How much harm can just one cotton t-shirt really do?
You’re not going to like the answer.
One cotton t-shirt takes more than 2000 litres of water to be produced, which doesn’t account for the 75 litres of water per laundry load at home and the massive amounts of energy required throughout this one t-shirt’s lifecycle. However, water consumption isn’t the only environmental impact. In 2016, it was reported that the cotton crop accounted for 7% of all pesticides and 16% of all insecticides used on the planet’s total agricultural area and the fashion industry has continued to grow since. To say the very least, our tradition go-to material in fashion is problematic when it comes to sustainability (not to mention ethical issues).
This begs the question: are there alternatives we should be advocating for in it’s place?
Glad you asked.
Cotton alternatives can be broken down into two categories: natural or synthetic.
Three natural alternatives are bamboo, organic hemp, and organic linen. Like cotton, bamboo is highly absorbent and hypoallergenic, but what makes it better than cotton is how much more environmentally friendly the growing process is. Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on the planet – making it highly renewable – and it can be grown without the use of any pesticides and four times less water. Chemical by-products of bamboo harvesting can be harmful although these only exist in trace amounts.
Hemp is also extremely eco-friendly by not requiring any pesticides or insecticides, maturing in just 11 weeks, and requiring only about 400 litres of water per one kilogram, as opposed to cotton’s roughly 20,000 litres per kilogram. The biggest issue in mass adoption has been stigma surrounding marijuana, also derived from hemp, but societal trends are growing towards greater acceptance of all hemp related products – especially in Canada.
Lastly, linen is an incredibly breathable and lightweight fabric. Being derived from the flax plant means, when growing, it is naturally pest-resistant – avoiding the need for pesticides – and there is hardly any need for irrigation. Even better, processing is completely mechanical and doesn’t require any chemicals.
Clearly, Nature has its own excellent alternatives for cotton, but human innovation is promising as well. Three new products that have been introduced to the fashion industry are Tencel, Piñatex, and Econyl.
Tencel is a cellulose fabric that is created by dissolving wood pulp. This requires less energy and water in production than cotton and the solvent used in chemical processing is recycled, which largely reduces harmful waste. As a material it is 50% more absorbent than cotton and has moisture-wicking and anti-bacterial properties – excellent for activewear.
Quite different as a material is Piñatex, which is an eco-friendly leather alternative. Made from pineapple leaves, it makes use of pineapple harvest by-product so that there are no extra requirements for land, water, or fertilizer usage. Cruelty-free and sustainable leather? Always.
The third synthetic opts to tackle one of the environment’s greatest issues: ocean and landfill pollution. Econyl is regenerated nylon created from all kinds of waste including industrial plastic, fabric scraps, and old carpets. Production is a closed-loop that uses less water and creates less waste than traditional nylon production by cleaning, shredding, depolymerising to extract nylon, polymerising again, transforming into yarn, and finally into textile products.
While cotton itself isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, there are better ways to use it. Fair Trade Organic Cotton has been picking up steam as a great way to continue to use it in a sustainable way. Fair Trade Certified factories must adhere to rigorous social, environmental and economic standards to protect the health and safety of the workforce, and are a much more humane way of harvesting.
With these alternatives - and many more - it’s time for the fashion industry to shift into the future of fabric and help sustain the environment that much more by reducing dependence on cotton.
Many of the brands on our site use these, or similar sustainably made products, and every sale on our site results in an acre of Rainforest being purchased and protected from deforestation. Together, we can turn this ship around and create a better future for those to come.
Thank you for reading, and as always, keep it friendly, Keep it Koda!