You may not be aware that the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. This has become worse in recent decades as clothes manufacturers have made cheap fashionable clothes from cheap oil-based synthetic fibres. This is great for the consumer as the latest trends are offered at bargain prices. However, the number of times a garment is worn has vastly reduced before it is discarded, usually into landfill, and replaced with a new trend. We are now making more clothes than ever before and many more than are actually needed.
Fast fashion has been fuelled by cheap synthetic fibres. In the early 2000s polyester outsold cotton for the first time. Polyester, as with all oil-based synthetic fibres, is not great for the environment in a number of ways (look out for my up-coming post on this). The obvious conclusion is to buy clothes made with natural fibres such as cotton, wool, linen, etc. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple – even natural fibres have significant issues. In this post, I’ll look at a few of the standout differences between traditional cotton and organic cotton.
Cotton fabrics consume a very large amount of water – the WWF estimate that it takes 2,700 litres to make a single t-shirt . A 2005 study  determined that it is responsible for 2.6% of global water usage. When you consider that over half of cotton is grown in water-stressed areas , then you can start to see how this becomes a problem. We might think of cotton as a sustainable fabric but if water consumption outstrips water supply, then it isn’t.
Organic cotton, however, uses substantially less water at around 200 litres for a t-shirt . This clearly puts much less strain on the water supply for local communities
Insecticides / Pesticides
Traditional cotton farming is heavily dependent on insecticides and pesticides: 2.5% of the world’s farmland is used to grow cotton yet it uses 16% of all insecticides  and 5.6% of all pesticides . Whilst these chemicals help to keep crop yields high, they break down the soil over time, have adverse health affects on workers and heavily contribute to water pollution.
Organic cotton is produced to certified standards, ensuring that the health of the soil  and farmworkers are not adversely affected. It also means that ground water isn’t polluted with the toxic chemicals used in traditional insecticides/pesticides.
The production of one tonne of cotton produces up to 5.9kg of CO2. Polyester is much larger at up to 9.5kg. Meanwhile, organic cotton beats both at up to 3.8kg . With global warming being such a critical issue and the quantity of global textile production being so large, such savings in emissions are significant on a global scale.
It should also be noted that the heavy use of pesticides and the tilling of fields greatly reduces the amount of carbon dioxide that the soil itself holds, a fact that is not reflected in these figures.
Whilst a lot of energy is consumed to grow, manufacture and transport cotton fabrics, a large percentage of a garment’s total energy usage is consumed in the care of the product. The drying and ironing of a cotton garment accounts for around a third of its total carbon footprint . A typical load of washing uses around 180 litres of water. As such, the consumer can significantly reduce the environmental impact of a cotton garment by line-drying the item and by only washing the garment when necessary.
In this post I’ve highlighted how much difference the same crop can make, depending on how it is farmed. Organic cotton is generally regarded as a good sustainable fabric. Whilst regular cotton has better credentials than some other fabrics, it’s not really considered a sustainable crop.
Cotton and its organic equivelent are just a few of the fibres we make fabrics out of. How sustainable each of them are, depends on numerous factors and I’ve touched on some of these in my Sustainable Material for Clothing post.
Of The Oceans Clothes
At Of The Oceans, we only sell clothes that are made with natural fibres. All our suppliers are accredited by the Fair Wear foundation. Other environmental credentials are listed with the individual items, allowing our customers to decide whether they meet their sustainable requirements.
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