A Field Guide to Sustainable Cotton

The world loves cotton. It is durable, versatile, moisture-wicking, breathable, takes dyes, and is next-to-skin soft. Cotton ranks second only to polyester in global fiber production. In 2019, 51.5% of global fiber production was polyester, 24.5% was cotton and cotton shows no sign of slowing down. This post is a guide to the eco-friendly cotton yarn and fabric standards currently in use for the handknitting and home sewing market.

cotton t-shirtConventionally grown cotton

Environmentally, cotton looks innocent because it is plant-based and will biodegrade. The problem is its cultivation. Conventional methods – which account for the vast majority of global cotton production – involve heavy pesticide and herbicide use plus lots of water.

You may have heard it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce one cotton t-shirt. A July 2018 fact sheet describes the volume and nature of chemicals used to grow cotton. Their facts are fairly alarming.

Glyphosate, for example, is the top-ranked pesticide used in cotton farming in the U.S. It can cause birth defects, genetic damage, endocrine disruption, and other serious health effects, even at low doses. It has been found everywhere in the environment: the air, water, and even our food.

It’s clear that we must find more eco-friendly ways to grow cotton if we intend to keep using it in the future. As a result, new production models have emerged that offer improvements over conventional methods. The Textile Exchange recognizes several standards that are promising, including ABRAPA, BASF e3, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cleaner Cotton, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), Fairtrade, Fairtrade Organic, Field to Market, ISCC, myBMP, Organic, REEL Cotton, Regenerative Cotton and Transitional Cotton. Hand knitting yarns and fabric by the yard companies use a few of these standards, described below.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton ranks at the top of the list of eco-friendly cotton yarn and fabric. It is grown according to the highest standards of agricultural production, and certified by the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS). Organic production systems are good for soil and biological diversity. They prohibit use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, which benefits the environment and the farmers and their families who work directly with the land.

The low impact farming methods used in organic methods result in a dramatically lower environmental footprint. Organic cotton uses 88% less water and 62% less energy compared to conventionally grown cotton. Visit the Textile Exchange web site for further details about the benefits of organic methods.

Unfortunately, organic cotton farming has not yet caught on. As of 2018, it comprised less than 1% of all cotton produced globally.

Cleaner Cotton™

Cotton fieldOne reason for the delay in adoption of organic cotton farming is that it is not always economically viable in every region. Yarn company Quince & Co. discovered this when searching for sustainably sourced cotton. They explain that the small amount of domestically grown organic cotton (usually from Texas) tends to have a shorter staple length and inconsistent quality, which is not ideal for fine yarn production. By contrast, California cotton, often Pima, is much better for yarn, but is more difficult to grow with organic methods in that region.

Quince reports, “Farmers using organic methods found their yield dropped to 60% of what they’d been able to grow using conventional practices, and, importantly, they used more water — a scarce resource in the west — per lb of cotton produced than did conventional farmers.”

The solution is Cleaner Cotton™, a monitored program resulting in integrated pest management strategies, a 73% reduction in chemical use on the farms, and increasing farmer buy-in – and, the wonderful yarns Willet and Whimbrel. Willet is featured in the header image of this post, in the lacy Fantoosh shawl pattern. This yarn is so incredibly soft and luxurious, you almost can’t believe it’s cotton.

Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)

Better Cotton logoThe third standard you may see on fabric or yarn is the Better Cotton logo. Better Cotton is a global program covering three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. The program engages in extensive farmer training and follow-up accountability to ensure ongoing transition to eco-friendly and sustainable farming practices.

As a consumer, however, be aware that the BCI logo does not necessarily mean that all of the cotton in the product is sourced from Better Cotton farms. It means that the company is sourcing at least 10% Better Cotton and committed to sourcing sustainable cotton. See the full explanation on the BCI web site for more information.

Recycled Cotton

Recycled cotton is an excellent environmentally friendly choice when you can find it in hand knitting yarns or fabric by the yard. There are a few different methods of recycling cotton:

  1. Chemical recycling produces a cellulose rayon-like fiber that really isn’t cotton anymore.
  2. Mechanical recycling preserves the fibers to create a new fabric or yarn that is still fundamentally cotton. Mechanical methods consist of:
      • Pre-consumer recycling, which involves reusing factory floor cutting scraps. All those new fabric pieces that are perfectly good but didn’t make it into your T-shirt get a second chance!
      • Post-consumer recycling, which takes used cotton garments and textiles, shreds them up, and re-blends them to create new yarns.

Note that manufacturers often blend recycled cotton with other fibers such as recycled polyester for durability.

Thrift Store Cotton

Of course, don’t forget your local thrift store! I have developed at least half my stash by reclaiming unwanted textiles from yard sales, hand-me-downs, antique shops, clothing remnants, sheets, table linens. I enjoy the serendipity. It’s a great way to find vintage cloth as well. Just yesterday I went to a thrift store and scored a yard of lovely brown, blue, and lime print cotton canvas. Environmentally, “Thrift Store Cotton” is hands-down the best option, but if you find your local selection lacking, try some of the options above.

A Word About OEKO-TEX®

Some fabric companies are using the OEKO-TEX® certification, which is not necessarily a sustainability indicator. OEKO-TEX® is actually a family of certifications. The OEKO-TEX® logo on its own, or the phrase “OEKO-TEX® certified” in the product description without a specific standard listed, is meaningless. Commonly, the certification for fabric by the yard is the Standard 100, which tells you only that the final product is free from harmful substances. OEKO-TEX® does have standards that cover sustainability, such as STeP.

There you have it. Now, you may ask, where can I buy these yarns and fabrics? See this post on eco-friendly cotton vendors.


T-shirt photo cred:  Haryo Setyadi on Unsplash