Cotton has a serious environmental footprint and has been denim's primary fibre of choice since the dawn of its time. But as we learn about cotton's environmental impacts, mills and manufacturers are looking to alternatives to reduce denim's reliance on cotton. But, for now, cotton is still the primary fibre in denim production and with good management, does not have to be so bad for the planet.
Cotton is mostly grown in monoculture (an area where only a single type of crop is produced) and is very pesticide-intensive. Although it is only grown on 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, it consumes 16% of all the insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide.
These pesticides are then washed out in the soil, and pollute rivers and groundwater. The chemicals used not only get rid of the pests, but they also get rid of the good bacteria needed for healthy soil! This interferes with the ecosystem and reduces the amount of biodiversity significantly.
With mass production of cotton, large amounts of water are required for irrigation. This causes the soil to degrade, especially when careful farming measures aren't being implemented. Soil degradation reduces its ability to store carbon and thus, cannot help when a soak up the amount of carbon dioxide released from producing industrial fertilizers needed for the production of cotton. Certain lakes have also dried up due to soil salinization.
As you can see, conventional cotton has a significant impact on the environment and that is why we must start looking to incorporate alternatives and implement training for farmers to learn the best practices for cultivating cotton.
What fibres to look for:
Organic Cotton is grown with NO PESTICIDES, but is very hard to scale for mass quantities. There is also the argument that this will take away from land that could otherwise be used to grow food.
FAIRTRADE cotton means that all farmers are guaranteed a living wage for what they grow and sell.
E3 Cotton is the only cotton program that breeds their own cotton seeds allowing for full traceability all the way back to the plot of land that cotton was grown on. All e3 cotton farmers sign up and commit to grow cotton more efficiently and decrease the impact on the environment. Their cotton is certified and verified through independent audits, which allows E3 to track specific environmental and social measures back to an individual farmer.
BCI Cotton stands for BETTER COTTON INITIATIVE. This program gives smaller farms guidelines on how to grow and harvest their crops in an environmentally friendly way through:
- Using just the right amount of fertilisers
- Using just the right amount of water for irrigation
- Manage the planting such that water does not pool” around the roots.
- Control the use of pesticides.
Hemp is known for its ability to capture carbon from the air and can also decontaminate polluted soils. It also requires a significantly less amount of water to grow compared to cotton.
REFIBRA™ is a revolutionary fibre made from cotton waste fabrics and Lenzing's renowned Tencel fibre. It combines the best of two worlds to create one of the most ecological wood-based fabrics on the planet. The recycling of cotton waste fabrics into virgin textile TENCEL™ fibres offers a practical solution to move us towards a circular economy in the apparel industry.
Recycled Cotton is the holy grail of fibres! I would love to see a world where its possible to have 100% recycled and recyclable jeans in a closed loop system. 765,000 litres of water can be saved per ton of recycled cotton!
Tencel is a cellulosic fibre coming from tree bark. It is a “greener” fibre than cotton or many other common textile fibres as It is grown in a sustainable manner - no pesticides are required to grow the trees. An organic solvent is used to dissolve the wood chips into a solution. The chemical used to dissolve these chips is very expensive so it is recycled after the process is complete.
**Are you a stretch denim kind of dude or dudette? Stay tuned for sustainable stretch fibre alternatives. (These are relatively new to the industry, so I need to do some more digging and investigating :p)