When it comes to fashion, there's one material that's got everyone in a bit of a tizzy: cotton. On one hand, it's been slammed for being environmentally damaging, pesticide-heavy, and water-guzzling. But on the other hand, slow fashion brands are celebrating organic cotton for being eco-friendly, fair, and biodegradable. At SANVT, we use certified organic cotton and are always on the lookout for ways to improve our sustainability game. So, we asked ourselves the million-dollar question: how sustainable is cotton, really?
We've all heard the horror stories about cotton. Whether it's the pesticide use, the water consumption, the genetically modified cotton, the impact on biodiversity, or the unfair labor practices: conventional cotton doesn't exactly have the best rep in the fashion world. And yet, organic cotton remains one of the main materials used by sustainable fashion brands, including SANVT. So, we're taking a closer look at how sustainable organic cotton really is compared to conventional cotton, examining the water usage, pesticide use, energy consumption, and labour practices.
If you're interested in learning about the history, politics, and trade of cotton, check out this article.
Cotton vs. Organic Cotton
How is it possible that organic cotton is so much better for the environment than conventional cotton? After all it's the same biodegradable natural fibre, just grown and produced differently, right? But that's exactly where the big difference lies. Sustainable and organic cotton is grown only using ecological farming methods, without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. In contrast to conventional cotton, which is intensively cultivated, the cultivation and harvesting of sustainable organic cotton is regenerative. This saves water, pesticides, and energy, protecting not only the environment, but also the people involved.
A study by Textile Exchange shows that conventional cotton cultivation requires an average of 2,700 litres of water per t-shirt. In comparison, organic cotton cultivation requires an average of only 1,100 litres of water per t-shirt, reducing the use of drinking water by more than half. However, almost more important than water consumption during cultivation is a closed water cycle in the subsequent production stages. This prevents contaminated water (e.g., after dyeing) from flowing back into the environment. At SANVT, we only work with facilities that have closed water cycles, recycling 99.9% of wastewater and promoting a more responsible use of valuable drinking water.
According to the Organic Cotton Market Report by Textile Exchange, 143,000 tons of pesticides were used on cotton fields worldwide in 2019 – most of them used in India, China, and the USA. And these pesticides not only harm the environment and biodiversity but also the health of cotton farmers. In contrast, synthetic pesticides are not used in the production and cultivation of organic cotton at all – a total game changer when it comes to the ecological footprint of cotton.
Energy Consumption & CO2 Emissions
Although there are no clear studies and statistics that directly compare the energy consumption of organic cotton and conventional cotton, it is implicit that the cultivation of organic cotton consumes significantly less energy due to the absence of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and the use of ecological farming methods. Sustainable brands also tend to focus on shorter transportation routes, green energy in factories, and the general reduction of resources and energy.
At SANVT, we aim to minimise our CO2 emissions and environmental impact in every possible way. From using eco-friendly packaging to working with certified organic cotton and recycling 99.9% of wastewater in our production process, we're committed to making sustainable fashion the norm rather than the exception. We worked with external experts to analyse and optimise our supply chain's environmental impact, and we're proud to say that the production of our perfect GOTS-certified organic cotton t-shirt only generates about 5kg of CO2 on average – by now, we've even managed to reduce that to 3.4kg! That's already 50% less than conventionally produced clothing. And on top of that, we offset the unavoidable CO2 emissions through local reforestation projects – making SANVT carbon-neutral.
When it comes to working conditions, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) reported that around 2.4 million people worked in the cotton industry in 2020. BCI has developed standards for working conditions in cotton production to ensure that they're fair and safe. There are also other organic cotton initiatives, like the Fairtrade Certified Cotton Initiative, that have developed similar standards to ensure fair and safe working conditions for farmers and workers. Another certification to look out for is GOTS, which checks both the organic quality and social factors throughout the entire production chain. We therefore always recommend buying certified cotton products to ensure that your standards and requirements for sustainability and fairness are met.
And if you want to learn more about the benefits of organic cotton compared to conventional cotton, check it out here.
Organic Cotton vs. Other Sustainable Materials
Unlike many other sustainable materials such as linen, hemp, bamboo, or innovative fabrics like Econyl, high-quality organic cotton is extremely soft, resistant, and durable. The comfort and breathability of cotton still exceeds the qualities and properties of many other sustainable materials. That's why sustainable fashion brands, including SANVT, still love and frequently use organic cotton. Because sustainability also means quality and durability!
Learn more about the best sustainable fabrics besides organic cotton here.
Conclusion: How Sustainable is Cotton?
Although sustainable cotton performs so much better in terms of its environmental impact, the market share of organic cotton compared to conventional cotton is still very low. However, with the growing awareness of consumers, the proportion of organic cotton is steadily increasing. According to the Organic Cotton Market Report by Textile Exchange, the share of organic cotton in global cotton production in 2020 was about 0.8% – representing a 31% increase from the previous year. And as we all know, demand drives supply. So it is also up people to buy more organic cotton products and support sustainable brands and initiatives to make the cotton production and fashion industry more sustainable.
By the way, you can learn more about how cotton has become more sustainable in the last 20 years here.