In the study...

Superlative Alternative: Organic Cotton

Superlative Alternative: Organic Cotton

Today, cotton is the second most used fibre in apparel manufacture, after synthetics.

And I’ve found the subject of organic cotton one of the most frequently discussed when talking about sustainable fashion. Perhaps because it’s an easy concept to understand, in theory, and also because it is now widely accessible.

But what does organic really mean when it comes to cotton?

I’m often asked, what are the environmental benefits of organic vs conventional cotton production? How much more, on average, does a garment made of organic cotton cost? Is there a difference in the way it feels against your skin? And to be frank, there were only a few answers I felt comfortable giving until now. So I decided to dig a little deeper for everyone’s benefit.

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Let’s start with a clear and digestible summary of what organic production means.

It is ‘a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects’. It ‘combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.’ (Life Cycle Assessment for Organic Cotton, 2016).

What is organic cotton? 

In a nutshell, it’s cotton that is not grown with the aid of chemicals or artificial substances but in a way that gradually and naturally builds soil fertility, and protects biodiversity.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the differences between conventional and organic cotton in the growing phase:

organic conventional cotton pro con table 

Put simply, conventional cotton relies on the use of chemicals at almost every stage of the growing process, while organic cotton does not. 

While this table covers the growing phase of organic cotton fibre, it’s important to note that the stages further along the supply chain (processing and manufacturing of the garment) have huge social and environmental impact too.

What does ‘GOTS certified’ mean?

GOTS stands for Global Organic Textile Standard and the certificate is arguably the most recognised and respected when it comes to clothing labels on organic cotton garments.

What makes it different from other cotton certifications is that it not only ensures the organic status of textiles from seed to finished garment but also covers all processes in between (processing, manufacturing, dyeing, labelling etc) while setting strict environmental and social criteria throughout.

womens organic cotton t-shirt

Women's GOTS certified organic cotton t-shirt £36

How much of the cotton grown worldwide is organic?

This answer is staggeringly small – the latest figure is less than 0.5%.

Currently, India is the global leader in organic cotton production, producing more than half.

What are the environmental advantages of growing organic cotton?

  • Organic cotton water consumption is up to 91% lower than that of conventional cotton.
  • CO2 emissions into the atmosphere are 46% less when growing organically (this is mainly due to the lack of chemicals used in its production).
  • As no synthetic chemicals are used in organic cotton production, there is no water or soil contamination.

What are the social advantages of growing organic cotton? 

  • Farmers and communities have more food security. By planting different crops between the cotton crops (inter-cropping) farmers and communities can access fresh organic produce for themselves.
  • Famers are more financially stable. They can get a higher price for the organic cotton they sell in addition to cutting costs because they don’t have to buy expensive chemicals and GMO seeds. Furthermore, by growing other crops and selling them, farmers have an additional source of income.
  • A farmer and the surrounding community also have fewer health risks, as they are not exposed to chemicals.

Certifications such as GOTS also set strict social and environmental criteria in the processing and manufacturing of organic cotton garments, further down the supply chain from the growing phase.

organic cotton printed women's pyjamas

Women's pyjama shorts in GOTS certified organic cotton £70

Does a garment made with organic cotton cost more?

I’m calling on The Textile Exchange for this one, since they already have the perfect explanation:

‘It’s not that organic cotton “costs more” it’s that conventional cotton “costs too little” because it does not cover all its true costs. Health and environmental costs are often externalized, meaning neither the consumer nor the retailer “pays” for them, the farmer and the environment does. When a fair price is paid, it makes a huge difference to producers and only a small difference to the consumer.’ 

Does organic cotton feel noticeably different on your skin?

There is currently no evidence that wearing a garment made with organic cotton feels different on your skin. Having said that, it certainly should make you feel happier in your skin.

It is clear from the environmental and social impacts outlined above that organic cotton production not only dramatically reduces pressure placed on the environment, but also provides market-driven relief against poverty.

By buying garments made with organic cotton you are investing in the long-term health of the planet and the lives of those working in the supply chain. 

How do we make a change?

