How Sustainable Are Cotton Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Cotton Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:22 Minutes


follow follow

Impactful Ninja is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more Learn more .

Affiliate Disclosure

Hey fellow impactful ninja ?

You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.

  • Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.

  • But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.

Why do we add these product links?

First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.

And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.

What do these affiliate links mean for you?
  1. First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.

  2. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.

  3. And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.

What do these affiliate links mean for us?
  1. When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.

  2. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).

  3. And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.

What does this mean for me personally?

You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.

Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.

Stay impactful,

Cotton is the most commonly used natural fiber. Yet it is notorious for polluting production, exploitation, and even modern-day slavery. The story of cotton fabrics goes beyond its natural and renewable raw material. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are cotton fabrics?

The sustainability of cotton fabrics depends on the specific form of cotton fiber, ranging from unsustainable (conventional cotton) to sustainable (recycled and organic cotton). Cotton’s prominent adverse impacts are associated with chemical use, water consumption, and monoculture cultivation. 

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of cotton fabrics used for clothes and household items. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with cotton fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Cotton Fabrics

Cotton fabrics are made with natural fibers, but the cultivation of most cotton fiber crops is still far removed from being all-natural. Water consumption is another big environmental challenge of growing cotton plants. Also, there are relatively high ecological impacts due to energy consumption, mostly during the manufacturing and using cotton fabrics. 

However, not all cotton fabrics are made equally (bad). Though conventional cotton is ranked class E – the least sustainable fiber class, recycled cotton belongs to class A – the most sustainable fiber class.

Here are various forms of cotton fabrics in the general order from the most sustainable (at the top) to the least sustainable (at the bottom)

  1. Recycled cotton: mechanically recycled from pre- or post-consumer waste
  2. Organic cotton: grown without synthetic fertilizer and pesticides
  3. In-transition cotton: moving away from unsustainable practices to more sustainable ones. This group of cotton fabrics includes:
    1. In-conversion cotton
    2. Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) cotton
    3. Cleaner Cotton™
    4. Fair Trade cotton 
    5. Naturally colored cotton 
  4. Conventional cotton 

“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To understand the sustainability of cotton fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of cotton fabrics!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and household items made with cotton fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of cotton fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of cotton fabricsSourcing cotton fiber is mostly unsustainable because the cotton crop is water-thirsty and vulnerable to various pests. Also, the widespread monoculture in cotton cultivation depletes the soil and necessitates synthetic fertilizer in many growing regions. Sourcing organic cotton reduces greenhouse gas emissions from the production and usage of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while avoiding polluting water and soil. 
Manufacturing of cotton fabricsManufacturing cotton fabrics is generally not very sustainable because it involves harmful synthetic chemicals. Also, cotton manufacturing is energy-intensive. High energy usage could have serious knock-on ecological impacts if manufacturing relies heavily on fossil fuels. 
Transporting of cotton fabricsThe transportation of cotton fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Cotton fabrics typically travel from fields (where cotton plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill.
Usage of cotton fabricsThe usage of cotton fabrics tends to be less sustainable because of the relatively high energy consumption for washing, drying, and ironing. However, the environmental impacts of the usage stage can be reduced with changes in how cotton clothes are laundered. 
End-of-life of cotton fabricsThe end-of-life stage for cotton fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Overall, we can say that cotton fabrics are on a spectrum from very sustainable (recycled and organic cotton) to reasonably unsustainable (conventional cotton). However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, be it a t-shirt or a pair of jeans, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing/growing of cotton fibers, the type of energy used in manufacturing and usage, and the distance and mode of transportation

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy cotton fabrics more sustainably.

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Cotton Fibers for Cotton Fabrics

Sourcing conventional cotton fiber is mostly unsustainable because the cotton crop is water-thirsty and vulnerable to various pests. Also, the widespread monoculture in cotton cultivation depletes the soil and necessitates synthetic fertilizer in many growing regions. 

However, sourcing organic cotton reduces greenhouse gas emissions from the production and usage of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while avoiding polluting water and soil. 

