Natural, renewable, recyclable – cotton has the potential to be an excellent choice for sustainable apparel. But conventional cotton’s chemical inputs are enormous relative to other fibers, meaning its potential is only realized with organic practices.

What is cotton and where is it grown?

Cotton is a natural fiber that grows protectively around the seeds of the cotton plant. It is primarily sourced from countries with warm climates, such as India, China, USA and Brazil. Nearly half of all global textiles are made of cotton, and it is the most widespread non-food crop in the world.

What are cotton’s production impacts?

Conventional cotton production is land, water and chemical intensive. Global cotton production uses nearly 35 million hectares of land – the equivalent land area of Germany – usually in the form of large scale monoculture farms. It takes up to 2700 liters of water to produce the cotton needed for one t-shirt, and many cotton regions have strained water supplies. When it comes to chemical use, conventional cotton production has the highest impacts of any commonly used fiber. Most cotton requires extremely high pesticide and insecticides inputs (18% and 25% of total global consumption respectively), as well as fertilizers and other chemicals to keep the crop productive and costs low. These practices reduce soil quality, contaminate water sources and present significant health risks to humans and biodiversity.

Can cotton be recycled at end of life?

When unblended with other fibers (such as polyester), cotton can be recycled and the resulting fiber will have much lower environmental impacts than virgin cotton. Sorting by color can additionally save on impacts associated with dyeing. But the recycled fiber is slightly degraded and will therefore usually be mixed with virgin cotton to increase yarn strength and improve its quality. Cotton can also be downcycled (another word for recycled to a lower-value product) as insulation, filler, mop heads, rags etc.

How much better is Organic Cotton?

While there are many standards in place with varying criteria, all organic cotton is strictly non-GMO and must be grown without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. As such, it bypasses conventional cotton production’s greatest relative impact: chemicals use. Organic cotton also uses far less fresh water and energy overall (approx. 90 % and 60 % reductions respectively). On the other hand, organic crops have lower yields per plant and as such require more land than conventional crops. Due to the added diligence and production costs of organic standards, organic cotton also tends to be more expensive.

Are there other aspects to keep in mind?

Cotton is also biodegradable, but various treatments may affect this such as waterproofing or easy care finishes. Treated cotton fibers can therefore lead to microfiber pollution in marine and land environments. It is also important to remember that fiber production only accounts for a fraction of the impact, whereby yarn and textile formation, dyeing and finishes all contribute to the material’s overall impact. For this reason, additional certifications that ensure adequate chemicals management, climate mitigation, and biodiversity protection throughout the product’s production are preferable.


Cotton Standards 


The OCS is a chain of custody standard developed by the non-profit Textile Exchange. Essentially, the OCS works at the farm level with approved national certification authorities to verify that a final product contains mostly organically grown and harvested plants.

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As the world’s leading processing standard for textiles, the GOTS ensures organic textile production meets both environmental and social criteria. The standard oversees every step in the supply chain from farm to finished product. All this is guaranteed to be done under fair, safe and transparent working conditions

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Illustration: Kiki Fjell

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