Is cotton sustainable? The ethics and eco-friendliness of cotton

Durability, performance and most of all comfort. Cotton clothes can provide you quality which lasts for a long time. It is so no wonder why cotton clothes are found in most wardrobes all around the world.

Actually, the material is the most widely used natural fibre in textiles. It is also the most used fibre in the world.

It has been estimated, that half of the world’s clothes are contributed by cotton. Even though cotton is extremely used, biodegradable and natural, its production is not as sustainable as one might think. Water intensive management practices, heavy use of synthetic chemicals and forced and child labor are just a few concerning sustainability issues. These sustainability challenges easily set aside cotton industry’s positive impacts.

Cultivating cotton employs approximately 100 million farmers with total 250 million people working in the cotton processing. The impact on the livelihoods for many people is enormous. Unfortunately, there are also evidence of forced-and child labor in the industry.

Is cotton sustainable?

Cotton’s sustainability can be considered a bit controversial. Cotton is versatile, biodegradable and recyclable. Even though it has many benefits in usage and disposal, the production process however sets a dark shadow to its sustainability.

On the other hand, cotton can provide highly durable and strong fabrics lasting for a long period of time. But, as fashion tends to be a rapidly moving consumer good, many consumers may want to discard outdated clothes before they reach their end of life.

Durability and quality are however an important element making cotton sustainable to use. This is perhaps one reason why many consumers could consider cotton sustainable, as the awareness of the environmental effects of cotton production hasn’t always been so present as it is today. One should also consider the economic and social sustainability perspectives, as the cotton industry is a large employer, providing income to many households.

However, also forced and child labor are concerning issues in the industry.

Is cotton biodegradable?

Cotton will break down when composting or even when left on its own, so cotton is biodegradable. Its biodegradability means also that it is totally recyclable, having a huge benefit over synthetic materials. Due to the fact that cotton is biodegradable, it will not contribute to methane secretion in landfills.

How bad is cotton for the environment?

If you ponder around the question, is cotton production bad for the environment, the answer is yes. There are actually many sustainability challenges in cotton production. One of the biggest problems is its waterintensive management practices.

The location has a huge impact on this, as well as irrigation method and cotton variety. In some regions, water stress is increased due to reductions in groundwater levels.

The production also requires heavy use of pesticides. The pesticides further on contaminate the water sources and disturb the biological balance. The production of basic cotton clothes require a massive use of synthetic chemicals and alongside with the water-intensity, make cotton bad for the environment.

Also air pollution, disturbance to the ecosystem and decrease of biodiversity are consequences of cotton production. So, is cotton bad for the environment is a very valid question. The research and results do not however give room for misinterpretations, as conventional cotton production has many sustainability challenges.

The consumption and production rate of cotton has also been only accelerating, leading to overgrazing and extensive land use.

Organic cotton overview

Organic cotton, as in eco friendly cotton, can be considered much better alternative to conventional cotton for many reasons. Firstly, it is produced without using synthetic chemical inputs. This includes chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Organic production ensures soil fertility and builds a biologically diverse agriculture. Organically grown cotton also require nearly 91 % less water than conventional cotton.

Buying organic cotton should be more incentivized by the governments, even though its demand has steadily grown in the international markets. Organically grown cotton is eco friendly cotton and buying organic cotton gives its buyers not only a clean conscience, but also a higher premium. Unfortunately, according to the Organic Trade Association (2021), it makes only 1 % of the entire cotton production at the moment.

From nature’s perspective, there isn’t any reason why cotton shouldn’t be produced organically. Organically farming decreases greenhouse gases, reduced acidification and saves clean water and electricity.

There is a general high demand for sustainable cotton and collaboration across the sector is needed for driving the change. Sustainable cotton refers to cotton production with minimal environmental impact, supporting simultaneously livelihoods and communities. This has lead to the creation of “Sustainable cotton communique”, including 36 major brands and retailers such as Adidas, Burberry and Timberland pledging to use 100 % sustainable cotton by 2025.

For reaching the organic cotton brands, there are many good options. These are for instance Patagonia, Pact and Coyuchi. For organic cotton yoga clothes, good alternatives could be Organic Yoga Company and Groceries Apparel. Also well known companies such as Adidas and Nike are committed to take action by using organic cotton, providing sports and organic cotton yoga clothes. The amount of organic cotton brands is
also likely to grow in the future.

Eco-friendly cotton alternatives

Even though organic cotton could be considered eco-friendly, there are also many good cotton alternatives, such as tencel, viscose and bamboo.

Tencel for instance, is a very good alternative for cotton clothes. Tencel is made of cellulose from wood. Considering tencel vs cotton, the differences rise from many things. The production of tencel is more environmentally friendly than conventional cotton production, due to lower water use and less waste. On the other hand, organic cotton production can provide a more environmental friendly solution for cotton.

Tencel vs cotton

➔ Tencel requires less water in production than cotton
➔ Tencel fabric is softer than cotton
➔ Cotton is not so expensive compared to tencel

Considering viscose vs cotton, you can see that they are equally breathable, but cotton is actually a bit
stronger material than viscose. From the environmental perspective, viscose also has some harmful
chemicals cotton does not.

Viscose vs cotton

➔ Cotton is stronger than viscose
➔ They are both very breathable materials
➔ Cotton is hypoallergenic and viscose isn’t
➔ Viscose drapes well, cotton necessarily doesn’t

Bamboo vs cotton

Bamboo cotton is a very good eco-friendly solution as well. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet and it doesn’t require any pesticides or fertilizers to grow. Bamboo fibre is also a very soft material.

Bamboo is highly environmental when produced with a mechanical process. Unfortunately, most bamboo fabrics are not produced this way as the most used method is a chemical one.


These cotton alternatives could very well replace at least some portion of cotton’s production in the future.

Considering the harmful process of conventional cotton production, it would be ideal if the industry would take more action for providing more environmental friendlier options for consumers in the future. Luckily, some action has already be taken, such as the Sustainable Cotton Communique.


Author: primal

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top