And sourcing recycled cotton requires far fewer resources, including water and energy used to grow and harvest new cotton plants. Also, it prevents additional textile waste.

What Raw Materials Are Used for Cotton Fabrics

Natural cellulose fibers extracted from cotton seeds are the main material used for cotton fabrics.

(Some chemicals might be used in processing cotton fibers and manufacturing cotton fabrics, but we will discuss such chemical usage in the manufacturing stage.)

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Cotton Fabrics Impact the Environment

The main raw materials for cotton fabrics come from cotton plants – a water-thirsty and high-input crop. Thus, sourcing cotton fibers is mostly unsustainable, even though the cotton plant has carbon sequestration potential and is, in principle, a renewable resource.

Growing Cotton Plants Has Very High Water Footprint 

Cotton is a thirsty crop:

Diluting pesticides is another source of water consumption at this stage. 

Pesticides Used in Growing Conventional Cotton Contaminates Soil and Groundwater 

Cotton plants are vulnerable to various pests, including insects, worms, fungi, and bacteria. Specifically, several hundred species of insects attack cotton crops. 

Because of the need to control the damage caused by pests, conventional cotton farmers use a disproportionate amount of chemical pesticides

The use of chemical, synthetic pesticides in cotton cultivation is widespread and harmful. It threatens: 

  • the quality of soil 
  • the quality water
  • the health of biodiversity within the fields and in the surrounding areas 
  • the health of farm workers and nearby populations

However, there are pest-controlling alternatives, including methods that produce much more sustainable cotton fibers. 

One alternative way to deal with cotton’s pest challenges is genetic modification of the cotton seeds to be pest-resistant. For example, genetically modified “Bt cotton” seeds produce proteins that fend off pink bollworms and consequently help to reduce the immediate need for pesticides. 

On the other hand, organic cotton farmers rely on natural measures to combat their pest challenges, such as: 

  • Employ crop rotation to increase plant’s health and natural pest resistance and avoid the same pests coming back every year for their favorite source of food
  • Maintain biological balance by using natural enemies to keep a check on pests 
  • Use pest-capturing traps
  • Use mico-organisms to target pests 

These natural measures are much more environmentally friendly than synthetic pesticides as they improve the cotton plant’s health and the cotton field’s biodiversity while avoiding soil and water pollution. 

Unfortunately, organic cotton currently makes up less than 1% of global cotton.

Cotton Fields Tend to Require A Lot of Fertilizer Due to Soil Degradation 

The common monoculture practices in cotton cultivation deplete nutrients in the soil, resulting in fertilizers being necessary. When conventional cotton farmers use chemical-based fertilizers, it leads to two main environmental impacts: 

  • Possible disruptions in the ecosystem and biodiversity loss due to freshwater contamination from run-off fertilizer 
  • Greenhouse gas emissions as a result of synthetic fertilizer production and usage 

Possible disruptions in the ecosystem and biodiversity loss due to freshwater contamination from run-off fertilizer 

Fertilizer run-off from cotton fields contaminated rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Even though fertilizer is not directly toxic to organisms living in freshwater bodies the way pesticides are, fertilizer run-off could alter the nutrient system, affecting the balance of the ecosystem. 

For example, excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) in rivers and lakes lead to an explosive growth of algae. 

  • As algae consume oxygen and block sunlight from underwater plants, their bloom results in dead zones in the water (fishes and other species being killed off).
  • Also, some harmful algae produce extremely dangerous toxins that can make people and animals sick or even die. 

Greenhouse gas emissions as a result of synthetic fertilizer production and usage 

Synthetic fertilizer accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions during cultivating and ginning (i.e., separating the cotton fibers from the seeds), according to a life-cycle inventory of cotton fiber and fabric. 

Specifically, GHG emissions from the decomposition of fertilizer in the field accumulate to about 500 kg CO2 -eq for every 1,000kg of cotton fiber, representing 35% of the total emissions (1,428 kg CO2 -eq) of this stage. 

On top of that, fertilizer production contributes an extra 27% of the total GHG emissions. 