Like many issues, it will take a combination of things to make a change. Among them, insightful government regulation, the development of forward-thinking business structures and us, educating each other about the need for change.

So share this post, learn more about organic cotton and incorporate it into your purchases when you can, because YOU play a leading role in this fashion revolution.

 

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All of the brands represented on the STUDY 34 platform are driven by individual desires to work towards change – whether that be the sourcing of responsible raw materials, investing in real craftsmanship during the manufacturing process, or seeking to create timeless pieces outside of fast fashion trends.

What are our shopping habits really doing to our planet? Now we know.

What are our shopping habits really doing to our planet? Now we know.

Pulse of Fashion Industry report outlines the environmental impacts of fast fashion.

Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world. Since you’re reading this article, I’m sure that statement is familiar. But while it might shock, it doesn’t do anything to explain why. And if we don’t understand why the industry is so polluting, it makes it very difficult to understand how we could begin to change things.

How much do you know about how a piece of clothing is made? Here’s a simple breakdown:

how clothing is made lifecycle

Lifecycle of a garment 

This week, The Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group released a report clearly and simply setting out the ways in which our addiction to fast fashion is affecting the environment and global society.

It’s pretty hard hitting - if you have a spare morning, enjoy bar charts, graphs and a healthy dose of statistics, I’d recommend a read. But I’m guessing you’re a little short on time and would really appreciate a summary – and a helpful one.

So I’m going to give it a shot. 

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Planetary Boundaries: what are they and why should I care?

A Planetary Boundary is a boundary ‘within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.’

There are four key boundaries to consider in the case of fashion: Water Consumption, Energy Emissions, Chemical Usage and Waste Creation.

And our actions until this point in all aspects of life have meant that we have exceeded all but one of these boundaries. Our incessant buying of fashion is an overwhelming contribution to this.

But don’t panic.

While the current situation should shock anyone, there are particular elements that we as consumers could have a disproportionately positive effect on, should we choose to do so.

And really, we have to. Because if we don’t choose to now, we will be forced to later.

Your ultimate guide to buying better clothes

water consumption fashion industry

Whereabouts in the clothing supply chain do we use so much water?

Mainly in the raw materials phase, in particular in the growing of cotton. However, water is also used in the processing stages (dying, cleaning etc) and again, in considerable volumes, when we wash our clothes.

How can your choices help change things?

  • Think about the materials your clothes are made of. Organic cotton, for example, can use up to 91% less water then conventional cotton.
  • Think twice before washing your clothes – try airing them for a while first.

What/where to buy when needed:

Look for organic cotton wardrobe basics from The White T-Shirt Company or People Tree.

women's navy white stripe t-shirt

Women's micro stripe t-shirt in GOTS certified organic cotton £35,
The White T-shirt Company

 

energy usage fashion industry

Whereabouts in the clothing supply chain do we use a lot of energy and why?

In the raw material phase (use of oil in the production of polyester for example), and the processing stage (all the mechanical equipment being operated). But again, it is highly significant in the usage stage in the way we choose to care for our garments by washing, drying and ironing.

What simple things can you do today that would be better?

  • Again, don’t wash your clothes so often, and when you do, wash at a lower temperature (they’ll still be clean!).
  • Choose to air-dry your clothes when you can (this will also affect how long they may last, as mechanical drying affects quality).

What/where to buy when needed:

Go for a brand that uses recycled materials (thereby reducing energy consumption as they don’t require virgin fibre). Brands like Ecoalf and Patagonia are leaders in this field and produce functional, good-looking clothing. Brands like Reformation and the smaller Starch Slides use fabrics that are destined to go to waste to make something new and, consequently, very limited in quantity. 

women's flat mule pink stripe

'The Tina' flat mule £107, Starch Slides

 

chemical usage fashion industry

Whereabouts in the clothing supply chain do we use a lot of chemicals and why?

Mainly in the growing of raw materials and, in particular, cotton. Fertilisers and pesticides are used in the growing of conventional cotton and run off into the waterways, harming communities and environments. The processing phase (dying in particular) can also be listed here, as lack of water treatment (releasing water into the environment when still full of chemicals) has the same effect. And once again, our usage; chemicals in detergents and micro-plastics are released through washing.

