Cotton: Natural, But Far From Sustainable #WorldCottonDay

Who is going thirsty for this t-shirt? 

I grew up with a wardrobe full of cotton – believing natural fibres were better and more cooling in our tropical weather.

So, I lived in cotton – I slept on cotton, wore cotton, cleaned with cotton, dried with cotton.

But even though it’s a natural material, there’s a dark side to the material we often view as ‘better’’.

Cotton is a thirsty crop. 

It is often quoted to take 2,700 litres of water to make a single t-shirt (2 ½ years of drinking water for one person), exacerbating water scarcity in many areas where it’s grown.

Cotton is also known as a cash crop – one that brings so much ‘wealth’ to the few, and devastates so many.

So valuable, that the system has allowed these major issues to persist:

  • Its cultivation has historically been complicit in enslaving generations of people. Till today, 20% of the world’s cotton is linked to Uyghur forced labor, 4% to Uzbekistan forced labor, and many more that don’t make it into the news.
  • Farmers and communities are exposed to dangerous chemicals, pesticides and insecticides in acres of monoculture crops.
  • The chemicals in cotton cultivation alter ecosystems, contaminate water sources with runoff and affect biodiversity (conventional cotton production uses 8 – 10% of all pesticides globally! – source: WWF)
  • The workers across the supply chain are exposed to toxic dyes and chemicals, inhale cotton dust as they work, etc. 

We grow millions of tonnes of cotton to produce millions of tonnes of fast fashion every year . Yet if it is so valuable, why do we treat it as disposable? Cotton is incredibly useful. But it’s how we’ve been growing, producing, and exploiting it that’s the problem.

So for #WorldCottonDay, let’s celebrate this crop by treating it and the people who are involved in its production with respect.

  • Choose organic, if you can (less than 1% of global cotton is organic)
  • If not, choose from brands that are part of the Better Cotton Initiative (not perfect or organic, but better than conventional)
  • Consider other less harmful natural materials like lyocell, hemp or linen. 
  • Buy less, use for longer.
  • Source secondhand cotton through thrifting, upcycling, swapping (there’s more than enough in existence for us to use!). Remake or dye them to your needs.

And most importantly, rethink the way we use resources and continue to demand the industry to support better conditions for workers and the environment.

I love cotton so much that I want it to be better, don’t you?

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