Other sources of carbon dioxide emissions during this stage include irrigation, ginning, and tractor operations (for sowing, spraying, weeding, and harvesting). 

Carbon Sequestration During Cultivation Has Positive Global Warming Impact 

As cotton plants grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. During their lifespan of around 150 to 180 days, cotton plants act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis

On a global average, cotton cultivation absorbs more carbon dioxide than the GHG emissions from cultivating activities and required materials (including synthetic fertilizer and pesticides). 

Specifically, cultivating and ginning 1,000 kg of cotton fiber has a negative carbon footprint of -112 kg CO2 -eq, thanks to the 1,540 kg CO2 -eq sequestered and stored in the cotton plants during this stage, according to a global life-cycle inventory of cotton fiber and cotton fabric. 

In brief, carbon sequestration during this growing stage of cotton’s life-cycle lowers the total carbon footprint and global warming impact of cotton fibers and fabrics. However, this stage is water, fertilizer, and pesticide-intensive, resulting in major environmental impacts, including: 

  • Water consumption
  • The health of the soil, water, and ecosystems affected by pesticide use 
  • Eutrophication potential (due to nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer building up and disrupting the ecosystems) 
  • Field emissions (GHGs) associated with fertilizer, irrigation, and ginning

Where Are the Raw Materials for Cotton Fabrics Usually Sourced From

The various species of cotton are native to most subtropical parts of the world. The cotton plant has also been domesticated and grown in many parts of the world. There are cotton crops in over 80 countries. Following are countries among the top producers of cotton fibers

  • India
  • China
  • Pakistan
  • Brazil
  • Uzbekistan
  • Turkey
  • Turkmenistan
  • Burkina Faso
  • The US 

The most critical environmental challenges in cotton-growing countries, as we will discuss in detail below, are the results of high water demand and excessive use of chemicals in cotton cultivation. 

Water Stress in Cotton-Growing Regions 

Many of the major cotton fiber producers are countries under high water stress. They include India, China, India, Pakistan, Turkey, and the US. 

Cotton’s high demand for water exacerbates the water crisis as its cultivation draws out groundwater and uses up surface water resources:

This is a serious problem for countries where cotton cultivation is widespread, as water scarcity is considered one of the top 10 challenges the world may face in the coming years.

Water Pollution in Cotton-Growing Regions 

According to the WWF, water pollution caused by cotton cultivation (and its water demand) severely impacts major ecosystems such as the Aral Sea in Central Asia, the Indus Delta in Pakistan, and the Murray Darling River in Australia

Biodiversity Loss Due to Widespread Use of Genetically Modified Cotton Seeds 

Cotton is one of the world’s top three genetically modified crops, along with corn and soy. When cotton seeds are genetically modified to resist pests and herbicides, the direct need for synthetic pesticides and herbicides is reduced, lessening the negative impacts of using these chemicals. 

However, this practice has social and environmental impacts in the long run in countries with high-adoption rates, such as India

Most prominently, extensive use of GMOs leads to the loss of biodiversity. Some genetically modified seeds focus on selective pests attacking the cotton plants, but not all harmful species. The exclusive use of one strain of GM seeds reduces biodiversity and makes the cotton vulnerable to other types of pests. 

There are also allegations regarding the need to buy new genetically modified seeds every year dictated by patent laws and the suicide of more than 270,000 Indian cotton farmers forced into a cycle of unmanageable debt. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Cotton Fabrics

Manufacturing cotton fabrics is generally not very sustainable because it involves harmful synthetic chemicals. Also, cotton manufacturing is energy-intensive. High energy usage could have serious knock-on ecological impacts if manufacturing relies heavily on fossil fuels. 

How Sustainably Is Cotton Fabrics Generally Manufactured

Cotton fabrics are made with natural cellulose fibers extracted from cotton seeds (or so-called cotton bolls). Once separated, cotton fibers can be woven into yarn in a (mostly) mechanical process.

This mechanical process sets cotton (and other natural cellulose fibers, including linen and hemp) apart from regenerated cellulose fibers, such as rayon, acetate, and cupro, which are made in chemical processes.