What changes can I make today?

  • By choosing to buy clothing made from recycled fibres or organic cotton (that prohibits the use of any chemicals), you are sending a signal to brands that you want more environmentally friendly fibres in your clothes.
  • Also, by buying clothing that uses fibre in its natural colour. Alpaca wool, for example, produces a wide variety of natural colours – 22 shades in total, more than any other natural fibre.

What/where to buy when needed:

Go for a brand that you know is dedicated to the triple bottom line of People, Planet and Profit. Companies like Veja and Finisterre hone in on all parts of their supply chains. Smaller brands like Eight Hour Studio use exclusively organic cotton and Seeker x Retriever use only natural dyes.

cream striped t-shirt dress handmade

Striped t-shirt dress £133, Seeker x Retriever

textile waste in the fashion industry

Whereabouts in the clothing supply chain do we produce a lot of waste and why?

This part is overwhelmingly to do with us, the consumers, more than any other factor. By buying too many cheap clothes and throwing them away, we, more than anyone else in the supply chain, are contributing massively to this problem. Only 20% of clothing produced today is reused or recycled in some way. There are others involved too of course. Brands that churn out cheap, disposable clothing that cannot be recycled at the end of its life, are also guilty of waste.

What can I do today?

  • Don’t buy into fashion trends so readily and only buy things that you really need.
  • If you do need to buy something, only buy it if it suits you and you are comfortable wearing it (really think about how may times you will realistically wear it too).
  • Make sure it is versatile (goes with lots of things you already have) and is good quality so it will stand the test of time.
  • Look after the clothes you have so that they last longer; don’t over wash them and try to repair instead of replace them.
  • Buy from second hand shops.
  • Donate clothes (that are in good condition) that you no longer want, or give them to someone you know would like them.

What/where to buy if needed:

Think about your personal style and invest in simple pieces that are not trend lead, but rather the building blocks of your wardrobe. For me, these are pieces from Kowtow, The White T-shirt Company, Veja and Levi’s for example. Invest in items made for you and that can be tailored to your preferences (Veryan), or something made from recycled or biodegradable fibres (Freitag).

women's wrap top white cotton

Activism never looked so good

The report unearthed an additional insight worth mentioning, that only goes further to support the need for action on our side.

It revealed that ‘a third of Millennials strongly agree that they are more likely to buy from companies that are mindful of their social responsibilities’, but that ‘only a tiny proportion of fashion shoppers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products.’ In additional to that, ‘one in four firms named consumers’ unwillingness to pay such a premium for preventing them from revising their practices.’ And finally, when a group of managers from a range of fashion firms were asked the question ‘to whom would you attribute the major responsibility for driving the industry towards more sustainability?’

Their answer was… us, the consumers. 

The industry suggests that we, the consumers, have the biggest part to play in making the fashion industry a more responsible one, yet our understanding of how we can do that is still arguably low.

I hope this article has gone some way to inspire your action.

As consumers, the price of a product disproportionately determines whether we buy it. But I have learnt first hand over the past few years, that by buying clothing in a more mindful manner, I have spent a markedly lower amount per year than I have before. And yet, I have never been happier or more comfortable in my clothing by buying fewer items, of higher value, and supporting brands who are doing something interesting and worthwhile.

In a recent article in Womankind magazine, Lucy Treloar quoted American novelist Alice Walker as having written ‘activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.’

And today, activism in fashion has never looked so good.

 

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All of the brands represented on the STUDY 34 platform are driven by individual desires to work towards change – whether that be the sourcing of responsible raw materials, investing in real craftsmanship during the manufacturing process, or seeking to create timeless pieces outside of fast fashion trends.

Another Fashion Revolution Week Has Passed But Has Anything Really Changed?

Another Fashion Revolution Week Has Passed But Has Anything Really Changed?

Are we taking action towards a more responsible fashion industry?

Last week was Fashion Revolution Week, a movement that always drives a lot of conversation around the topic of sustainable fashion, and long may it continue.

