Is Cotton Sustainable? Cotton Fabric & Material Rundown

Jeans made from sustainable cotton drying on a clothesline.

Thanks to the boring, uninspired individuals in charge – we’re all forced to wear clothing.

But making an ethical decision about what we wear is much harder than picking out the clothes we like.

Is cotton fabric, the natural plant fiber woven into your jeans and jorts, a sustainable material?

The lengthy process from farm to boutique is much more complicated than it seems, and supports close to 500 million people worldwide.

Plenty of promising but little-used alternatives to cotton also exist, which may offer a more sustainable path forward for textiles.

What is cotton?

Cotton is the most common non-food crop in the world, and the most popular fabric as well. Spun from cellulose fibers taken from the plant’s fluffy seed pods, cotton fabric is a soft, airy textile that’s both breathable and durable and has been used by humans for thousands of years.

mature cotton boll

As a plant based textile, cotton is also remarkably versatile: flannel, denim, twill, muslin, and sateen are all different cotton weaves which vary in the way they’re sewn, washed, and dyed.

The 25 million tons of cotton produced each year grow on vast amounts of precious arable land and come at a significant cost to the environment and those who work in cotton fields and factories.

Cotton does have the potential to be a sustainable material. However, due to its high water requirements, reliance on chemicals and pesticides, and the industry’s widespread unethical labor practices – cotton is not a very sustainable material.

How is cotton fabric made?

Before we look at cotton’s environmental impacts in more detail, it’s useful to know how cotton fabric is actually made. From seed to shirt, cotton manufacturing follows an insanely complicated series of steps, so let’s condense those down a bit:

Growing and harvesting cotton

A few months after cotton seeds are put in the ground, flower buds known as squares appear on each plant. A month later, the flower petals fall away and green cotton bolls are left behind – these are what contain all the cotton fibers.

Eventually, these cotton bolls burst into the fluffy white clouds we’re all familiar with, and the cotton fibers are harvested. The harvesting is either done by hand or by machines, depending on where you are in the world.

harvesting cotton crop

Harvesting cotton by hand obviously involves a lot of intense manual labor, and is more common in places like India and China. In the US (the crop’s biggest exporter) cotton is harvested by machines.

Spindle picker machines pick the cotton while leaving most of the plant in the ground, while cotton strippers end up pulling in things like leaves and branches.

Cotton growing conditions and different varieties change properties of the final raw fibers like their length, strength, fineness, and uniformity – leading to a few different kinds of cotton like:

  • Upland cotton: Gossypium hirsutum, the most common cotton species, making up nearly 90% of all cotton production, historically cultivated in the Americas.
  • Pima cotton: Gossypium barbadense, also known as Egyptian cotton or extra-long staple cotton among other names, makes up around 5% of the industry
  • Tree cotton: Gossypium arboreum, a species native to South Asia.
  • Levant cotton: Gossypium herbaceum, a cotton historically grown in Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Cleaning, carding, and combing fibers

The collected fibers are then unraveled by ginning machines, cleaned of things like leaves and twigs, and processed into rough sheets of cotton lint.

The cotton sheets are then graded by quality, and go through a carding process that aligns longer fibers and removes broken, short fibers as well as any remaining dust or debris.

cleaning carding cotton fibers

Surprisingly, only a third of the raw product remains usable after all this. Different grades of cotton are often combined, and all of it is combed and spun mechanically, resulting in a fibrous rope called a cotton sliver.

These slivers of cotton can then be combed even further if desired, a step that takes much longer and wastes more fiber – but results in a stronger, smoother, and shinier yarn.

Weaving, processing, and finishing fabrics

After the cotton fibers are combed, they’re now ready to be spun into yarn; a loom is used to weave the spun yarn into a beige colored cloth in different styles, resulting in various fabrics like denim for jeans, or something like flannel for bedsheets.

Workers walking around a cotton weaving facility in India.
Image by Xavier via Flickr

Now ready to be processed, this is where all the chemicals and finishing techniques come into play:

  • Bed linens are singed to remove excess tufts and fluffs
  • Faded denim needs to be manually worn down using a pumice stone, and then washed a few times
  • Bleach may be added to dye fabrics white
  • Desizing and scouring solutions are used to wash off yarn weaving lubricants and impurities
  • High-quality fabrics go through additional chemical washes for uniform threads
  • Hundreds of other potential physical or chemical finishes are applied
  • Even drying fabrics can involve additional chemical applications

At the end of this complex process, fabrics are ready to be used by textile and clothing brands and turned into the cotton products we use everyday.