The typical manufacturing process of cotton fabrics includes these steps: 

  1. Extract cellulose fibers from cotton:
    1. Defoliate plants with matured cotton bolls often by machines with chemical spraying
    2. Separate the fibers from the seed – the ginning process
  2. Form cotton fibers into long strands in the carding process 
  3. Spin the long strands to create cotton yarn 
  4. Weave cotton yarn into cotton fabric
  5. Finish the fabrics, including 
    1. Fabric preparation
    2. Dyeing
    3. Finishing 
    4. Compaction 

Let’s now deep dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage: 

Manufacturing Is One of The Two Main Contributors to Cotton Fabrics’ Life-Cycle Carbon Emissions and Global Warming Impact 

On a global average, the carbon emission of textile manufacturing for a cotton knit t-shirt is more than 50% of the total carbon emission, followed by the post-manufacturing stages (use and end of life). 

In another example, manufacturing a pair of Levi’s cotton jeans accounts for 40% of cradle-to-grave GHG emissions. 

High carbon emissions are the result of primary energy demand from fossil sources. According to a global inventory of cotton fibers and cotton fabrics, the highest electricity shares in this stage are for:

  • Yarn production processes 
  • Water conditioning and treatment in the dyeing processes 
  • Drying and curing 
Manufacturing Conventional Cotton Fabrics Uses Toxic Chemicals 

Conventional cotton manufacturers use many types of chemicals, especially in the dyeing and finishing processes. Some of these substances are harsh chemicals with potential health risks. Here are some examples of chemicals used in cotton manufacturing and their potential harms: 

  • Benzidine: associated with bladder cancer, respiration problems, and major skin irritation
  • Ammonium Sulfate: toxic to eat and when heated to high temperatures
  • Hydrochloric Acid: damaging mucous membranes, skin, and eyes; irritating eyes, nose, and throat on short-term exposure; posing risks to chronic bronchitis and gastritis on long-term exposure 
  • Oxalic Acid: causing burns and blisters at the point of contact, abdominal pain, collapse, mouth pain, seizures, shock, vomiting, and tremors

Where Are Cotton Fabrics Usually Manufactured

India and China are the two largest cotton producers worldwide, while other major players include the US, Brazil, and Pakistan. These five countries produce a combination of 75% of the world’s cotton

Energy Usage at Cotton Manufacturing Locations Varies Based on Each Country

Because manufacturing cotton is energy-intensive, using renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) significantly reduces carbon emissions at this stage. 

According to Our World in Data, the share of renewable energy in primary energy in Brazil is 46.22% – the highest percentage in the five biggest cotton producers. 

Following are the renewable energy share in primary energy in cotton-producing countries:

  • India: 9.31% renewable energy
  • China: 14.95% renewable energy
  • The US: 10.66% renewable energy
  • Brazil: 46.22% renewable energy
  • Pakistan: 10.62% renewable energy

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Cotton Fabrics

The transportation of cotton fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Cotton fabrics typically travel from fields (where cotton plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 

In the life-cycle of cotton clothes, transportation typically occurs as below: 

  • From fields where cotton raw materials are grown to the cotton fiber and cotton fabric manufacturing location(s)
  • From the clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops 
  • From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house 
  • From the consumer’s home to the centers for recycling/ disposing

A life-cycle assessment inventory of cotton fiber and fabric calculated a global average of 1% share of carbon footprint for the transportation stage. However, the actual transportation of a specific product varies, depending on the supply chain and transporting vehicles. 

Traveling Distances of Cotton Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

It is not uncommon for natural cellulose fabrics like cotton to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that crop cultivation, fiber production, fabric spinning, and clothes manufacturing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents. 