But with so much buzz around the issue, it often makes me wonder what real change, if any, has occurred? In a world increasingly dominated by the wants and needs of an individual rather than larger communities, how much are people engaging with this conversation?

Most of us are able to look at our own lives and clearly compare this year to the last, but when the question relates to a global industry, employing around 60 million people and valued at US$3 trillion, understanding what advances have been made can be more complicated to work out.

Next month will see the 5th edition of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the world’s largest and most influential conference on the topic of sustainable fashion. In the run up, its President and CEO Eva Kruse, someone with significant knowledge on the subject, kindly agreed to answer a few of my burning questions...

 

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eva kruse Copenhagen fashion summit sustainability 

Eva Kruse, speaking at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2016

Transparency in the fashion industry

What measurable advances relating to a more sustainable industry have you seen in both consumer as well as brand behaviour since the first Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2009?

‘Transparency is the biggest change I’ve seen. People are sharing and being transparent about what they do and what they find difficult. The environment for companies to talk about the work they do and the challenges they face has become safer. More brands can talk. More consumers are interested and willing to listen.’

 

Calling for more conscious consumption of fashion

Many people cannot see how their individual purchasing decisions will affect the wider fashion industry. How do you address this point of view?

‘It’s always been my opinion that we all need to be aware that we are global citizens and that our actions have impacts. This is not to give people a guilt trip, but an awareness that everything we say, do and buy has a consequence. That’s why we all have to think; every time we purchase something, every time we turn on the washer, take long showers, book a flight, eat a steak, etc - that we do it consciously. That doesn’t mean we don’t purchase. It just means that we should be conscious that what we do and what we buy is feeding the machine. I still drive my car, take long showers and eat meat occasionally, but I am concerned and try to consider whether we need it. We have to be conscious, not blind in our consumption.’ 

What do you think are the real barriers for a consumer when it comes to buying clothing produced more responsibly?

‘The real barrier is that we shop emotionally when buying fashion. We might buy organic even if a tomato isn’t as red or shiny. In fashion, that’s not the case. We wouldn’t buy a jacket that was not exactly as red and shiny as we wished - no matter if it was organic. Fashion is driving us to want something new that we most likely don’t need. And we want it for reasons that aren’t logical. That emotional side is the biggest barrier. That is why intelligent progress needs to be led by brands and designers. If they can make it cool, then I want to buy the look.’

 women's cotton waxed jacket navy green

Women's waxed cotton jacket made in Nottingham £238, Salt & Co

Responsible fashion requires an environmental and cultural shift

With regards to the relationship between the fashion industry and sustainability from a business perspective, what is the biggest opportunity?

‘Well, we know that planetary boundaries continue to threaten natural resources, and these resources will become more and more scarce. It will be more expensive to do what we do today. The price of water will go up, etc. That gives a financial incentive to minimizing the use of natural resources. The same goes for energy. Just like in our homes, if we save energy then we have a lower bill. Sustainability can be cost effective.

Technology and innovations, which allow us to minimize the use of resources, lead to new products as well. There are so many major opportunities there – recyclable fibres, recycling garments and new business models. 

On top of this, these discoveries and initiatives are really interesting stories which brands and businesses can share with consumers.’

women's flat mule blue stripe

'The Willie' flat mule £107, Starch Slides

And what is the biggest challenge?

‘I suppose the biggest challenge is probably that we are transforming an industry that is already running and, in some ways, quite old fashioned. In these transitional years when we are changing the thinking within fashion, we have to support so many players along the supply chain. They all have to adapt. The industry is like a dinosaur. Getting it to think and act differently is difficult. Changing consumption and consumers’ minds is also difficult. The nature of fashion is to make us want something new all the time, so this is a cultural shift as well.’

This year's Copenhagen Fashion Summit will be held on 11th May and the overarching theme will be 'commitment to change'.

 

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All of the brands represented on the STUDY 34 platform are driven by individual desires to work towards change – whether that be the sourcing of responsible raw materials, investing in real craftsmanship during the manufacturing process, or seeking to create timeless pieces outside of fast fashion trends.