Fashionable Fibres: What is 'more sustainable' cotton?

What is 'more sustainable' cotton?

 In my last post, the detrimental influences of conventional cotton farming practices were summarised, including the environmental and social implications of pesticide use. With the demand for cotton increasing, so is the potential impact it has on the environment. Fortunately there are alternative, more sustainable methods to produce our favourite jeans and t-shirts.

Recently many fashion retailers have been making the commitment to increase their use of ‘more sustainable cotton’ in their collections. But what does this term really mean?

More sustainable cotton is referring to cotton that is grown with conscious attempts to use fewer pesticides, less water and to take working conditions into consideration. It is a ‘step in the right direction’ commitment for farmers that is achievable and manageable.

With this said, often genetically modified cotton seeds (predominantly Bt cotton), and the pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers designed to work with them, are not prohibited and are still used. This is to manage pests, weeds and to put nutrients back into the soil.

An example of more sustainable cotton is Better Cotton which is produced and managed under the not-for-profit organisation, Better Cotton Initiative. BCI have their own set of specifications that the farmer adheres to. Amongst them are to progressively cut down on water, pesticides, and promote fair work. BCI currently supply 12.5% of the cotton market, reaching over 1.5 million farmers and have ambitious targets to expand their reach. GM seeds and chemical pesticides are allowed, under the farmers discretion, providing they fit in with the national laws and BCI’s production principles. The farmer does not receive a premium for producing Better Cotton but rather, BCI help the farmer to become more productive to increase income, whilst reducing harmful impacts of farming practices.

The conscious reduction in chemicals and water used is no doubt a step in the right direction, however without the strict full prohibition of pesticides or of GM seed, there is still uncertainty of the impact that these farming processes are having on the environment. 

Another more sustainable alternative to GM conventional cotton is Organic cotton. This is a holistic approach to growing cotton that completely avoids the use of harmful chemical pesticides. Farmers instead use ecological processes and biodiversity, to work with nature to keep soils healthy and pests at bay. This farming practice has many benefits to the environment, the farmer and you as the consumer, including:

Environmental Benefits

- Benefitting the topsoil and overall soil heath

- Increased biodiversity

- Less water is needed for growing in comparison to conventional cotton, and without the chemicals it cuts the risk of polluting waterways

- Reduction of energy consumed in relation to the absence of manufactured fertilisers

- The farming practices work with the local environment, not against it

Social Benefits

- Lower input costs for the farmer (including saving on medical bills)

- Higher crop diversity and food security for the farmer due to crop rotations 

- Farmers often belong to organic cotton organised groups that are there to offer guidance and community support

Consumer Benefits

- No risk of pesticide residue left on the cotton that will come into contact to your skin. This is especially important when considering female personal care products. We have written a separate post on that here

- Transparency in the supply chain

- Lessening your carbon footprint

With this said, organic farming is not an easy process and it requires long term commitment and investment from both the fashion industry and the farmer. It can be a difficult, labour intensive way to farm as it relies on the farmers’ skills and expertise, to manage pests and take care of the soil.

The price of organic cotton is often higher due to a smaller supply, certification costs, additional labour, as well as a higher, more fair wage to the farmer. However, it is the costs to the environment and the farmers which will be reduced.

The price we pay for cheap fashion does not include the true cost of the negative impacts it creates.

Cotton is a commodity that is vulnerable to price fluctuations. If prices are squeezed, it runs the risk of compromising elsewhere and could lead to corruption or fraud. Low prices for organic cotton also decreases the business case for farmers to grow it, pushing them to grow something completely different once their land is fully certified as organic. With this, demand and commitment are important in helping to stabilize the market and bring security to the farmer. We can support this movement through our purchases, looking out for certified organic cotton wherever possible.


In the next post, I will go into more depth of what to look for when purchasing organic cotton, what the certifications mean, and how a organically certified garment is more than just the cotton, but the certification takes into account every process within the supply chain.