The Ugly Truth About Cotton – Part II

The fashion industry has a grossly unsustainable ecological footprint. Every year the industry emits 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2, consumes and pollutes a vast amount of water and creates 2.1 billion tonnes of waste. Global consumption of clothing has doubled since 2000 and is expected to keep on rising. This is as a result of today’s throw-away culture, the poor quality of ‘fast fashion’ clothing and our obsession with following latest fashion trends (The Global Fashion Agenda, 2017).

Garments come in many different materials, synthetic and natural. However, in both cases they are usually bleached with dioxin-producing chlorine compounds and dyed synthetically. Chemicals typically remain in the fabric and are released during the lifetime of the garments. Organic garments are likely to be free of these and also adhere to better environment and animal welfare standards especially important for animal-based fabrics such as fur, leather, silk, cashmere and wool.

Here are two tables of unsustainable and sustainable clothing fabrics and their environmental impact, compiled from the Green Choices website:

Unsustainable Fabrics

Polyester Synthetic, made from petrochemicals and probably the worst fabric. Uses large amounts of water for cooling, along with lubricants which can become a source of contamination. Both processes are also very energy-hungry. Sheds thousands of microplastics in the laundry. Fleece, a type of polyester, releases 170% more plastic fibers than other synthetic garments.
Nylon Synthetic, made from petrolium. Its manufacture creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s often given a permanent chemical finish and also sheds hundreds of thousands of microplastics in each wash.
Acrylic Synthetic, made from polymer i.e. plastic and sheds up to 730,000 microplastics in each wash, more than polyester. Garments have short lifespan.
Rayon (viscose) Artificial fiber, made from wood pulp. Seems more sustainable but old growth forest is often cleared and/or subsistence farmers are displaced to make way for pulpwood plantations. Often the tree planted is eucalyptus, which draws up phenomenal amounts of water and has detrimental environmental impacts. To make rayon, the wood pulp is treated with hazardous chemicals such as caustic soda, ammonia and sulphuric acid.
Cotton Extremely pesticide, herbicide and water intensive. Detrimental on human health and the environment. Chemicals typically remain in the fabric after finishing, and are released during the lifetime of the garments. The development of genetically modified cotton adds environmental problems at another level. To make just one pair of jeans uses around 8 years’ worth of drinking water.
Virtually all polycotton (especially bedlinen), plus all ‘easy care’, ‘crease resistant’, ‘permanent press’ cotton, are treated with toxic formaldehyde (also used for flameproofing nylon).
Wool Both agricultural and craft workers in the UK suffer from exposure to organophosphate sheep dip, a chemical nerve agent which is linked to a number of illnesses.
Leather Uses polluting tanning and dyeing processes, as well as intensive farming impacts and animal rights issues.

Sustainable Fabrics

Organic Cotton Reduces the problems caused by pesticides used particularly in cotton and often incorporates fair trade requirements. Organic cotton garments are also likely to be free from chlorine bleaches and synthetic dyes.
Hemp A thoroughly ecological crop: highly productive, easy to cultivate and pest tolerant, so needing few or no agrochemicals whilst at the same time binding and enriching the soil with its deep roots. It is a traditional fibre, that went out of favour in the 1930s for political reasons, rather than practical ones.
Bamboo Hypoallergenic, absorbent, fast-drying and naturally anti-bacterial and comes from a very fast-growing plant. It’s not all good though, there are some concerns over the chemicals used in its processing, however less pesticides and fertilisers are used, and it is still a sustainable choice compared to most other fabrics.
Linen Made from flax, another traditional fiber crop which needs few chemical fertilisers, and less pesticides than cotton.
Organic Wool Produced using sustainable farming practises and without toxic sheep dips.
Natural Alternatives There are many alternatives of e.g. leather made from stalks, seeds, mushrooms and others.


In summary, some tips on how to be less harmful to the environment, animals and humans as a result of our consumption of fashion:

  1. Buy your clothes second-hand from a charity shop, swap shop, flea market or vintage shop.
  2. Fix or upcycle worn out items. Learn to sew! Many community centres will lend out sewing machines.
  3. Aim to buy only ethical, organic and natural fabrics. Avoid synthetic and unsustainable materials. Think of the longevity of the product at this buying stage.
  4. The in-use phase of the lifecycle of clothes contributes 50% of its overall carbon emission. So think about reducing the amount of washes you do and the temperature you wash them at (i.e. 30˚ instead of 60˚) and avoid using the dryer and iron.
  5. Ask you favourite fashionbrand what their policies on sustainbility are.


3 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth About Cotton – Part II

    1. Good question… and no idea! If it has the organic certification I assume it’s fine however worth looking into what “organic cotton” actually means. Having said that, I would still always veer towards second-hand clothes made from natural frabrics, that’s the best option.


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