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HOW SUSTAINABLE IS THE COTTON YOU WEAR?

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November, 20th 2020

We often link sustainability with plant-based materials but can cotton be considered as the most sustainable textile alternative? Not quite…

Words By Hillary Campos Ribeiro

The quality of the fabric our clothes are made from enables us to express what values we hold about fashion sustainability. For me, comfort is the inherent association one makes when thinking of cotton. Although its cultivation has existed for more than 7,000 years, its exact origins of cotton are yet to be discovered.

The production of fibers and textiles causes a negative impact not only on people but also on the environment. Cotton can be as harmful as synthetic materials if not grown sustainably. Therefore it is an important topic to discuss. How is cotton produced and how can it be produced sustainably?

Ecological and social principles are key factors to be taken into account when the topic of sustainable choices is addressed. In many countries, a high quantity of harmful chemicals is used in the conventional farming process of cotton crops, which directly accounts for 16% of all pesticide use around the world. A soft cotton garment might look simple to our eyes, yet it does not mean it is created without major environmental damage.

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Four organizations with expertise in organic fiber farming make up The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which sets out the world’s main processing standard for textiles made from organic fibers. The main goal behind GOTS is to achieve a worldwide trustworthy standard by strongly committing to environmental and social criteria. When a minimum of 70% of the fibers is organic – only then it becomes GOTS certified.

To obtain a respected and well-known certification, the organic cotton produced has to meet ecological standards that set out the processing and manufacturing criteria. To provide a reliably sustainable product, encompassing all aspects of production from harvesting and trading to the final stage of distribution, the label must ensure that universal standards are met. The four organizations from GOTS agree that a global standard has to be created using clear criteria. The global standard is set to assess the production of yarn, fabrics, clothes, and home textiles, but does not include leather.

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There are two different standards that a label can achieve in the production of its fibers: ‘Organic’ stands for a minimum of 95% certified organic fibers, whilst ‘Made with organic’ contains a minimum of 70%. It is unlikely to cross one’s mind that the manufacturing process of cotton is not as simple as the final product being sold as a t-shirt on the shelves, ready to be worn.

There are two key rigorous criteria that make up the global production and manufacturing standards. Firstly, the environmental criteria identifies and evaluates the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and agricultural chemical inputs such as toxic heavy metals. If they are present the label will not meet the criteria and subsequent standards. In addition, the label must follow an environmental policy in order to lower the negative impacts of water waste and secretion of unwanted residues. Secondly, the social criteria is based on the key principles of The International Labour Organisation (LBO) that must be met in the production and manufacturing process .

Making the conscious decision to switch from conventional to organic cotton is an important step to take in addressing our impact on our health and our environmental health.