Sourcing Sustainable Cotton

Is it possible for consumers to find clean, sustainable clothing from reliable sources?

In the past, clothing has always been made from the natural elements around us. Wool was sheered from sheep, and cotton was picked from the soil to make fabrics for clothing, bedding, and other textile products. Silk, hemp, cashmere, and bamboo also make that list as well. While these materials are still used today, a new kind of textile fiber has entered the market: synthetics. These fibers are made by people through chemical synthesis, similar to plastics. Common fabrics like nylon and polyester are both created from petrochemicals, a substance made from refining petroleum. Synthetic fabrics are primarily non-biodegradable and also need a large amount of energy to create. However, even naturally derived textiles aren't always guaranteed to be safe for the planet. In the age of mass production, there are still some downfalls to fiber production if it's not produced organically.

Cotton, for example, has been the most used natural fiber for years. It was even the most popular material of both natural and synthetic fibers until 2002, when polyester surpassed it.

These days, conventional manufacturing practices for cotton are not sustainable. This is in part due to the several resources that go into its production. While it can take time for a shopper to find them, trustworthy companies that go against the norm to provide eco-friendly cotton do still exist.

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History of Cotton

It's uncertain exactly how long cotton has been used for clothing. What we do know is that documentation of its production has been found in different parts of the world. A group of scientists found the earliest evidence of cotton fiber in the caves of Mexico that dated back to 5000 BC. On the other side of the globe, cotton was also being made into cloth in present-day Pakistan and Egypt. Cotton wasn't introduced to Europe until much later, but once sea trade began, it became a common import to see.

The East India Company brought in cotton products from India at the start of the 17th century. With the colonization of the Americas and the start of the slave trade, Britain soon dominated the market, and cotton became an essential piece of the economy. About a century later, the industrial revolution expanded production with the arrival of machinery like the cotton gin in 1793. Cotton garments could be made faster and cheaper with less human labor. Such advancements in technology were the early steps to what is now the fast fashion industry today.

What Makes the Fashion Industry Unsustainable

Knowing that countless companies operate on the fast fashion model can feel futile when trying to find better alternatives. The creation of a sustainable system for fashion is no small task. There are countless factors that make the current fashion industry unsustainable. The life cycle of a garment is drastically shorter than it has ever been. Thanks to the speed and frequency at which new garments are made, massive amounts of clothing go from sitting on store shelves to sitting in landfills in record time. Both the over-production of clothing and its poor quality contribute to this problem.

Our garments today just aren't made to last. On top of that is the omnipresence of synthetic fabrics that require a colossal amount of chemicals and water to make. And, of course, we can't forget the carbon footprint of shipping from factories overseas that is steadily burning away at our atmosphere. Hardly any aspect of this industry is sustainable. It continues because the clothing is cheap, and at the end of the day, people want more for less. A majority of consumers have given their dollars to these brands at some point, and it can be hard to find brands that aren't a part of the fast fashion industry.

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Chemicals and Our Skin

Staying away from synthetic materials is not only good for the planet, but it's good for our health. Our skin is the largest organ of the human body. Its porous nature allows our natural oils to keep it moisturized. However, those same pores also make the skin susceptible to absorbing all kinds of elements that it touches. Whether it's sunscreens, deodorants, or the fabrics we wear, it pays to be mindful of what touches our skin. Acrylic, polyester, rayon, and nylon are all materials that are treated with toxic chemicals.

"Returning to the natural materials that have been used throughout human history could significantly reduce the damage done to the earth."

Today, synthetics comprise 62% of all fibers produced in the world. Polyester, in particular, contains the highest concentrations of quinolines and aromatic amines. Both substances have the potential to be carcinogenic or cancer-causing. Polyester is also the most commonly used synthetic fiber. While it's possible for some of the chemical levels to decrease after a wash cycle, going through the laundry doesn't get rid of them completely. Not to mention, those chemicals end up in the water system, which can lead to another line of dangers. Returning to the natural materials that have been used throughout human history could significantly reduce the damage done to the earth. Cotton, wool, silk, and other natural textiles don't need to be manufactured with chemicals. They also allow the skin to breathe, something that can't be said for polyester and its synthetic friends.

A Glimpse Into Cotton Production

Cotton production begins in the soil, and crops can take about seven months to grow before they are ready to harvest. Cotton is grown in the southern half of the United States, expanding from California all the way east to Virginia. Like any plant, there is a level of pest and weed control that comes with farming. The chemicals used for both often lead to runoff in the water, polluting nearby ecosystems. Non-organic cotton makes up 18% of global pesticide use. Plus, the use of too many pesticides can sometimes cause resistance and secondary pest outbreaks. There is also another chemical that is used specifically for cotton production. Before the cotton is picked, cultivators must remove leaves. The process is called defoliation, and it's done by spraying down the plants with a chemical called thidiazuron. It's also the only way to harvest cotton by machine; otherwise, the crops would have to be picked by hand so farmers could remove the leaves themselves.

Unfortunately, the communities that exist near these farms are often affected by the chemicals used on cotton crops. The mist from these sprays is carried through the air and winds up in the lungs and eyes of whoever is nearby. Exposure to defoliants is linked to raised rates of fatigue, eye irritation, rhinitis, throat irritation, nausea, and diarrhea. Once the cotton is cleaned, it's then compressed into bales and transported to its next destination. In conventional production, cotton is dyed with chemicals that use large amounts of water. As a result, a lot of this water goes to waste and contains pollutants and other toxic substances. The chemicals from these dyes also linger in the final product.

