Cotton has many advantages over other fabrics. It’s now found in everything from bed sheets to biofuels, currency to cattle food. We’ve been using it for over 6000 years and there’s a lot of good reasons why. But what are the pros and cons of cotton that make it so perfect for clothes?
The benefits of this versatile material are many, meaning we are not likely to give it up anytime soon. Cotton clothes have the advantage of being soft and comfortable, durable while breathable. It is a natural fibre that can be produced on a large enough scale to clothe millions around the globe whilst still being affordable and accessible. But cotton does have significant disadvantages that you should be aware of.
This is a simple list of 10 pros and 9 cons of wearing cotton.
There are many advantages of cotton, these include:
Cotton is a true all weather fabric - its fibre structure keeps you cool in the summer whilst providing a layer of added insulation in the winter.
Unlike synthetic fibres such as nylon, polyester or acrylic, cotton doesn’t release microplastics when it’s washed. This is because it is a natural fibre rather than one made from petrochemicals.
There is a reason cotton has been worn for thousands of years. It’s soft, comfortable and breathable, making it perfect for everything from underwear to jackets.
Cotton is an incredibly versatile material that can be used in anything from silky soft dresses to stiffer smart shirts. Cotton can be woven at a variety of thicknesses to alter its strength, warmth and feel. There are thousands of different kinds of cotton, here are a few that you might have heard of; denim, suede, corduroy, chino, jersey, poplin.
One of the advantages of growing cotton is that none of the plant is wasted. The cotton seeds can be used to feed animals or to create cottonseed oil and the stalks are tilled back into the soil after harvest. The entire cotton plant can be used to produce a number of different products.
Cotton is a natural fibre grown from cotton plants that are planted in the spring and harvested in autumn. It takes around five to six months from planting the crop to harvest.
One of the things that makes cotton special is its strength. In fact, when cotton gets wet it is actually stronger, which is the opposite of most cellulose fibres such as rayon (wood pulp). This means you can let your washing machine do the work without worrying about your clothes losing their shape. It also helps your clothes last longer, the key to any sustainable wardrobe.
Cotton fabrics have long been recommended for those with sensitive skin. The fabric does not cause skin allergies which is the reason it’s used in bandages and gauze. If possible, to avoid unnecessary chemicals and it’s always best to opt for organic cotton.
As a natural material, cotton is 100% biodegradable and compostable. Untreated cotton fabric typically breaks down in under 6 months, however cotton blends or treated cotton can take a little longer.
Modern farming techniques, particularly in the US have made cotton more sustainable through improvements in efficiency. Figures vary depending on the source, but one study states that between 1980 and 2015 in America:
There are a number of disadvantages of cotton, especially for anyone concerned about sustainability. Here are 9 cons of wearing cotton clothing:
You may have noticed that some brightly coloured cotton clothes seem to fade over time. This is because cotton doesn’t hold dye particularly well. An example of a better fabric which retains its colour would be tencel.
We’ve all done it before, turned a white top pink by adding something red to the wash. One of the bad things about cotton is that it can bleed when washed due to the fact it does not hold dye well. To avoid this, wash colours separately, use a colour catcher and wash on a more gentle cycle. We’ve written more tips on how to make your clothes last longer here.
No one is a fan of creased clothes, especially if you are like me and hate ironing. Unfortunately cotton has the disadvantage of wrinkling easily and will need more time to iron out creases compared to bamboo, modal or tencel.
To own a sustainable wardrobe you should avoid washing your clothes at high temperatures, but hot washes can also shrink your clothes. Cotton shrinks by up to 3%, so avoid hot temperature washes to retain the shape of your new top. Always follow the care instructions on the label if in doubt.
Yes, we said it, cotton is not sustainable. Although cotton is a natural material, cotton is not sustainable. In the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres, cotton is classed as an E grade fabric which is the lowest grade in this sustainability ranking. In comparison organic cotton is a B grade, the second highest ranking. We’ve written about the true impact of cotton here.
Conventional cotton is grown using a lot of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. In fact, cotton is one of the most chemically dependent crops grown across the globe today, covering just 2.4% of agricultural land but using 5.7% of all global pesticides and 16.1% of insecticides. These chemicals pollute local environments, poison those who grow it, and many of the chemicals can remain in your clothes after they are produced. Read about the chemicals used to grow cotton here.
Is cotton a thirsty crop?A very common question, but what does this actually mean?
One of thebad things about cottonis that it takes between 10,000-20,000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of cotton, which is roughly the amount needed to make your favourite T-shirt and jeans. Cotton is often grown in areas prone to drought, placing enormous water pressure on local populations which are already at risk.
Cotton can have major disadvantages for those who grow it despite providing them with an income. In India almost half a million children are employed in the cotton industry, they will sadly never experience a proper childhood nor a normal education. Similarly cotton has been linked to forced labour camps in China, so make sure to source ethically made cotton by looking for labels such as Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or the Fair Wear Foundation.
During the growth and production of cotton fabrics thousands of chemicals are added (we have listed the worst offenders here). These can range in toxicity and some do wash out quickly, but other chemicals remain in the fibre for the lifetime of the material. In comparison, organic cotton does not contain these harsh chemicals.
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