We all wear cotton, but what is it really and which type of cotton is best?
Cotton forms a major part of our wardrobes, but chances are you don’t know all the details about cotton.
Yes, cotton is a natural fibre that grows from cotton plants, but cotton can still be bad for the environment. It requires a lot of chemicals to produce, and often involves poor working conditions for farmers. Don’t worry, cotton isn’t all bad. Yet there are many interesting facts about cotton you didn’t know that might make you consider other fabrics first.
This is particularly important if you are trying to dress more sustainably. Here we’ll review the facts you didn’t know about cotton, discovering what is cotton, which type is best, the history of cotton and why cotton is so bad.
Let’s start with a short intro, what is cotton exactly?
Cotton is a natural fibre that grows on cotton plants, small shrub-like bushes that are native to warmer climates in subtropical regions around the globe. The cotton you are familiar with is made of tens of thousands of small fibres which grow out of the cotton seed, forming a golf ball size circle called a cotton boll.
China, India and the US produce most of the world's cotton, but it is grown around the world in almost any country where the conditions are warm enough for the plant to thrive.
No intro to cotton would be complete without a quick history of cotton.
No one knows exactly where cotton was first grown or where it came from originally.
Cotton plants have been used for thousands of years, scientists dating it as far back as 5000BC to 6000BC where evidence of cotton textiles have been found in India, Peru, Mexico and around the Middle Nile Basin.
The word cotton originates from the Arabic word “quton”. Arab merchants introduced cotton to Europe around 800AD, and by 1500AD cotton was generally known around the world.
Needless to say, it’s a pretty ancient textile that’s not likely to go out of fashion any time soon.
Due to the fact cotton was developed in isolation at multiple locations around the world, we now have a number of varieties of cotton. Which cotton is the best?
There are many separate varieties of cotton, so what is the best kind of cotton? Arguably this depends on what you are looking for. Pima cotton and Egyptian cotton are often considered to be the most luxurious as they produce the longest fibres. Long cotton fibres means a softer and stronger cotton fabric.
Each of the different types of cotton that are grown for use today have their own unique characteristics. Whilst Pima and Egyptian cotton might be considered better quality, they are less well suited to the climates where cotton is often grown today. Here is a description of the 4 main types of cotton:
Pima Cotton: native to South America and the American Southwest. It’s renowned for its extra soft fibres and is highly sought after as a premium material. These fibres are longer than other cotton alternatives, meaning you can spin finer, softer yarns that are highly desirable. Longer fibres are also stronger, making Pima Cotton more resistant to fading, tearing and wrinkling.
Egyptian Cotton: similar to Pima, but grown in the Nile River Valley. Considered by many to be the best cotton due to the softness, length and strength of the fibre, and because it is also hand picked, meaning the fibre is not stressed or damaged during mechanical picking. A longer fibre also means a stronger fabric and a higher thread count, producing higher quality, softer, finer and longer lasting cotton. Pima and Egyptian cotton can only grow in very temperate climates, limiting the locations they can be grown.
Upland cotton: shorter fibres, making it slightly less soft than Egyptian cotton. It forms around 90% of the world's total supply of cotton, and is 95% of all cotton grown in America. Upland cotton is native to Central America, Southern Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Organic Cotton: It’s worth pointing out that although organic cotton isn’t technically a different variant of cotton, it does have it’s own unique benefits. The primary benefit is that it’s not grown with chemicals or genetically engineered unlike the majority of conventional cotton. For this reason it is considered by many as the best type of cotton as it’s more sustainable and a healthier material for you to wear. You can find out more on the difference between organic and regular cotton here.
As great as cotton might sound, there are also some bad things about cotton that you should be aware of.
Believe it or not, cotton is a heavily chemical intensive crop to grow and turn into clothing. Cotton covers just 2.4% of agricultural land, but uses 5.7% of all global pesticides and 16.1% of insecticides. It’s estimated that as many as 1000 people die every day from pesticide poisoning.
Many more chemicals are added during the manufacturing stages to turn raw cotton into fabric. Some of these chemicals are highly toxic and don’t wash out, meaning they can remain in the fibres of the fabric after the clothes have been made.
Another bad thing about cotton is that it is a very thirsty crop. It adds enormous water pressure to areas where it is grown that are often already prone to drought. To produce enough cotton to make just one cotton T-shirt takes around 2,700 litres of water.
In addition to the harmful impact that cotton can have on the environment, farmers who grow this crop are often not paid a fair wage. They are forced to buy expensive GMO crops and chemical sprays that they can hardly afford, trapping them in debt.
Many farmers are forced to take children out of school to help support the family. Child labour is sadly very common in the textile industry, as many as half a million children in India alone are working to produce textiles.
So what can you do to avoid the bad things about cotton?
