Cotton is one of the most commonly used textiles worldwide. But conventional cotton farming practices raise environmental concerns. This has led to the growth of sustainable cotton – cotton grown using methods that are better for people, communities and the planet. Below you’ll find a comprehensive guide explaining exactly what sustainable cotton is and why it matters.
What is Sustainable Cotton?
Sustainable cotton refers to cotton grown and harvested using farming methods that aim to reduce the harmful impacts of conventional cotton agriculture. This includes minimizing synthetic chemical usage, protecting water supplies, improving soil health, and fostering fair labor practices.
Sustainable cotton meets the present cotton demands of the apparel and textile industries while preserving resources and ensuring ecological stewardship to keep producing cotton responsibly into the future.
Problems with Conventional Cotton Farming
Globally, cotton covers 2.5% of cultivated land but uses 16% of insecticides and 7% of herbicides applied worldwide. Concerns with standard intensive cotton farming practices include:
- Heavy use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that pollute air and waterways
- Overuse of water resources through irrigation and draining of rivers and lakes
- Soil erosion and reduced future crop yields from nutrient depletion
- Health concerns for farmers exposed to chemicals
- Low wages for farm workers and forced child labor in developing countries
- Loss of biodiversity as diverse ecosystems are converted to cotton monocrops
These detrimental impacts drove the need for more holistic and ethical cotton cultivation methods.
Key Features of Sustainable Cotton
Sustainable cotton production aims to remedy the concerns of conventional cotton growing through these core practices:
Organic cotton is grown without any synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. Natural compost feeds the soil. Weeds are managed mechanically versus by herbicides. Insects are controlled using natural predators, traps and organic pesticides.
Sustainable cotton farming emphasizes water conservation through precision irrigation methods like drip irrigation, moisture probes and rainwater harvesting so local water tables aren’t depleted.
Improved Soil Health
rotating diverse crops, reduced tilling, and planting cover crops preserves nutrients and organic matter. This combats erosion and nourishes the soil.
Fair Labor Practices
Certified sustainable cotton prohibits forced or exploitative labor. Farmers receive fair pay and work in ethical conditions. Child labor is illegal.
Reduced Chemical Use
Synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use is reduced through integrated pest management and slower-releasing natural soil amendments.
Preserving natural habitat and biodiversity is prioritized. This supports pollinators and other wildlife.
Types of Sustainable Cotton Certifications
Several major organizations provide certification programs to verify cotton is grown sustainably:
Certified by organizations like the Global Organic Textile Standard, USDA Organic and OCS 100 Standard. Ensures cotton is produced without any synthetic chemicals.
Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) Cotton
The largest global standard, licensing cotton grown via improved environmental and fair labor practices. Farmers get training and support transitioning to more sustainable methods.
Fair Trade Cotton
Certifies cotton grown by farmers meeting fair labor standards including no child or forced labor and guaranteed minimum pricing. Focuses on ethics and community investment.
Cotton made in Africa (CmiA)
Certification verifying African cotton is sustainably grown to alleviate poverty through training and direct sales opportunities.
Include Cotton LEADS, Sustainable Cotton Project, Ecofarmer Cooperative and dozens more regional initiatives. Varying criteria help shift cotton production towards sustainability.
Pros of Sustainable Cotton
Pivoting to sustainable cotton growing provides many benefits:
- Preserves and regenerates soil health, water supplies and farmer livelihoods
- Sequesters carbon through measures like reduced tilling
- Protects human rights of workers and avoids unethical labor exploitation
- Safeguards diverse ecosystems and organisms that support agriculture
- Reduces contributor to climate change by limiting chemical usage
- Allows cotton growing to responsibly meet global textile demands
- Responds to conscious consumer demand for eco-friendly materials
Sustainable cotton offers positives throughout the supply chain – from crop to final garment.
Environmental Impact of Sustainable Cotton
Specific environmental advantages of sustainable versus conventional cotton include:
- Uses up to 91% less water through precision irrigation compared to overhead watering of fields.
- When organic, eliminates hazardous synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use that pollutes local water sources.
- Organic practices increase soil biodiversity on average by 30% over conventional cotton soil.
- Better Cotton Initiative farmers reduced fertilizer use by 20% over five years.
- Promotes land stewardship so acreage remains productive for future generations.
Cost and Availability of Sustainable Cotton
As demand increases along with efficiencies of scale, sustainable cotton pricing is nearing parity with conventional cotton:
- In 2007, sustainable cotton averaged 145 cents per pound versus 61 cents per pound for generic cotton.
- By 2020, sustainable cotton dropped to an average of just 105 cents per pound – approaching conventional cotton’s 85 cent average.
- Farmers receive price premiums around 10-15% for following sustainable practices.
- Brands now routinely blend sustainable cotton into mainstream apparel lines at minimally higher price points.
- Sales of sustainable cotton quadrupled between 2010 and 2020 as programs scaled up. It now represents close to 30% of global cotton production.
- By 2025, Better Cotton forecasts they will produce 5.5 million metric tons sustainable cotton annually – 45% of global output.
While margins still exist, sustainable cotton is rapidly going mainstream.
What is Sustainable Cotton Clothing?
Clothing items labeled as made from sustainable cotton mean the cotton was grown through verified responsible farming practices like:
- Organic cotton cultivation without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
- Fair trade sourcing ensuring farmer protections and labor rights
- Water-saving irrigation technologies protecting local water tables
- Third party audits validating and tracing sustainability measures
- Supporting programs that train farmers on regenerative techniques
Apparel made from sustainable cotton benefits the environment and communities while meeting modern textile needs.
Sustainably Sourced Cotton versus Organic Cotton
Is all sustainable cotton also organic? Not necessarily. The terms refer to related but distinct concepts:
Sustainably Sourced Cotton
Focuses on responsibly farming cotton via measures like water conservation, fair labor practices and reduced chemical usage – but doesn’t prohibit all pesticides/fertilizers.
Takes sustainable practices a step further requiring cotton grows 100% organically without any synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or GMOs.
Many sustainably produced cottons are not fully organic. But organic cotton takes sustainable farming to the highest level of environmental stewardship. Cotton can be both sustainable AND organic.
Common Questions About Sustainable Cotton
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:
Is organic cotton actually better for the environment?
Yes, studies show cotton grown organically via USDA Organic standards uses far less energy, emits fewer greenhouse gases and contains no chemical residues – making it better for ecological and human health.
Does organic cotton feel different than regular cotton?
No – to the hand and wearer organic cotton feels identically soft and comfortable to conventionally grown cotton. The sustainable origins make the main difference.
Is organic cotton sweatshop free?
Certified organic cotton prohibits exploitative labor practices under fair trade standards. However, sweatshops sadly still exist in some conventional cotton textile manufacturing facilities.
Is organic cotton more expensive?
In the past organic cotton carried about a 10-15% price premium. But as production scales up, the cost is nearly identical today to conventionally grown cotton.
How do you know if cotton is sustainable?
Look for credible third-party certifications like GOTS, OCS, BCI and CmiA on clothing labels, along with organic and fair trade designations. Research brands’ commitments as well.
The Future of Sustainable Cotton
By responding to consumer demand and innovating more holistic practices, sustainable cotton will steadily become the norm. As standards continue improving and costs decreasing, sustainable cotton has the potential to transform the industry and become simply “cotton grown right.” Prioritizing people, planet and ethics makes cotton production viable and bright for generations to come.