Time to pull your (organic) cotton socks up!

We all love cotton. It is a great natural material – strong and versatile. Found in virtually everything we use in our lives – from clothing to home furnishings and industrial usage – our love affair with this awesome material does not seem to be ebbing any time soon.

Clothing and household items are by far the largest users of cotton. Cotton represents nearly half of the total fibre used to make clothing today, and this includes everything from coats and jackets, high fashion to fast throw away clothes, underwear and outerwear.

pure cotton t-shirts

There are approximately 100 million cotton farmers producing cotton in 80 countries worldwide, including USA, China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Greece, Australia and many others. And while all this should paint a great picture for cotton growers everywhere, yet, it hides a tale of grim, gritty and ugly poverty, fueled by a glittering world of fashion and consumerism.

The Cotton Story

Cotton has been around for a very long time. The oldest cotton fibres and boll fragments, dated from around 5000 B.C., were discovered in Mexico. People in Egypt and India have worn cotton garments for over 5,000 years and Native Americans grew cotton as early as 1500. In England, cotton was first imported in the 16th century, mainly from the West Indies and the American Colonies.

Cotton grows best on fertile, well-drained soils. Once the cotton is harvested, it is sent to cotton “gins” where seeds are separated from the raw cotton.  The lint is packed into bales and sent out to textile mills to make yarn. The cotton is cared or combed, making all of the fibres run parallel, and then spun into thread which in turn is used to make cloth.

Cotton is an amazing material – it can absorb water up to 27 times its own weight and can be weaved into any desired density. This means that cotton fabric can be easily dyed,  providing designers and manufacturers with the flexibility to produce a wide variety of products.

The Cost of Cotton

With about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, the demand for cotton – and low-cost clothing – is increasing year on year.

The increased competition also means that the price of cotton has slumped in the last decades, even though the cost of its production has risen.

In an effort to cope with the increased demand and decreasing prices, the industry has turned towards an intensification in agriculture,  resulting in widespread use of genetically modified crops.

Unfortunately, while satisfying our voracious appetites, this trend towards fast and cheap fashion often means that the “buck” has been passed down the line, with someone – or something  – else paying the price: 99% of cotton farmers, the majority using traditional, labour-intensive agricultural practices, live on the breadline in developing countries, while the soil and environment is getting degraded and poisoned by pesticides and fertilisers.

It is estimated that more than 90% of cotton is now genetically modified, using vast amounts of water as well as chemicals – cotton production is responsible for 18% of worldwide pesticide use and 25% of total insecticide use.

Some of The Facts

The fashion industry and global supply chain are waking up to the fact that the impacts of producing clothes cheaply and getting them fast in our shops are felt way beyond the cotton fields.

The largely untested impacts of chemicals used in the pesticides and fertilisers as a result of the increased use of GM modified seeds on both the land and human health are beginning to be questioned by those working in the industry.

Greenpeace’s recent Dirty Laundry campaign brought to light the toxic water pollution resulting from the release of hazardous chemicals by the textile industry. These practices are posing serious and immediate threats to our precious ecosystems and human health.

We compiled a few facts to help illustrate the impact of cotton on our lives:

  • Cotton, although a natural fibre, is one of the most environmentally intensive materials in our wardrobes and homes.
  • On average, cotton uses 11,000 litres of water on average for each kilogram produced.
  • Most cotton is grown using genetically modified (GM) seeds. GM crops present environmental issues, including soil and water pollution and threats to biodiversity.
  • Ninety-nine per cent of cotton farmers in the world lives in developing countries, leaving the poorest and most disenfranchised to bear the brunt of cotton productions’ negative health and environmental impact.
  • The fashion industry is the world’s second-largest polluter.
  • The world consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. Historically, we have held on to clothing for a long time, but with cheap clothing now abundantly available, we now see the things we wear as disposable.
  • Cotton production uses massive amounts of water:
    • it takes around 700 gallons of water to make enough cotton for one t-shirt
    • it takes about 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce one pair of jeans
  • An organic cotton is a sustainable option. It is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and does not use GM seeds.

The case for organic cotton production

Fact: Organic cotton production saves water.

Organic farming uses traditional and new scientific knowledge and techniques to grow crops in a way that develops healthy, fertile soil, conserves biodiversity and protects natural resources – minimising the use of non-renewable and off-farm inputs.

Organic practices in cotton growing promote healthier environments for the workers and the world:

  • 80% of organic cotton production is rain-fed rather than irrigated
  • Cotton farmers must keep their soils healthy in order to survive – and healthy soils are better at holding on to and soaking up water that comes from rain or irrigation.
  • organic soils make better use of water inputs and are more resilient in drought conditions

Organic cotton is our alternative for sustainability and an ethical supply chain. Applauded as the  ‘gold standard’ for sustainability in the fashion and clothing industry, under the right conditions, organic cotton delivers impressive results.

The textile industry has a complex and massive supply chain with numerous production processes spanning countries and trades, from the point where the original cotton fibres are grown, all the way to where the final products reach our hands. It cannot ignore the case for organic cotton production.

  • there are environmental, social and health benefits
  • it promotes responsible business practices,
  • it builds prosperity for many cotton farmers and workers employed in the supply chain living on the poverty line.

What are we doing?

As leaders in global sourcing, we take this very seriously and already work with partners and suppliers globally that are signed up to the case for organic cotton.

We understand that we cannot all switch all our textile orders immediately to organic cotton. However, we wanted to share with you some of the facts so that you can consider it as part of your responsible sourcing programmes moving forward.

We stand by our commitment to focus on sourcing ethically and our approach to improving sustainable thinking in the marketing materials area. We are therefore sharing with you a trailer to a film “The True Cost”.  We hope you have time to view it. It provides further insight as to why we all need to think differently.

We have also launched our own campaign – Buy Right, Get it Right, to help you buy products that are sourced ethically, and with consideration to both people and planet, products that are branded well and relevant to your brand and campaigns. Do call Becky or Grant to find out more about how to “Buy Right, Get it Right” for all your marketing materials.

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the world’s leading organic textile processingGOTS standard. It ensures that textiles are truly organic at every stage of production – from ginning, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling of the final product.

Hand in hand with organic cotton is Fairtrade. Fairtrade logo

Fairtrade practices and organic complement each other perfectly – Fairtrade focuses on improving the working and living conditions of the many farmers and workers in the supply chain.

This is our opportunity to do the right thing, for our businesses, for the many producing our products and living in poverty, and for our world tomorrow.




Click to access cotton-farm-to-fabric.pdf

Click to access Briefing.pdf



Know Your Materials: What Each One Means for Sustainable Fashion


Organic Cotton Accelerator