"Unfortunately, the communities that exist near these farms are often affected by the chemicals used on cotton crops."

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Picking Between Organic and Nonorganic Cotton

Economically speaking, organic cotton tends to be more expensive for manufacturers to produce and for consumers to buy. Because sustainable and organic products aren't the norm, their luxury status is a privilege only some can afford. As a result, conventional cotton is often what's more readily available and affordable to the average consumer. This is especially true in the United States, where most of the cotton industry still uses chemicals at its cultivation stage. Elsewhere in the world, there are countries that are producing organic cotton in larger quantities than the US. There are six other nations in particular that make up 97% of the world's organic cotton production. India comes in the first slot, contributing 51% of organic cotton. The remaining countries include China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Tajikistan, and Tanzania. In comparison, the United States makes up 2% of organic cotton production.

"In order for cotton to be classified as organic, it can't be grown with any chemical pesticides, herbicides, or defoliants. Furthermore, organic cotton must also be colored with natural or low-impact dyes."

In order for cotton to be classified as organic, it can't be grown with any chemical pesticides, herbicides, or defoliants. Furthermore, organic cotton must also be colored with natural or low-impact dyes. Indigo, turmeric, and onion shells are nothing new for the cotton industry. Many years ago, these kinds of dyes were the only option to color clothing. The caveat of these natural dyes is that the colors they produce aren't as bold and vibrant as chemical dyes. Even so, there is a significant decrease in health risks and negative environmental impacts when manufacturing garments with natural dyes. There are also low-impact dyes, meaning they require less water, create less runoff, and therefore are less of a burden on the environment. Different from natural dyes, low-impact dyes are synthetic and don't need the land or water that naturally derived dyes are produced from. The difference between the two ultimately lies in the amount of agricultural space and water needed. Both options are still notably better in comparison to chemical dyes.

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Water Conservation

Sustainable cotton production is more than just the expulsion of chemicals. Due to the global water crisis, it's essential that companies manage their water wisely in every sector. The cotton industry must adopt practices that keep water use to a minimum. While cotton is naturally draught-resistant, irrigation is still used for about half of its production. Responsible water management is of the utmost importance for cotton in both the cultivation stage and the manufacturing stage.

Thankfully, more cotton producers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to conserve water and have been working to decrease their water usage. Consumers who want to contribute to reducing water can do so by purchasing organic linen or hemp apparel. Both are natural fibers, but their plants require less water to grow.

Leading By Example With MATE the Label

Finding companies aligned with sustainable practices and values isn't impossible. MATE the Label is one example of a company that manufactures its products locally while dedicating itself to providing shoppers with clean and organic clothing. The brand's mission is to provide consumers with "essentials that are clean from seed to skin." Founded in 2013 by Kayti Carr, MATE the Label is sustainably made in Los Angeles, California. For Carr's company, to be sustainably made means refusing to use substances that are carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and toxic. Instead, all clothing is made with organic materials and non-toxic dyes. Interestingly enough, the brand didn't launch with a mission to dress clean at first. It wasn't until two years after starting her company that Carr had the epiphany to research and invest in sustainable practices. Since then, MATE the Label has sourced organic yarn and operated without following the traditional seasonal cycles of clothing. With a majority of retailers, clothing collections are continually swapped out at the start of each season. This practice often leads to an overproduction of clothing where not everything is sold and put to use. Especially in the age of fast fashion, the collection cycles have become shorter and shorter as companies fight to keep the consumer's attention with new products. MATE the Label shares on its website that its pieces are designed to be worn no matter the time of year. This way, the clothing remains timeless and essential

The company's sustainable practices are also evidenced by its materials and recycling. Consumers can rest assured that the company's choice of textiles does not include many of the common synthetic fibers. None of the apparel at MATE the Label is made from polyester, nylon, or polyamide. The activewear line only contains 8% spandex, a drastic difference from other activewear lines that typically contain a majority of synthetic materials. In addition, any items purchased by a customer that are no longer needed can be returned to MATE the Label, where they'll be repurposed as another product. The company refers to its circularity program as the reMATE Revolution. In essence, circularity is the practice of extending a product's lifecycle to delay its waste. Not only does MATE the Label recycle used clothing from their customers, but the brand also repurposes the leftover scraps from the supply chain. While the brand originally began as a women's line, there are now collections for kids and men alike. On the website, visitors will find clothing staples like sweatshirts, dresses, tanks, and more. Consumers interested in learning more about MATE the Label's goals toward a circular business model can read the company's 2021 impact report.

Sourcing Sustainable Cotton

Finding retailers that create sustainable cotton products like MATE the Label can take a bit of digging. Anyone who wants to ensure that a brand is truly committed to sustainable practices should look for impact reports, certifications, and transparency on company operations. Likewise, retailers and business leaders who hope to invest in or use sustainable cotton for their businesses may do so using resources like the Global Organic Textile Standard and the Organic Cotton Standard. Both sites provide databases for approved suppliers, shops, and chemical inputs. Retailers and consumers alike can always find ways to support and invest in sustainably made clothing, especially as the demand for eco-conscious products continues to grow.

Business Takeaways
  • The production of both synthetic fibers and conventional cotton use chemicals that linger in water runoff and the garments they're turned into.
  • Low-impact dyes require less water and create less water runoff.
  • There are seven countries in particular that make up 97% of the world's organic cotton production. The US makes up only 2% of that production.
  • Companies and business leaders looking to invest in sustainable cotton may do so using resources like the Global Organic Textile Standard and the Organic Cotton Standard.