You are probably well aware by now that fashion has a sustainability issue. Our addiction to cheap, poor-quality clothes means that tonnes of fabric are thrown away, around the planet, every second. But fashion’s eco issues start long before anything arrives at landfills.
Cotton is the world’s most popular non-food crop. Almost 30 million tonnes were grown in 2021 – primarily in India, China, the US, Pakistan and Brazil, which produce three-quarters of the global supply between them – and it accounts for almost a quarter of the world’s total fabric supply (by comparison polyester – which is essentially plastic – now makes up more than half).
By some estimates, around a billion people are supported by the cotton industry, primarily the 250 million who work to process it, and the 100 million farmers who grow it. As many as 90 per cent of them live in developing countries and farm cotton on small private plots of just a couple of hectares. For them, cotton is an economic lifeline.
Unfortunately, cotton is also demanding. Though native to hot, dry climates, it requires enormous volumes of water to thrive. In India, where some 100 million people don’t have access to clean, safe water, every kilo of cotton produced drinks up to 22,500 litres of the stuff. In 2013 alone, the amount of water used to irrigate the country’s cotton crops would have been enough to supply 85 per cent of the population – more than a billion people – with 100 litres of water a day each.
The fashion industry as a whole currently uses almost 100 billion litres of water annually, which is equivalent to four per cent of the global total. That number is set to double by the end of the decade. This is having a huge knock-on effect not just for the people who could otherwise use that water, but on the environments in which cotton grows.
Since the 1960s the Aral Sea, which borders Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and was once the fourth-largest lake in the world, has shrunk to just 10 per cent of its original size after being tapped for cotton irrigation. The farms it fed were also heavily reliant on chemicals to produce bigger yields, a problem that’s only increased – an estimated four per cent of global pesticides and 10 per cent of insecticides are used just in cotton production. These leach into soils and flow into waterways, where they pollute drinking water and disrupt ecosystems. The Aral Sea is a stark warning of what might happen elsewhere – all that remains there is chemical-tainted deserts.
But cotton is also a brilliant fabric for clothing. It’s lightweight but hardwearing and because it’s full of tiny air holes, it’s breathable in hot weather but traps heat when it’s chilly. It’s comfortable, easy to work with, simple to dye, cut and sew, which makes it ideal for everything from t-shirts to joggers to denim. It also has strong eco credentials, so long as it’s produced in ways that don’t harm the planet.
Cotton is a completely natural fibre, which means that unlike polyester, it biodegrades. It can also be recycled, although this affects the fabric’s strength and durability, which means it’s often reused in things like home insulation and building materials.
Unfortunately, working out if a fabric is sustainable is difficult. Something labelled ‘organic’ might only contain a small proportion of organic cotton. Or might be made without pesticides, but still be heavily irrigated. It might be picked by children, or dyed with chemicals that then wash out into rivers.
That’s why we use GOTS-certified cotton, the gold standard for fabrics, which have been scrutinised at all stages of their supply chain by the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) to ensure they meet rigorous ethical and environmental benchmarks. GOTS-certified cotton is made with at least 70 per cent organic fibres and has also been processed in an ecologically and socially responsible way, from field to factory. Workers are looked after, wastewater is either recycled or disposed of properly, and suppliers are focused on minimising their energy footprints.
When you buy clothes made from GOTS-certified cotton, you can be sure that you’re investing in something that’s better for the planet and better for the people who made it. What happens next, however, is up to you. Loving and looking after your clothes keeps them looking good longer, which keeps them out of landfill. At Huelwear, we want everything we make to last as long as possible, which is why all our clothes come backed with a five-year guarantee. We’ve made them in the best way from the highest-quality materials, including GOTS-certified cotton, so we know they’re made to last. We hope you love them as much as we love making them.
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