Here are some scenarios for transporting cotton fabrics: 

  • Farmers grow cotton in Australia to be sourced and transported to a manufacturer in China. Final pieces of cotton clothes are then shipped to Europe to sell to consumers.
  • Cotton fibers are harvested from fields in India and transported to Brazil for fabric production. Cotton clothes are then sold to the US market.
  • Manufacturers in the US source cotton fibers from crops grown in the US and turn them into cotton fabrics and clothes locally before selling them to US consumers. 
  • US manufacturers source cotton fibers in the US and send the fibers to fabric factories in Mexico and then to clothing factories in Egypt. The final cotton clothes are sent back to retail shops in the US. 

For example, a cotton T-shirt made with cotton fibers grown in the US, produced in Bangladesh, and sold in Germany has transporting carbon emissions of almost 0.2 kg CO2-eq, accounting for 0.95% of its total emissions (cradle-to-grave). 

You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing cotton fabrics that travel a shorter distance from the fields and are made closer to your home.

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Cotton Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of cotton clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • Large container ships 
  • Planes 
  • Freight trains 
  • Long-distance trucks 
  • Short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts: 

For example, you as a consumer can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering cotton clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your cotton items. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Cotton Fabrics

The usage of cotton fabrics tends to be less sustainable because of the relatively high energy consumption for washing, drying, and ironing. However, the environmental impacts of the usage stage can be reduced with changes in how cotton clothes are laundered. 

As an example, a pair of Levi’s cotton jeans has a total carbon footprint of 33.4 kg CO2 -eq, in which 12.5 kg CO2 -eq is the share of the usage phase (which equals to 37% of the total CO2 footprint). 

In another life-cycle assessment, the use phase of a cotton white long shirt accounts for 31% of the total carbon footprint. 

These examples demonstrate that usage is one major contributor to the environmental impacts of cotton fabric. On the global average, a life-cycle inventory also reports similarly. 

The carbon emissions of the usage stage are associated with electricity to run washing machines, drying machines, and irons. 

If fossil fuels are the main sources of energy at a user’s home, high energy consumption will result in an elevated carbon footprint. 

Modifying laundering behaviors, however, would reduce the environmental impacts. Possible changes include:

  • Wash clothes less often 
  • Switch to line drying instead of using tumble driers 
  • Do cold washes with appropriate detergents
  • Use energy-efficient washing machines

For example, according to a cradle-to-grave life-cycle assessment, if a piece of cotton clothes is washed only 28 times instead of 55 times a year, its climate change impact reduces by 30%

Another life-cycle assessment reports 29% and 33% reductions in carbon emissions when cold washes replace warm washes and when efficient washing machines replace conventional washing machines, respectively, in one year of usage.

The same assessment also shows that the climate change impact of one-year usage is half when drying cotton jeans on the line instead of inside a drier. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Cotton Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for cotton fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Untreated cotton fabric is fully biodegradable. Thus, at the end of the fabric’s life, there are three main options: 

  • Composting
  • Incineration
  • Landfilling

It can take from one week to five months for pure, untreated cotton fabrics to decompose depending on the conditions. In large-scale compost, 100% cotton fabrics typically decompose 50% to 77% within three months. The story is different for cotton treated with chemical dyes or similarly

In comparison, untreated linen takes about two weeks to decompose, and rayon fabrics (regenerated cellulose fibers) take from six to eight weeks. (Plastic-based items could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years.)

How Circular Are Products Made of Cotton Fabrics

In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.

“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input is new resource.

It is possible to recycle cotton fabrics mechanically, physically, and chemically, depending mostly on whether the materials are pure cotton or a blend. 

  • Mechanically recycling cotton results in cotton fibers with shorter lengths, which makes it, in principle, not possible to make cotton fibers truly circular, arguably. The majority of recycled cotton is claimed mechanically, such as with incentives like Blue Jeans Go Green™
  • The physical recycling of cotton uses cotton as feedstock for blends of regenerated cellulose fibers like lyocell or viscose
  • Chemical recycling of cotton breaks down the fabrics with acids or enzymes and creates new materials, which are more like rayon

According to a life-cycle assessment, the global average carbon footprint of 1,000kg for cotton knit t-shirt garments is 18,885 kg CO2 (cradle-to-grave).

