What is it?
Cotton that is used in clothing is the fibre that grows around the seed pod in the cotton plant. Cotton is one of the most widely used natural fibre to make clothing today and there is evidence of it being used in prehistoric time, as early as 6000 B.C.
Cotton is naturally grown in tropical and sub-tropical climate and require long frost-free periods, plenty of sunshine and moderate rainfall but it does not require exceptionally nutrient soil. Unfortunately, a large portion of todays cotton is cultivated in areas with much less rainfall compared to the tropics and sub-tropics of the Northern and Southern hemispheres, to tackle the lack of rainfall, irrigation is used to water the crops.
Most of the cotton used in the textile industry today is Genetically modified, this was developed to reduce a heavy reliance of pesticides and insecticides. Unfortunately, the heavy use of BT cotton, the most common GM cotton, have developed BT resistant pests limiting the usefulness. Today cotton covers just 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but uses 6% of the world’s pesticides (and 16% of insecticides), more than any other single major crop. The problem with this is that Pesticides are a major global killer. Nearly 1,000 people die every day from acute pesticide poisoning and many more suffer from chronic ill health.
The cotton industry also suffers from labour issues around the world. In many countries the industries are heavily criticized of using slavery, child labour and the heavy use of harmful chemicals in the production. This has led to “Fair trade” cotton clothing and footwear, joining a rapidly growing market for organic clothing and ethical fashion.
Textiles made from cotton in the clothing industry are valued for its comfort, launderability and for being very tolerant of heavy use. Approximately 50% of apparel worldwide is made of cotton fibres, but normally it is blended with rayon or synthetic fibres such as polyester. There are some products that use 100% cotton, these are usually products that we wear next to the skin because of its comfort and softness.As a relatively heavy textile, but with high absorbency and low insulation, cotton is more useful for keeping cool or for dressing in layers than it is in providing warmth.
How is it made?
The largest exporter of cotton fibre is India. Producing cotton is a very wasteful process where a large amount of harmful chemicals is used, and irrigation is necessary in many places as cotton requires moderate rainfall as well as plenty of sunshine.
The first step is the harvesting of the cotton bolls. Picking mature cotton bolls by hand yields the highest quality, but in many western countries mechanized picking is used as it makes high production more feasible and affordable. In countries where labour is more affordable, hand picking is still preferred. Child labour is a big problem in this part of the supply chain.
Once harvested Ginning is used to clean the cotton and prepare it for spinning. It is then separated into quality levels by Grading, in which short fibres tend to correspond to coarse and long fibres to make very fine quality textiles. To further clean the separated cotton Carding and Combing is used. The fibres are then drawn into thinner strands that is then spun into a finished yarn ready for fabrication into the textile. The unfinished fabrics then undergo final finishing, which typically involves Singing (burning off loose particles) and then Tentering to align the grain of the fabric and adjust the width.
Either at the fibre, yarn, fabric, or product stage, cotton may be subject to bleaching, at which point fashionable colours can be added through dyeing and printing processes.
In all these stages a large amount of chemicals of various toxicity and hazardousness is used. Most of these chemicals, such as heavy metals, formaldehyde, azo dyes, benzidine or chlorine bleach, cause environmental pollution by the mills’ wastewater and many can be found as residues in the finished product. Some of them affect consumers’ health and are suspected of causing allergies, eczema or cancer.
Improvements have been made in the past two decades; safer alternatives are replacing chemicals and we are finding new ways to recycle them, and pollution is reduced by treating the wastewater. However, these improvements mainly concern processing mills in rich countries, and sub-standard environmental practices are common in developing countries, where most clothes are made. In Northern countries, many hazardous chemicals have been restricted or banned. Recently, the European Union prohibited the use of azo dyes and restricted the use of formaldehyde.
Luckily, organic cotton is becoming more accessible, as of 2007 the worldwide production of organic cotton was growing at a rate of more than 50% per year. The production of organic cotton does not use irrigated water, thus using much less freshwater. It is also better for a balanced ecosystem and healthier for the farmers as no harmful pesticides and insecticides are used.
To find out more about the difference between the impact of organic and non-organic cotton, have a look at the video by TED-Ed about the “Life cycle of a T-shirt”.
To find organic cotton textiles you can look for the certification “Global Organic Textile Standard” (GOTS) which was developed by the “International Working Group on a Global Organic Textile Standard”. It sets criteria for all stages of production and processing along the entire textile value chain.
To see our organic cotton based products click here