From Dirt to Shirt: Cotton as a Case Study in Sustainability

Sustainability claims in textile marketing

A few weeks ago, Chip Bergh, the CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., urged customers to stop washing their jeans as a way to conserve water in the laundering process. Not surprisingly, Mr. Bergh’s call to action (or, rather, inaction) was met with a chorus of “ew’s” across the nation. Levi’s efforts and the resulting backlash bring up some interesting questions. Does “green” living really have to be dirty, laundry-less living? Who should bear the burden of sustainability: consumers or companies? These are some of the questions I get to explore over the course of my summer internship at Cotton Incorporated.

In the sea of sustainability marketing, it can be difficult to differentiate between greenwashing PR stunts and meaningful business decisions. During a recent conference on Textiles and Sustainability at NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), for example, I attended a panel on emerging trends in eco-fashion. The talk showcased fibers composed of everything from fungi, to bark, to recycled plastic bottles. The earthy and repurposed fibers made me question whether an apparel company could really achieve a triple bottom line (that is, people-planet-profit) by using these unique inputs. Can a fashion line composed of discarded cow nipples – yes, this quite disturbingly exists – really sustain a population’s clothing needs or will it introduce its own set of environmental disruptions, such as those generally associated with cattle rearing? These questions have naturally led me to assess whether cotton is better placed to help companies achieve their sustainability and profitability goals.

Check the label on your shirt. Kudos if it’s cotton, but in today’s world of throw-away fast fashion, you’re likely sporting a blend of synthetic, petroleum-based materials (no judgment, I’m writing this as I wear a blue polyester blouse myself!). Do you ever stop to think that these fabrics are non-biodegradable and made using toxic chemicals brewed up in a lab? Cotton in contrast grows on farms, many of which are located in some of the world’s driest climates, such as West Texas and Burkina Faso. Because of its drought-resistant qualities, it can grow in regions where few other crops thrive, contributing to the livelihoods of farmers the whole world over.

Nevertheless, cotton receives a lot of flak on some issues. Take its use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which account for over 80% of the world’s cotton. As a food crop, cotton can be grown either conventionally or organically. But let’s be realistic: is the world’s supply of organic cotton, whose volume could fit on one medium-sized cargo ship, enough to ensure that every human being has a t-shirt on their back? As demand for textiles increases by 3-4% a year, how can organic cotton keep up? Analogous to arguments made in the food industry, GMOs have a vital role to play in allowing a plant’s physiology to withstand detrimental climatic changes and insect vulnerabilities. I’m now coming around to the realization that organic varieties of cotton (and food for that matter) are not as sustainable as we like to think they are when longevity and reach are factored into the equation.

FIT's natural dye garden

FIT’s natural dye garden

A similar argument can be made with natural colorants. While at FIT, I had the opportunity to tour a rooftop natural dye garden that overlooks the Empire State Building: a pretty cool endeavor for small-scale textile finishing! In a recent textile processing workshop, however, I learned that to grow these colorants – such as the indigo root used to dye our jeans blue – at a large scale would be incredibly land-intensive. From a sustainability perspective, we may actually be better off sticking to synthetic colorants.

All that’s to say, I’m learning the importance of science and technology in ensuring that cotton continues to make headway in the textile industry as a reliable input with limited impact on the environment. Innovations in research and technology – much of which is being undertaken right here at Cotton Incorporated! – has helped advance the U.S. cotton industry in countless ways:

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Cotton stats

Freezing our jeans is only going to get us so far… sustainability in supply chains needs to be more comprehensive than that. It should be about buying fewer items (see: Patagonia’s plea to “buy less”) from companies that source their inputs responsibly and that are on a continuous quest for improving their production and labor processes. And when those jeans inevitably fade and are ready to face the boot, it’s about thinking creatively about their afterlife (see: recycling used denim into housing insulation).

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