FIBRE 101 : COTTON
Cotton is the world's most-used natural fibre, grown by over 100 million producers worldwide. Often touted as a thirsty crop, we'll dig deeper to understand how that's qualified, plus other nuances around this age-old fibre. Read on to learn about conventional cotton, organic cotton, Australian cotton and recycled cotton.
Images by Courtney Holm from her visit to Auscott farms and local gin in Narrabri, NSW.
Fibre 101 : Cotton
Let's talk about the world's most used natural fibre - cotton. This humble fibre is second (in popularity) only to polyester in the world of textiles, representing around 25% of the total marketplace (Textile Exchange Fibre Report 2021).
Cotton is a summer cultivated crop that's grown in diverse topographies around the world with one common factor - typically hot and dry conditions. Cotton thrives in long and hot seasons - the longer and hotter the season the better the yields. It's no surprise then, that cotton is grown in 70 warm climate countries around the globe.
According to Cotton Australia and several other publications on the history of cotton, it is believed that cotton originated as a wild plant in East Africa, however was first cultivated and used for cloth making in the country now known as Pakistan, as well as Mexico and Egypt where cotton cloth from 5000BC has been discovered.
Gossypium - Botanical Illustration of the flowering cotton plant
Cotton can be a financially rewarding crop for farmers to grow. With over 100 million producers around the world, cotton may be favoured to grow over food, and if grown organically or with regenerative practises, can be rotated with food crops during the counter-season. Most crop rotating farms will produce "soil replenishing" crops in this time like alfalfa or chickpeas to help heal the soil between cotton plantings.
Cotton tends to gets a bad rap in the media. For example, you'll read how thirsty a crop it is, how it takes 7,600L to make a single pair of cotton jeans, how it uses a disproportionate level of pesticides to grow, how much arable land it takes up that could be used for food, its ties to slavery, how genetic seed has caused mass monoculture plus the increase of pesticide-resistant-pests and subsequent decrease of yields. Google any one of these issues (and believe it or not, there are more than listed here) and you're bound to find hundreds of opinions on the matter. However, these issues are not always as black and white as they seem. Some of the issues are isolated, others are relegated in history, many are based on old and inaccurate datasets, while others may very well be true for particular regions. It's not to say these issues aren't important to understand and address, it's just that it's never as simple as the headlines appear. If any of these issues worry you, I'd recommend researching further from reputable, recent and verified sources.
Let's look at water, for example. Current data from the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) shows that the average amount of water needed to grow 1kg of cotton linter is 1,931L of blue water (that's irrigated water). This is a global average and simply doesn't represent a more nuanced reality. For example, many cotton growing countries in Africa rely solely on rainwater to grow their cotton, so their data might show as 0L for blue water, where as countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are using 13,696L and 11,892L per 1kg respectively (ICAC, Cotton Recorder 2021). So as you can see just from this one statistic water usage depends entirely on the geographical location, the specific farm and the farmer's methods.
I want to address the thirsty-crop issue by comparing how much water cotton needs vs other popular crops. According to the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), cotton's average water irrigation requirements are 6-7 mega-litres per hectare of land (ML/ha). You could compare this to 11.5ML/ha for rice, 5.1 ML/ha for fruit or nut trees or 4 ML/ha for vegetables for human consumption. It's easy to be shocked by standalone water stats, but we should start by understanding the context of what's required to grow stuff!
I believe there's been some neglect around factoring in more recent data on cotton coupled with some really shocking stories which has led to an overly-simplified view on the crop. For example: The drying-up of the once water abundant of the Aral Sea is enough to make you run for the cotton-free hills (learn more about it from NASA). For decades cotton-picking forced labour was rife in Uzbekistan up until 2021 (International Labour Organisation) and more recently the Xinjiang region in China (Business and Human Rights Resource Centre). These things are real, but they do not apply to the entire cotton industry and they don't give a clear picture of how this crop is, in many instances, managed in tune with nature and human beings.
I'm of the opinion that the overarching negativity towards cotton may have contributed to the rise of polyester in clothes, which on paper requires next to no water to extract, but most lifecycle reporting will fail to recognise the longer term impacts of using more and more plastic in clothes. It's also just worth noting that polyester and other synthetics currently make up around 75% of the world's fibre market, and much of this is already in landfill or will end up in landfill where it will never biodegrade. Plus, with every wash cycle, thousands of micro-plastics are released from polyester clothes into waterways where filtration is not fine enough to stop them entering our oceans and the food chain.
