Since starting Agnes LDN I wanted to try and make products that have as little negative impact on the environment as possible. To educate myself further I’ve been researching deeper into natural fibres, the advantages and disadvantages of using them. This is the first post in a series on natural fibres where I will look at the different types including cotton, linen, hemp and bamboo. Personally when trying to change my habits and build a sustainable wardrobe, natural fibres are one of the first thing I think of. As I’m sure we all know by now, the most sustainable clothing in our wardrobes is the clothing we already own. However if we need something new, natural fibres could the best option.
In this post I will look at normal cotton vs organic cotton. Organic cotton is currently only 1% of all cotton in production however that market is growing and will hopefully help reduce the environmental impact of clothing. The soil association claims organic cotton combats climate change, saves water and reduces toxic chemicals, can transform workers lives and doesn’t use genetically modified seed.
Cotton uses $2 billion worth of pesticides each year and accounts for 16% of global insecticide use, making it one of agricultures dirtiest crops to grow. Organic cotton uses natural pest control methods such as using trap crops to attract the pests away from the cotton crops, crop rotation and neem spray. However it would seem that these natural methods aren’t always as effective and therefore may product less yield. A long term study in India found that organic cotton yields were 14% lower than GM cotton. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides are particularly damaging for creatures that depend on the water downstream as the run off ends up polluting rivers and wetlands.
One big advantage of using natural pesticides is workers health, according to organiccotton.org many small farmers fall ill or die due to lack of equipment of knowledge about how to handle pesticides another chance, organic cotton farmers can benefit from a balanced ecosystem and enhanced health.
Organic cotton comes at a premium as farmers and workers get a paid a fair price. For the consumers the fabric quality ends up better as the fibres have not been worn down by harsh chemicals. In my opinion it is worth paying the organic cotton premium as you’re helping to support water conservation, better wages for the farmers and more balanced eco systems.
How can we tell the cotton we’re buying is organic? There are two certifications to look out for GOTS and OCS. To be certified as organic the whole supply chain from the raw fibre to production must meet a certain set of standards. For example in order to be GOTS approved products must contain at least 70% organic fibre content and must not contain potentially harmful chemicals used in conventional textile production. Most brands and companies will call out if the fabric they are using is organic cotton, so if it does not say made from organic cotton, it’s fairly safe to assume it is not. Other organisations working towards more sustainable production include the Better Cotton Initiative, founded in 2009 and accounts for around 19% of global cotton production.
In Pakistan the BCI have worked with farmers to used less water to grow their cotton. Cotton is a notoriously thirsty crop and it can take up to 2,700 liners to produce enough cotton for a single t-shirt. Some of the worlds largest cotton producing companies are more likely to face water scarcity. Organic cotton can be rain fed reducing the pressure on local water sources. Buying second hand and reducing the demand for new cotton would also help reduce the water consumption. In my next articles I will look at less thirsty natural fibres that might offer a suitable alternative.
In 2014 a comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) was published by the Textile Exchange, covering global organic cotton production. The study found that organic cotton produced 978kg of CO2e per tonne of cotton fibre, a 46% reduction in global warming potential compared to non-organic cotton. This comes from reduced agricultural inputs such as pesticides, tractors and irrigation as well as reduced energy usage.
Of course it’s not just how the cotton seed is grown that has an impact on the environment we have to take into account its whole lifecycle from seed to item of clothing. The GOTS certification insures that all processing facilities and manufacturers have environmental policies in place and they must keep record of the use of chemicals, energy, water and waste water treatment.
Then theres the impact of caring for your cotton clothing, one load of washing uses 40 gallons of water and a load of drying uses 5 times more energy than washing. You can save a third of your t-shirts carbon footprint by skipping on the ironing and drying. According to WRAP extending the average life of clothing by 3 months of active use per item would lead to a 5-10% reduction in the items carbon, water and waste footprint.
Honestly the facts around cotton can be quite terrifying. My advice would be buy second hand if you can, choose organic cotton over ‘normal’ cotton and evaluate if you can get another wear out of your t-shirt before washing it. I’d also recommend supporting smaller brands that are transparent about their fabric sourcing, a great example of this is Henri London.
Finally, I should mention the fabrics I use for Agnes LDN, the majority of my cottons come from a family run business in Wales. They work with GOTs certified mills in India and Turkey, the fabrics are made in small batches on small power looms or hand looms and the fabrics I use from the come ‘natural’ so have not been dyed. For more information click here. I am working towards sourcing 100% organic cotton fabrics or up cycled materials.
For more information on the subject check out the links below. I’d love to know what you thought about this article, please feel free to leave a comment below.