Why is cotton bad for the environment?

Cotton sustainability weak points exist all along the farm-to-store chain of the industry, although some are more obvious than others like the chemical washes used in the final steps of a fabric’s journey.

Let’s take a look at the key areas where cotton tends to fail as a sustainable material:

Growing cotton requires tons of water. Most cotton grown in Africa and India is rainfed, but irrigated cotton farms account for around 75% of global production. And not only does it require a lot of water to grow, water pollution accounts for nearly 20% of cotton’s global water footprint, which means nations who grow lots of cotton don’t always have the cleanest water.

cotton water use

Cotton requires heavy pesticide and chemical use. Modern cotton farming usually involves the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in the growing process, both of which have well-studied negative effects on the environment and human health.

Soil health and biodiversity are negatively impacted. Excessive crop treatments combined with monoculture farming setups means that cotton cultivation often leads to both soil degradation and biodiversity loss.

Cotton clothing and textiles produce too much waste. Over 5% of all landfill waste is made from textiles including clothes made of cotton. As the global population continues to grow, we can expect to see landfills made from used clothes expand similar to plastic bags feeding the great pacific garbage patch.

pile of harvested cotton

Sustainable processing of cotton is expensive. Cotton manufacturing is an intricate process that requires huge amounts of space, specialized machinery, and a large workforce to back it up. High prices makes sustainable cotton a prime target of greenwashing campaigns within the fashion industry.

Labor conditions are often poor in the cotton industry. The negative socioeconomic aspects of cotton production are often kept hidden from consumers. Cotton manufacturing can be mortally hazardous to workers, as carcinogenic airborne particles and chemical washes are easily ingested or inhaled while working in poor ventilated textile factories.

The cotton supply chain has lackluster transparency. Transparency and traceability in global cotton supply chains are both important for evaluating and improving sustainability, and these things are currently next to impossible to assess due to how many small farmers are involved in growing cotton.

At this point you’re probably wondering: how could cotton ever be sustainable?

Is sustainable cotton possible?

First of all, it’s important to know that cotton grows best in warm countries. This actually creates and solves environmental issues.

The vast majority of cotton crops are grown in the developing world, where weak enforcement of regulations often leads to unethical labor practices. But most of this cotton is grown via rainwater, which is a huge improvement over irrigation-fed cotton plantations in countries like the US.

blooming cotton field

Drip-line irrigation could be used instead to reduce cotton water use while increasing crop yields. The high demand for cotton pesticides and fertilizers can be addressed by genetically modifying cotton varieties, one of the pros of GMOs which could both lower costs and decrease chemical pollution overall.

Using crop rotations – a common practice in sustainable agriculture – is another way pests can be avoided, and is used in organic cotton production to further reduce the use of pesticides.

But facts and figures become less reliable as you travel down the supply chain, and greenwashing of the cotton industry spins up misleading information that makes educating the public about these issues a bit difficult.

Advocacy groups and environmental organizations attempt to align the industry with better working conditions and climate impacts, but issues with corporate dishonesty and global supply chains will always be complex and difficult to manage.

Sustainable certifications like Fairtrade are working continuously to improve their coverage, but there’s still so much room for improvement when it comes to transparency in cotton supply chains.

cotton shipment

Farmers need to be fairly compensated by these certifications, as the amount of cash they actually receive is only a small fraction of the Fairtrade premiums customers pay for. And in many cases, these benefits don’t trickle down to the workers they employ at all.

Recycled cotton is a promising look for ethical, renewable cotton, but there can’t be any recycling without it being grown in the first place, and textile trash often just ends up in massive desert dumping grounds for clothes anyways.

Organic cotton shows more promise, with a recent study suggesting that organic cotton farming promotes biodiversity, reduces water and soil pollution, and can lower cotton’s energy demand by up to 62%.

So advances in industrial machinery and organic cotton agriculture show promise for a more sustainable future; the main issue that needs to be addressed is the management of all of these farms, factories, and workers.

Modern slavery in the cotton industry

The most glaring and difficult problem to address in the cotton industry is the human element.

A point worth emphasizing is just how common modern slavery and unethical labor is within the cotton industry. Of all the ethical considerations, this one is likely going to be the hardest one to fix as well.