While so-called conventional (ie. not grown organically) cotton may sometimes be just as sustainably grown as its organic counterpart, these nuances are frequently ignored, because they are complicated and difficult to delineate due to the immense variety in cotton farming behaviour, needs and local requirements. That's why I've found it so important to have transparency in a supply chain, to obtain data relevant to the growing region and even specific farm while trying my best to understand the particular processes, culture and regulations of the place.
Cotton fields ready for harvest in Narrabri, NSW.
At A.BCH, we do prefer to work with Global Organic textile Standard (GOTS) certified organic cotton. That might seem in contradiction to the paragraph above, but hear me out. The primary reason we choose this kind of fibre is for transparency reasons. GOTS is one of the best certifications schemes for validating where the cotton was grown as well as each stage in the chain of custody for that cotton. It also includes minimum social criteria standards as well as assurances around chemicals and inputs.
Now while this is our preferred generic cotton to work with (in other words, we don't have a direct relationship with the farm), it's not to say we wont work with other types of conventional or other preferred types of cotton in the future. It's just a simpler process for us to work with cotton and fabrics containing cotton with a GOTS certification already in place. Actually, as we grow and our resources allow, we will preference working with more farms where we can learn directly about their particular processes and methods for cotton cultivation. That's one of the reasons we choose to work with Australian Super Cotton and will consider working with others in the future, where transparency, open communications and regenerative practises are the primary focus rather than just a certification.
Currently, we work with three types of cotton, Organic, Australian and Recycled. We'll dive into each of those a bit deeper below.
Organic cotton is GMO free and uses no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers to grow. While this cotton is grown organically, there is no guarantee past the growing stage that toxic chemicals aren't used in the processing, spinning, weaving/knitting or dyeing phases of textile production, let alone garment production which typically adds many other materials, chemicals and finishes to make the end product. GOTS organic cotton is a bit different here, as once the organic cotton is grown, they will certify the entire chain of custody from harvest to finished product to ensure toxic chemicals, chlorine bleach, or other seriously damaging finishes like formaldehyde are not used at any stage.
For GOTS organic cotton, permit-able dyes are either natural dyes or low impact fibre reactive dyes while oxygen-based bleach is used for whitening. The additional benefit of GOTS certification is that it includes strict requirements around fair wages and treatment of workers and allows for traceability to the source.
While cotton is depleting to soil, crop rotation with replenishing crops like alfalfa or chickpeas helps to restore the land. This practise is found not only within organic cotton cultivation, however, when done on a certified organic farm, it allows farmers to grow organic foods in the counter-season, helping to feed them as well as provide additional income. Organic foods and cotton can be sold at a premium, meaning a potentially higher income, though it is important to remember that yields (influenced by seasonality, water availability/rainfall and pest management) will greatly influence this factor.
Cotton farming (organic or otherwise) is a culturally, scientifically, geographically and agronomically diverse practise and it's important to recognise nuances and region-specific factors when understanding cotton's environmental and social impact. Some farms rely on rainwater and others use irrigation, some are small holders and others are massive industrial operations, some cotton is entirely picked by hand while other cotton may be harvested by machine. Our main reasoning for working with GOTS organic cotton is verified traceability, though there are many other good reasons to work with it too.
How could it be better?
There is no perfect fibre, and organic cotton still has an impact on the land (like many other crops) and requires various quantities of water to grow (region dependant). If the water use doesn't sit well, a fibre alternative that doesn't use much water that still retains biological circular properties is Lenzing Tencel Lyocell, however as we say, there is always more to the story and stacking up sustainability credentials from one fibre to the next will typically lead you to the answer... "it depends". Read about Lenzing Tencel Lyocell to learn more.
Cotton Linter - waiting for processing at the local cotton Gin.
Get this. Australian cotton crops produce, on average, two and a half times the yield of the rest of the world, per hectare, with the same average amount of water. According to ICAC, the global average cotton production per hectare of land is 761kg of cotton linter. Australia is producing 1905kg per hectare. And while it may not be organic, the farms we work with are using organic cotton farming practises, like crop rotation and (very clever) natural pest management. They are also my BMP certified. We may just be getting started with Australian Super Cotton (ASC), but you can watch this space, especially if spinning is ever re-shored in Australia. For now, we are working with small batches of cotton from a single farm in St George, QLD. The A.30 Super Crop T-Shirt is our first style to be made with this single farm, 100% Australian supply chain, double jersey. And it is lush.
