How Sustainable Are Organic Cotton Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Organic Cotton Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

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Conventional cotton is notorious for polluting production, exploitation, and even connected to modern-day forced labor. Organic cotton cultivation and production are supposed to solve some of these long-lasting problems, while also being better for the environment. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are organic cotton fabrics?

Organic cotton fabrics are generally sustainable. Cotton crops sequester carbon and help to mitigate climate change. Also, organic cotton farming avoids the adverse environmental impacts associated with synthetic chemicals while using water more efficiently than conventional cotton cultivation. 

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of organic 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 organic cotton fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Organic Cotton Fabrics

Organic cotton fabrics are generally sustainable. They are made with natural fibers without any added chemicals and, thus, are fully biodegradable at the end of their life. 

Organic linen is ranked a class B fabric – the second most sustainable category of fibers. 

“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 organic 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 organic 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 organic cotton fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of organic cotton fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of organic cotton fabricsSourcing conventional organic cotton fiber is generally sustainable, mainly thanks to the carbon sequestration of cotton plants. Also, growing cotton organically reduces greenhouse gas emissions from the production and usage of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while avoiding polluting water and soil. Organic cotton farming uses water relatively more efficiently than conventional. 
Manufacturing of organic cotton fabricsOrganic cotton textile production doesn’t use synthetic chemicals like conventional cotton manufacturing. However, manufacturing is an energy-intensive process. High energy usage could have serious knock-on ecological impacts if manufacturing relies heavily on fossil fuels. 
Transporting of organic cotton fabricsThe transportation of organic cotton fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Organic cotton fabrics typically travel from fields (where organic cotton plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 
Usage of organic cotton fabricsThe usage of cotton fabrics, including the organic variety, 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 organic cotton clothes are laundered. 
End-of-life of organic cotton fabricsThe end-of-life stage for organic cotton fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Overall, we can say that organic cotton fabrics are generally sustainable. 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 organic 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 organic cotton fabrics more sustainably.

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Cotton Fibers for Organic Cotton Fabrics

Sourcing conventional organic cotton fiber is generally sustainable, mainly thanks to the carbon sequestration of cotton plants. Also, growing cotton organically reduces greenhouse gas emissions from the production and usage of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while avoiding polluting water and soil. Organic cotton farming uses water relatively more efficiently than conventional cotton farming. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Organic Cotton Fabrics

Natural cellulose fibers extracted from the seeds of cotton grown organically are the main material used for organic cotton fabrics.

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

The main raw materials for organic cotton fabrics come from cotton plants grown organically. Sourcing organic cotton is sustainable (more so than conventional) because organic farming uses no synthetic chemicals, which could pollute the air and water and come with negative global warming impacts. 

Carbon Sequestration During Organic Cotton 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, organic cotton cultivation absorbs just over 1.5 times more carbon dioxide than the GHG emissions from cultivating activities

Specifically, cultivating and ginning 1,000 kg of organic cotton fiber 

  • Emits 978 kg CO2 -eq 
  • Sequesters and stores 1,540 kg CO2 -eq 
  • And thus, has a negative carbon footprint (- 562 kg CO2 -eq) 

The largest share of carbon emissions (more than 50%) comes from field emissions. The combustion of fossil fuels to operate agricultural machines is another source. 

Unlike conventional cotton farming, organic farming doesn’t have greenhouse gas emissions associated with synthetic fertilizer production and usage. Conventionally, synthetic fertilizer accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions during cotton’s cultivating and ginning

In comparison, the global average of cultivation and ginning carbon emissions are as follows:

These numbers indicate that growing cotton organically saves about 46% of the global warming impact of sourcing cotton fibers

Growing Organic Cotton Plants Has Lower Water Footprint Than Growing Conventional Cotton 

While cotton is a thirsty crop, organic farming practices use less blue water (water from rivers, groundwater, and surface water) than conventional cotton. 

Part of the water usage in conventional farming is due to water degradation caused by the toxicity of agrochemicals. This is not the case with organic agriculture, cotton included. 

Also, there are indications that organic agriculture has better water absorption and water holding capacity due to better soil structure, meaning more green water available for organic crops. 

So organic cotton cultivation uses water more efficiently than conventional cotton cultivation. 

However, fiber crops such as flax (for linen) or bamboo don’t require irrigation. Compared to these crops, organic cotton still has a higher usage of water from sources like rivers or reservoirs.

Organic Cotton Farmers Don’t Use Chemical-Based Pesticides 

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

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

In contrast, organic cotton farmers rely on natural measures to combat their pest challenges, such as: 

  • Employ crop rotation to increase plant 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 organic cotton plant’s health and the organic cotton field’s biodiversity while avoiding soil and water pollution. 

Organic Cotton Farmers Don’t Use Chemical-Based Fertilizers 

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

In contrast, organic cotton farming practices improve soil health and simultaneously remove the need to use synthetic fertilizer. Such practices include:

  • Crop rotation 
  • Green manure
  • Composting
  • Reduced tillage (and field emissions) 
  • Recycling of crop residue

Organic cotton farmers adopt some or all of these methods to increase the amount of organic matter – including carbon – in the soil, making nutrients more easily available to the cotton and reducing the need to add synthetic fertilizer. 