Workers being crushed by cotton looms in smoky Victorian factories is something we may associate with the industrial revolution; but in some places, the cotton trade hasn’t changed much at all.

Children are routinely recruited to work at all stages of the process, from picking the raw cotton to applying toxic pesticides and even working on the machines. And working these dangerous machines in cotton ginning factories leads to a high number of horrifying accidents and injuries.

While large cotton producers make use of advanced machinery to do much of the work, the majority of cotton is produced on small-scale farms in developing countries. These countries either don’t have strict regulations in place or cannot enforce them properly, which leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation.

Does the cotton industry need better regulations?

Chasing ethical labor standards is a valiant but near-impossible task when skewed global wealth distribution makes true “fair trade” industries a myth.

Developing countries provide wealthy nations with cheap labor, and this low cost comes as a direct result of the lack of expensive privileges such as legal rights or their enforcement. Without properly addressing these inequalities, it’s hard to see how unethical cotton consumption comes to an end.

Organizations set up to seek out ethical labor are limited in their range and resources, and are constantly battling a lack of rigorous enforcement. And certification organizations like Fairtrade have also been criticized for setting their standards up in a way that excludes the poorest of nations.

Because cutting corners can lead to more money, cotton companies and their stakeholders often exploit weaknesses in regulations or outright ignore them, leaving the consequences to fall upon those who work for them.

Inside view of a cotton fiber production facility in India.
Image by Xavier via Flickr

On the 17th of October 2017, a 14 year old girl with pneumonia died while working without a mask in a spinning mill in Chennai, India. She had been pressured to return to work, even while incredibly sick, for a holiday bonus of just $42.

Another 14 year old cotton worker committed suicide after a 16-hour shift in the same region a year later, and these are just two examples of a very common problem.

These cases often involve tribal children from impoverished families. These children, who may come from poor, illiterate, and low-caste communities, are also the most common targets for child labor – and this happens all around the world.

It’s clear that a sustainable future for cotton is a minefield of misinformation, abuse, and conflicting interests; one thing that’s rarely considered, however, is the impact of moving away from labor markets in the developing world.

Raw cotton products underpin the textile sector, raking in hundreds of billions every year. The cotton industry sustains over 450 million families worldwide, of which nearly 100 million are farming households from low-income countries.

Massive piles of raw cotton sitting around in Gujarat, India.
Image by Ninara via Flickr

This incredibly important crop is essential to the lives of farmers and to the economies of several countries. Pakistan, for example, brought in around 11 billion USD between 2018-2019 from cotton.

Low-income and developing countries stand to lose the most from climate change, and at the same time their development is vital in the fight against it – so any sustainable cotton alternative would need to account for the loss of livelihood from those who rely on the industry.

What cotton alternatives exist?

Cotton may not be the most sustainable fabric or material out there, but plenty of alternatives are catching the attention of ethical clothing brands.

Here’s a short list of a few of the fabrics that may prove themselves to be more sustainable and ethical than cotton, depending on how they’re used:

  • Hemp: made from a versatile and sustainable fiber, hemp fabric can easily be used as an alternative to cotton or blended with it and requires less water, pesticides, and land to produce.
  • Linen: linen fabric is another plant based fabric made from flax crops and is known to be quick-drying, lightweight, and stain-resistant.
  • Bamboo: derived from sustainable bamboo grass forests, this cellulose-based fabric has recently gained a lot of popularity as a cotton alternative known for its softness and biodegradability.
  • Bioplastics and semi-synthetics: fabrics like tencel, rayon, and modal are all cellulose fiber blends derived from plants, and show amazing potential as bioplastics start to take over.
  • Recycled polyester: recycling plastic into clothes using old plastic bottles or other materials is a viable option, although it does make it difficult to avoid microplastics, as washing polyester releases many fibers.

Each of these cotton alternatives comes with their own pros and cons, and there’s no single factor that makes one option better than the other.

The good news is, this huge variety of sustainable fabric choices means we may have multiple affordable options in the near future as their manufacturing techniques catch up with cotton.

Final thoughts

It’s reasonable that the sustainability of cotton is called into question; even if ethical cotton production is on the rise as resources dedicated to its sourcing increase every year.

Alternatives to cotton are also plentiful, and more brands are starting to use plant based fabrics and blends to weave new sustainable styles.

Do you prefer cotton – or another sustainable fabric?

We love hearing from you.

Feel like contributing or have a question? Comment below.