ASC meets our standards of sourcing traceable, regeneratively grown cotton to work with in our products. The traceability of this product is next to none while the farm is a world leader in sustainable practises and the high yields mean water management practises in particular are incredibly effective.
How could it be better?
At A.BCH we have generally steered clear of GMOs. There are a multitude of cautionary reasons why. The introduction of the expensive Monsanto owned seeds (Bt cotton) in countries that do not have the support, infrastructure and ongoing commitment to research and development can be, in our opinion, dangerous. Pests build resistance over time to pesticides, too, so the GM crop does not always result in a low-to-no pesticide usage. However this seems to have been overcome particularly well by certain countries.
The Aussies do seem to have this under control, with plenty of scientific and industry support to back it. With Australian crops hitting the high notes in so many other (sustainable) ways, the only thing left to improve would be to one day have a mill based on-shore to spin the fibre into yarn. This would mean an unbroken, 100% Australian supply chain, drastically reduced CO2 emissions and a traceable to farm product.
NB: If you take issue with cotton being grown in Australia at all, it's important to understand that farmers with a water license choose to grow whatever crops they deem to be viable to them, and may not be planted unless there is water available.
Farms in Australia (regardless of the crop type) are allocated irrigated water, determined yearly by state governments after the priority water allotments are made. The priority for water is the environment then critical human needs, and finally irrigation for crops. In some years there may be no water allocated to irrigation. So cotton farmers cannot simply use more water or take water that hasn't been allocated.
Remember too that Australian cotton, per hectare is produced at 2.5 x higher yields of the rest of the world on average and it is the most water efficient cotton in the world, despite often being drought stricken. You can learn more about world averages at ICAC here. Or check out this handy fact-sheet from Cotton Australia.
The humble cotton plant, from Auscott farm in NSW.
Recycling. The so-called Holy Grail of sustainable fashion. True recycling is taking a waste material and reprocessing it back to equal quality to serve another lifecycle. It's not thrifting (that's re-use) and it's not cutting up an old t-shirt to make a singlet (that's re-manufacture). When we talk about recycled cotton, there are a couple of ways this can be done and feedstock types can differ as well, so we'll dive in and explain each one.
Most textile recycling is done by Mechanical Recycling. Here, garments, textiles or yarns are ripped and loosened back into fibres like they were originally - albeit shorter than they used to be. The shortness of the fibre lengths equates to a weaker fibre as it will need to be re-spun and re-knitted or re-woven back through the same equipment it's been through before. This equipment is generally set up for virgin (longer + stronger) fibres that can withstand elongation and various tensions, and this is not usually suitable for very short staple fibres to go through. Not to mention that even once the new fabric is created, it will be weaker in the use-phase, meaning materials might rip or deteriorate more easily.
This is precisely why most mechanically recycled material will be blended with some virgin cotton (or maybe even some polyester) to give it strength. Some fabrics can be created from 100% recycled fibre, however these are more than likely to be from industrial or pre-consumer waste, some of which may not require ragging at all, like spinning waste. These high recycled content blends are not being made from worn or used up old garments. To give you an idea, at the time of writing, the highest post-consumer recycled content material blend is 50%.
There is another type of recycling, that is chemical cellulose recycling. This process breaks the cotton fibres down to the molecular level, transforming, say, a piece of cotton fabric into a cellulose sludge, not dissimilar to viscose. This can be extruded and re-spun (like viscose) into new yarns and made into new fabrics without loosing strength or quality, though the final result will not be cotton anymore, and will simply be a regenerated cellulose.
Cotton linter - before processing at the gin. The gin separates out the seed and other debris that is captured for oil and fertilisation.
Chemical recycling is being undertaken at pilot and semi-commercial scale around the world. It may, however, be years before this is the norm for worn out garments due to complicated blends of materials, spandex/elastane contaminants and other hurdles like decommissioning (taking off buttons, zippers and labels). It is also chemically intensive, energy intensive and not the be-all-end-all. Before any garment is chemically recycled, it should have gone through multiple stages of use, repair and maybe even remanufacture or mechanical recycling in order to make any of it worth the carbon emissions.
All A.BCH garments are created, at a minimum, to biodegrade safely. In addition to this, all are created for simple mechanical and chemical cellulose recycling too. In 2022, we'll be releasing our first 50% post consumer waste 50% organic cotton blend fabric as well as our recycled denim created by The New Denim Project using industrial and pre-consumer waste with ratios of up to 80% recycled. Both of these are mechanically recycled products. Stay tuned!
Any thoughts cottoning-on? Something we missed? Reach out.