On my journey into the world of ethics and environmental issues in the fashion industry over the last few years, one of the first and most surprising lessons I learnt was just how bad conventional (non-organic) cotton really is – for people and the planet.
Like many South Australians, I was pretty well versed in the role that the irrigation of cotton crops has been playing in the death of the Murray River – I knew it was water intensive and, much like rice, just shouldn’t be grown in arid climates. But what I didn’t know was the extent of the impacts of conventional cotton crops on human and environmental health.
The extent and types of detrimental impacts of growing non-organic cotton differ depending on the region it’s being grown. In arid areas of Australia, for example, where the cotton industry is largely machinised, water use is one of its greatest evils. Cotton is the thirstiest crop in the world, which isn’t inherently a bad thing (if it’s grown in naturally high-rainfall areas). However, when grown in climates with low-natural rainfall it requires huge inputs of water via irrigation.
Irrigation is not only an issue due to gross over-use of limited natural water supplies, but also contributes to the higher carbon footprint of non-organic cotton – machinery used in the processes of irrigation, as well as in the distribution of insecticides and pesticides, all contribute to the relatively high carbon footprint of cotton products.
In developing countries, where cotton farming is more manual, poor farm workers are continuously exposed to the insecticides and pesticides sprayed on the cotton crops. These chemicals also enter soil and water systems, which in turn enter the food and water supplies for surrounding communities, and contribute to high rates of hospitalisations, cancer and birth defects.
Organic cotton is a wonderful alternative – it has a lower carbon footprint, produces much, much less water, air and soil pollution and eliminates the chemical harms to farmers and surrounding communities. But, it remains expensive, harder to find, and only makes up around 2% of global cotton production.
Organic cotton is considered by leading ethical retailers to be a fairly ‘sustainable’ fabric. But there are also 3 types of non-organic cotton that we also stock here at Slowclothes that offer a fab alternative and open up your options if you’re a cotton lover!
Supporting artisan communities, reducing carbon emissions & minimising waste
(Image from Carlie Ballard of artisan weavers in Southern India)
You’ve heard me say it before I’m sure: we can’t expect a small label to be everything to everyone, all at once. There are SO many ways to create clothes with reduced negative environmental or human impacts, and (of course while always on the lookout for greenwashing) we love to celebrate the diversity of strategies conscious labels use.
Supporting traditional artisan communities and techniques is one way to keep textile art alive while producing quality fabric slowly, with love and craftsmanship. The handloom industry is the second largest employer in rural India, and employs more than 4 million people. It makes up around 20% of all cloth produced in India.
Weavers in India usually work from home, allowing them to work in the industry while staying close to their families (a ‘luxury’ not afforded to many garment workers). Given the fabric is manually woven without the need for electricity, it produces few carbon emissions and can be done in rural areas with intermittent power supplies.
Hand-loomed cotton fabric has a beautiful textural finish, is of high quality and is said to be cooler and softer than machine-woven cotton. The labels we work with design exclusive colours and patterns and have their fabric woven to order (which they order once their wholesale orders are in), minimising fabric waste as much as possible.
The handloom industry in India is under threat from the introduction of international cotton varieties (that aren’t suited to hand loom), as well as the spread of cheaper imitation fabrics.
We think this amazing industry and the labels working with these artisans are truly slow fashion and we feel blessed to be able to share some of this artistry with you.
Minimising textile waste & creating limited-edition collections
(Image from Dorsu Cambodia of deadstock fabric rolls).
‘Deadstock’ refers to left-over fabrics, not just cotton. It is any ends of rolls and offcuts from large factories and fashion houses that if not resold, may end up in landfill or burned, contributing to our massive textile waste and emissions problems.
Deadstock has a number of appeals – it is fabric that already exists, and as such labels can create entire runs and ranges without contributing to the production of any new fabric. It also means we can find pieces that are very much limited edition/made in tiny runs.
It does have its controversies, however. Several articles I’ve read indicate that large labels and fabric producers will over order or over produce fabrics intentionally – often to hit a threshold for a reduced price per metre–knowing they will likely be able to resell leftovers, essentially costing the deadstock into their business models. In such cases, the fabric wouldn’t have been truly bound for landfill, so perhaps isn’t always as sustainable as it seems.
That said, the labels we work with find deadstock an affordable and more sustainable alternative to sourcing virgin cotton fabrics, especially while they are growing and can’t hit higher minimum order quantities required by many fabric suppliers. They travel to local factories themselves to rescue offcuts and ends of rolls – a tedious process that requires testing and identifying fabrics that often aren’t labelled. We love knowing that we may have helped keep some textile waste out of landfill.
We love local supply chains
Genetic tracking of crops and fibres is on its way into the fashion industry and will one day allow us to know for sure what our clothes are made up of, where it was grown, dyed and more. Until then, I find myself relying on two things: certifications (when they’re available) and human stories and trust.
Now, with most brands, this level of detail and transparency around fabric origins will not be available to their customers – often because the label themselves won’t be able to, or perhaps aren’t even interested in, knowing where their cotton was grown.
One of our fabulous labels recently sent us the lookbook for their new collection, which was to be largely made of cotton. As we don’t stock non-organic cotton (unless it’s one of the alternatives discussed here), I asked them to talk me through their fabric choice.
I loved the story they told. In short, apart from the fact that their cotton farm is in the process of obtaining an organic certification, they also described how the cotton is grown in the same region as the cotton mill (where it is processed and woven), which is in the same area as their sewing workshop. In keeping the growing, production, dying, printing and sewing processes all local we see a number of benefits – it allows small businesses to work together to attract orders, reduces the carbon footprint of the fabric (often cotton will be grown on one continent, dyed and woven on another, and sewn on another!), and allows for full traceability.
The reality is, 99% of the time you probably won’t be able to identify where the cotton in your garment was grown. If in doubt – always opt for organic. Alternatively, contact the label you’re looking at and ask them where their fibre is from. If they can’t give you a clear answer, chances are they don’t know, or don’t want you to know. If they do in fact have a beautiful story of family or local production to share, they will likely be happy to tell it. And of course, keep an eye out for hand-loomed and deadstock cotton, or get in touch if you need us to point you to some fab brands doing fab cottony things!
As always, I am going to do my utmost to make this journey into ethical fashion as easy as possible for our beautiful community. So next week I’ll be sharing a template for a letter/email you can use to contact brands to ask who, where and from what your clothes are made, and help you decipher the cryptic replies you will inevitably get (if you do this as much as I do!).
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts, challenges, questions or confusions in the comments section xx
(Beautiful hand-loomed cotton dress from Carlie Ballard available here)