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Is Your Tee Sustainable? The Environmental Impact of Cotton

How sustainable is cotton? Here's everything you need to know about the environmental impact of cotton. Plus, eco-friendly swaps to make.

Written by
Angelica Pizza

Cotton is one of the most common textiles. It's in most of our clothes, our upholstery, toiletry products, and more. It's everywhere, and because cotton is generally a natural textile grown from cotton crops, many of us assume it's sustainable. That may not be the case.

In comparison to synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, and rayon, cotton seems to be the more eco-friendly option. It's natural and doesn't always require a lot of chemical processing. But is it really sustainable?

We investigated how eco-friendly cotton is, looking at everything from cotton cultivation to degradation. Plus, we have some tips on how to shop for more sustainable options. Here's everything you need to know about cotton.

Cotton's Impact on the Environment

Cotton is a natural fiber, but it's not as eco-friendly as you may think. Inorganic cotton production requires substantial harmful chemicals, a lot of water, and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Specifically, over 99% of cotton uses fertilizers and genetically modified seeds. And globally, cotton represents about 10% of pesticides and 25% of insecticides used. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides generally has a negative impact on the environment. They can lead to pollution and water contamination.

WWF also notes that cotton cultivation requires the clearing of land to be used for agriculture and causes soil degradation. This decreases biodiversity, alters ecosystems, and harms plants and wildlife alike.

Additionally, cotton cultivation has a massive water footprint. Cotton is typically cultivated in warmer regions like India, meaning a lot of water is needed to grow. In India, approximately 20,000 liters of water are needed to produce 1 kilogram of cotton.

Now, let's look at cotton products that get thrown away. Cotton is generally biodegradable, but that doesn't mean cotton products should end up in landfills. When biodegradable products—like cotton clothes, personal hygiene products, or other disposable items—get sent to landfills, they're forced to undergo anaerobic biodegradation, a process that releases the toxic greenhouse gas methane.

Combine these factors and you'll see that cotton production to degradation can negatively impact the environment and contribute to global warming.

So, some cotton isn't sustainable—even though it's a natural fiber. When purchasing products that contain cotton, it's important to read the labels and opt for organic cotton to be sure your cotton products have a low impact on the environment.

Is Organic Cotton More Eco-Friendly?

Organic cotton is different from regular cotton. Namely, it's more eco-friendly. It relies on nature and eliminates the need for excessive water and inorganic processes, including chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

According to the Soil Association, organic cotton uses about 91% less water than conventional cotton cultivation. This is because organic cotton uses a system that enhances soil fertility, allowing for soil to absorb water and release it during dry periods. Plus, organic soils that don't use harsh chemicals are more climate-resilient; therefore, they can withstand our changing climate system.

The Soil Association also found that organic cotton production reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 46% and reduces pollution to waterways by 26%. Also, organic cotton doesn't use genetically modified seeds or harsh pesticides.

And because organic cotton cultivation eliminates the unsustainable practices of conventional cotton farming, organic cotton cultivation has a low impact on the environment, wildlife, and humans. Its production is also safer for farmers—it doesn't expose them to harmful chemicals.

The Takeaway

To shop for organic cotton, check labels. Specifically, look for Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) labels on your cotton products.

For cotton to be GOTS-Certified, it must go through a high processing standard that considers both ecological and social criteria. It's similar to the USDA Organic label, except it only applies to textiles. GOTS labels ensure the cotton you're purchasing is organic and lives up to social and environmental standards.

Also, be sure to check out the Brightly Shop for sustainable and organic swaps you can make for everyday items. It features reusable cloth diapers, cozy socks, a microfiber hair towel, and even sustainable underwear—all made with certified organic cotton!