo as an alternative material. 

Rozie Apps is assistant editor of Permaculture magazine.

Further resources

How to have a green wedding

Born to be worn, not stitched to be ditched

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle for just £4.95

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