Cotton. It’s the fabric you reach for when you want to warm up, cool down, polish up your look or relax your style vibe. It’s also a popular fabric for people who keep the environment in mind when getting dressed each day. What’s not to love about a fibre that starts its life in a farmer’s field instead of a factory floor? Unfortunately, the answer is a lot more complicated than you might think.
To help us dive into this subject, I decided to pick the brain of Kathleen Dombek-Keith, a woman who has immersed herself in the world of eco-fashion professionally and personally. Her master’s thesis for Cornell University’s apparel design program focused specifically on environmentally friendly design, while her non-academic career saw her work as a product development manager for an organic clothing company. Kathleen is currently a professor at Indiana University and a fount of knowledge on ways to add a touch of green to our fashion choices.
There’s no doubt that cotton is the gift that keeps on giving to the fashion industry. Consumers love it for its natural properties and unbeatable comfort, while manufacturers treasure any fibre that’s easy to work with and has a limited shelf life. What works for the industry, however, may not work so well for mother nature. Kathleen says the environmental impact of growing cotton and processing it for use in garments can take a surprisingly heavy environmental toll.
Cotton is a resource intensive crop that attracts more than its fair share of pests. In 2009, the Environmental Justice Foundation calculated non-organic Cotton accounts for 16 per cent of total insecticide use worldwide, making it the globe’s dirtiest crop. When scientists take a hand to solve the problem by genetically engineering pest resistant cotton, toxic herbicides are still required to make it thrive. The result, Kathleen says, is considerable soil pollution that poses a threat to ecosystems far removed from the field where it began.
Organic cotton offers a solution, since it’s grown entirely under the protection of natural pesticides that don’t wreak the same environmental havoc. Even this gentler method has its limits, however. Cotton isn’t just needy when it comes to pest protection, Kathleen says – it demands a great deal of water as well. The most eco-friendly growing methods in the world won’t lighten the environmental load if they’re put into practice in the wrong geographic region.
“Organic cotton is a great option in an area that has a good rain cycle,” Kathleen says. “If you’re taking all the water from a huge sea and causing a desert for organic purposes, it’s not great for the big picture.”
The men and women who made their living off the fisheries of Uzbekistan could certainly attest to this. The Aral Sea was once the world’s largest inland saltwater body before being tapped to irrigate the country’s cotton fields in the early 1960’s. Forty years later, the sea has shrunk to a fourth of its original size, leaving toxic, salt-laden soil in its place. Fisheries were destroyed, disease rates soared and even the region’s weather patterns have been permanently changed, all because of efforts to grow a crop where it didn’t belong.
Production methods, or the ways in which natural fibres are processed for human use, present a whole other conundrum. Kathleen says the fabrics most likely to sell are those that have been significantly softened through labour and sometimes chemical-intensive processes. The softness of a fabric is determined by the number of fibre ends that remain to scratch the skin, she says. The softest yarns have been combed to as long a length as possible, while the shorter pieces that make up the bulk of the crop are often thrown away unused.
The energy-intensive combing processes can’t be ignored when determining the environmental impact of cotton. Cotton is also a relatively fragile fibre that will inevitably degrade over time, unlike other sturdier materials like silk or linen. Cotton products degrade and ultimately get thrown away, adding to overall environmental waste.
Starting to feel like you should ditch all your summer clothes and start fresh with polyester? Kathleen says don’t despair. All fibres have their environmental pros and cons, and cotton is no exception. Cotton grown organically in the right region is a fantastic choice for the eco-friendly consumer, who can then luxuriate in its comfort with a clear conscience. It may cost you a little more, but if eco-fashion is your focus, it just might be worth it. In future articles I will be digging deeper into how consumers can educate themselves about the cotton used by different brands.
How do you feel about cotton as it relates to eco-style? Did you know about its environmental risks? Will knowing about them change your buying patterns?