Other notable results from this life-cycle assessment are: 

  • In the life-cycle of cotton fibers and fabrics, manufacturing and usage are the main contributors to environmental impacts
  • Cotton has a high impact on water usage and water contamination, mainly due to the cultivation stage. 

Compared to a linen t-shirt, a cotton t-shirt requires slightly less energy but four times water.

How Can You Buy Cotton Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying cotton products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. 

Certifications for recycled cotton:

  • Recycled Claim Standard (RCS): The Textile Exchange RCS was originally developed as an international, voluntary standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled input and chain of custody. 
  • The Global Recycled Standard (GRS): The Global Recycled Standard (GRS) is an international, voluntary, full product standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled Content, chain of custody, social and environmental practices, and chemical restrictions. It can be used for any product with more than 20% recycled material. 

Certifications for organic cotton:

  • USDA ORGANIC: This certificate is applied to growing the crop (raw material), ensuring natural agricultural products are produced that can be certified as “organic.” 
  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): A globally-recognized certification system that ensures a certain threshold of organic content has been met. It covers manufacturing, packaging, labeling, transportation, and distribution (but not what happens in the fields where crops are grown). 
  • USDA Certified Biobased Product: The USDA BioPreferred® Certification is a voluntary certification offered by the United States Department of Agriculture. The certificate identifies products made from plants or other renewable materials.

Certifications for in-transition cotton:

  • Better Cotton Initiative (BCI ) Cotton: BCI certifies cotton according to The Better Cotton Standard System, a holistic approach to sustainable cotton production which covers all three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. 
  • Cleaner Cotton™: Cleaner Cotton™ eliminates the 13 most toxic chemicals used in conventional cotton cultivation in California, reducing toxicity in our air, soil, and watersheds. 
  • Fairtrade International: A Fair Trade certification includes social, economic, and environmental standards that apply to the full supply chain from the farmers and workers to the traders and companies bringing the final product to market. 
  • Fair For Life: Fair for Life certifies every step of production instead of the finished product. It prioritizes transparency in business at all levels.

Certifications for all forms of cotton:

  • STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage. 
  • OEKO-TEX® Certified Cotton: OEKO-TEX® labels aim to ensure that products pose no risk to human health (i.e. containing banned chemicals). 

Some certifications are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are: 

  • B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts. 
  • Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

Where to Buy Sustainable Cotton Fabrics 

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, not all cotton clothes are made equally: recycled cotton is among the most sustainable textile materials (class A fabric), while conventional cotton is one of the least (class E fabric). 

For sustainably-made cotton, you want to look for the following: 

  • Recycled cotton 
  • Organic cotton 
  • In-transition cotton 

If you search for sustainable cotton manufacturers, make sure they are transparent about the following:

  • Usage and treatment of chemicals like fertilizer, pesticides, dyes, etc. 
  • Water usage efficiency 
  • Water treatment 

Here we compile for you a list of some sustainable brands selling low-impact cotton fabrics(in alphabetic order): 

Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics

It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the forth largest emitter of carbon dioxide

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint.

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).

Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation,

  • Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
  • In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are extracted new. 

When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown. 

Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:

  • Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often. 
  • Thus, you help reduce the pressure to extract more resources for making new items. 

Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests

Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards

When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like cashmere or leather. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.

Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives. 

Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, leather or wool; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry. 

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child laborers worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours. 

When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.

Final Thoughts

Cotton fabrics are generally not a very sustainable material, even though they are made with natural cellulose fibers – a renewable resource. 

Cultivating cotton requires a lot of water. Also, synthetic chemicals in conventional cotton farming harm the environment, workers, and users. 

However, recycled cotton and organic cotton are sustainable. The environmental impacts of some in-transition cotton are also significantly less than those of conventional cotton. 

To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand cotton clothes, use cotton clothes and household items for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled appropriately.

Stay impactful,


Photo of author
Did you like this article?

Get the 5-minute newsletter that makes reading impactful news enjoyable—packed with actionable insights to make a positive impact in your daily life.

Three Related Posts

One Unrelated Post