We all want to dress more sustainably, but what is meant by sustainable cotton? Sustainable cotton means we are producing enough cotton to meet our current needs without threatening future generations. In other words, 100% sustainable cotton is grown and manufactured with minimal impact on the environment, or those communities that grow the crop.
Unfortunately, not all cotton meets our definitions of sustainable cotton. Even brands who claim they do grow it sustainably often aren’t giving proper care and attention to conscious development, instead jumping on a growing trend to appear eco-friendly. This gives rise to green-washing.
So how can you tell if cotton is sustainable?
It’s easy to tell if your cotton is organic, once you know what labels to look for. In fact, buying sustainable clothing and dressing sustainably can be simple if you follow some simple steps.
There are a number of different sustainable cotton standards and certifications that are clearly labelled on clothes. These standards each have their own unique set of guidelines, but all have the common purpose of producing sustainable cotton.
Whilst each label is different, they all work towards improving the environment where the cotton is grown as well as the conditions and economics for those who make it.
As more large retailers pledge to use sustainable cotton, demand for it grows. As demand grows, costs come down and the incentive to manufacture cotton sustainably is increased.
Here are 5 of the most popular sustainable and ethical cotton labels working towards a better future. Not all show that your cotton is organic, but all represent significant benefits vs. conventional cotton.
Organic Cotton Standard (OCS) and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
Unfortunately not all organic cotton is what it claims to be, which makes it even more difficult to tell if your cotton is organic.
It’s all too easy for farmers to claim to be selling ‘organic’ cotton or for manufacturers to be blending organic with non-organic.
The GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and OCS (Organic Cotton Standard) are two organisations that guarantee the material is what it claims. They certify the origins of the organic cotton and trace it from farm to factory to shop.
GOTS is the world’s leading textile standard for organic cotton, with fabric needing to contain a minimum of 70% organic content to be awarded the GOTS standard. It has strict environmental and ethical criteria that ensures both the farmers and the environment are looked after.
OCS in comparison ensures the original fibre is organic cotton, but does not look at the method used to process the fibres into clothing. What this means is that it is possible for OCS organic cotton to be processed, manufactured and dyed using harsh chemicals that reduce the environmental benefits.
It’s still a valuable label to look for because it ensures that cotton farmers are paid fairly for their work and the environment where the cotton is grown is protected with sustainable farming techniques.
There are two types of OCS labels that you will see in clothes. The first is OCS100, which is a sign of 100% organic cotton. The second is OCS Blended, which must contain a minimum of 5% organic cotton and should specify exactly the level of organic cotton contained.
There are other sustainable cotton certifications to look for when buying your clothes if you are trying to dress more sustainably. These certifications should be clearly marked on the label of the item, making it easy to know if your cotton is organic.
BCI cotton is the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world, making global cotton production better for the people who produce it and the environment it grows in. It also prioritizes sustainable output for future generations.
BCI cotton is mainly an education programme that helps farmers grow cotton more sustainably. It does this by teaching them how to work smarter, use less water, reduce chemicals and pesticides, and also helps farmers better provide for their families.
Through this education programme, farmers are able to increase cotton yields, protect the environment and provide a better future for those they care for.
BCI has been incredibly successful in encouraging brands to switch to more sustainable cotton.
In 2018-19, BCI helped train 2.3 million farmers on more sustainable farming practices and produced 5.6 million tonnes of Better Cotton, which is around 22% of global cotton production. In 2020, BCI cottongrew volume by 13% despite the impact of Covid-19.
Fairtrade cotton has its own specific benefits. Fairtrade cotton focuses on the social impact that cotton has on those that make it. It shines a spotlight on the farmers and workers who are often forgotten throughout the supply chain, helping ensure they are paid fair wages and a minimum price for their produce.
Whilst Fairtrade is focused on those individuals working in the cotton industry, it also has an environmental set of benchmarks that encourage more sustainable practices. It has banned certain chemicals, advises farmers to predominantly use rainwater, and allows no GM crops (Genetically Modified).
Fairtrade cotton is not necessarily organic, so chemicals can still be used. The result is that Fairtrade has slightly softer criteria compared to GOTS regarding the impact that the production of cotton has on the environment. It is still a very valuable cotton standard that helps bring the industry towards a better, cleaner future.
CMiA (Cotton made in Africa) helps smallholder cotton farmers in Africa to improve their living conditions by encouraging farmers to meet specific environmental and social requirements to qualify as CmiA cotton.
CmiA cotton counts for 2.15% of all cotton grown. It also helps train farmers in better soil management and how to exclusively use rainfall rather than intensive irrigation that could threaten drought prone areas. Crop rotations are mandatory to avoid exhausting the soil, and the most dangerous chemicals and pesticides are banned from use in cotton production.
Want to know more? Interested in reading more about organic cotton?
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