Where Are the Raw Materials for Organic 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 organic cotton fibers in 2021, with India accounting for 50% of all organic cotton fibers: 

  • India
  • China
  • Kyrgyzstan 
  • Turkey
  • Tanzania
  • Tajikistan
  • The US
  • Uganda
  • Pakistan
  • Greece
  • Benin

Though organic cotton crops don’t have as high water demand as conventional cotton crops, they still require some irrigation using ground and river water. In countries under high water stress, including India, China, India, Pakistan, Turkey, and the US, organic cotton cultivation still potentially intensifies water scarcity (in contrast with growing rainfed fiber crops like bamboo or flax).  

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Organic Cotton Fabrics

Organic cotton textile production doesn’t use synthetic chemicals like conventional cotton manufacturing. However, manufacturing is an energy-intensive process. High energy usage could have serious knock-on ecological impacts if manufacturing relies heavily on fossil fuels. 

How Sustainably Is Organic Cotton Fabrics Generally Manufactured

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

This mechanical process sets organic 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 manufacturing process of cotton fabrics, including the organic variety, typically follows these three steps: 

  1. Extract cellulose fibers from organic cotton bolls:
    1. Defoliate plants with matured organic cotton bolls using water and/ or regulated defoliants 
    2. Separate the fibers from the seed – the ginning process
  2. Form organic cotton fibers into long strands in the carding process 
  3. Spin the long strands to create organic cotton yarn 
  4. Weave organic cotton yarn into organic 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 Organic Cotton Fabrics Has Relatively High Carbon Emissions and Global Warming Impacts 

Manufacturing cotton fabrics is energy-intensive. Electricity usages are especially high in some manufacturing steps, including: 

  • Yarn production processes 
  • Water conditioning and treatment in the dyeing processes 
  • Drying and curing 

When fiber and fabric production depends largely on fossil fuels, high energy usage leads to a high carbon footprint and global warming impact. 

For example, manufacturing an organic cotton t-shirt in India emits 4.77 kg CO2 -eq. That emission accounts for 88% of the total carbon footprint from sourcing raw materials to retail sales

Manufacturing Organic Cotton Fabrics Doesn’t Include Toxic Chemicals 

Manufacturers of organic cotton fabrics don’t use synthetic chemicals as conventional organic cotton manufacturers do, especially in the dyeing and finishing processes. As some of these synthetic substances are harsh chemicals with potential health risks, eliminating them means organic cotton is safe for workers and consumers.

Where Are Organic Cotton Fabrics Usually Manufactured

India and China are the world’s largest producers of cotton fabrics, including the organic variety. 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 (organic 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 organic cotton producers. 

Following are the renewable energy share in primary energy in organic 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 Organic Cotton Fabrics

The transportation of organic cotton fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Organic cotton fabrics typically travel from fields (where organic 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 organic cotton clothes, transportation typically occurs as below: 

  • From fields where organic cotton raw materials are grown to the organic cotton fiber and organic 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

However, the actual transportation of a specific product varies, depending on the supply chain and transporting vehicles. 

Traveling Distances of Organic Cotton Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

It is not uncommon for natural cellulose fabrics like organic 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 organic cotton fabrics: 

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

For example, a life-cycle assessment of an organic cotton t-shirt (made in India and sold in retail stores in South Africa) calculated that transportation and storage emitted 0.11 kg CO2 eq, accounting for 1% of the total carbon footprint. 

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

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

During its life-cycle, a piece of organic 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 organic cotton clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your organic cotton items. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Organic Cotton Fabrics

The usage of cotton fabrics, including the organic variety, 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 organic 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 fabrics, including the organic variety. 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 Organic Cotton Fabrics

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

Untreated organic 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 (organic) cotton fabrics to decompose depending on the conditions. In large-scale compost, 100% pure cotton fabrics typically decompose 50% to 77% within three months

In comparison, 

  • untreated linen takes two weeks
  • 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 Organic 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 (organic) cotton fabrics mechanically, physically, and chemically, depending mostly on whether the materials are pure cotton or a blend. 

  • Mechanically recycling cotton fabrics, organic cotton included, results in cotton fibers with shorter lengths, which makes it, in principle, not possible to make any kind of virgin cotton fibers truly circular, arguably
  • The physical recycling of (organic) cotton uses organic cotton as feedstock for blends of regenerated cellulose fibers like lyocell or viscose
  • Chemical recycling of (organic) cotton breaks down the fabrics with acids or enzymes and creates new materials, which are more like rayon

How Can You Buy Organic Cotton Fabrics More Sustainably

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

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Organic Cotton Fabrics 

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, organic cotton is generally sustainable (class B fabric). Yet, we compile for you a list of some of the most sustainable brands selling organic 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 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 organic 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 organic 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 

Organic cotton fabrics are generally sustainable materials. They are made in a mechanical process with chemical-free cotton fibers. Also, organic cotton crops use water relatively efficiently while sequestering and storing carbon. 

To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand organic cotton clothes, use organic 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.

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