Preparing for a Sustainable Future – A Look at Organic Cotton

What’s the Problem?

Imagine a world where clothing would be plain and simple. No need to follow the latest fashion trends or buy luxurious brands. The importance of clothing would be less significant.


Cotton Farmers in Uzbekistan.

Currently, our clothing consumption has increased beyond the world’s expectations. As a result, resources are being extracted in larger quantities to keep up with the demand. Clothing stores also need more inventory, which leads to increased shipping and processing. This is primarily because we find our old, suitable clothing undesirable as it has been worn many times. Consequently, used clothes are no longer wanted, which causes excess waste at landfills.

Purchasing new clothes makes us feel satisfied because it gives us something new to wear. For instance, celebrities never wear the same outfit twice. They are often in the media, which forces them to stay fresh in order to avoid judgement. Clothing may also showcase a person’s level of wealth.

The Impact of Cotton in Clothing

Over half of the clothing in the world is made from cotton materials. Cotton is a plant based material and requires one of the greatest concentrations of pesticides to produce. In fact, approximately 250ml of chemicals are used in the production of one cotton t-shirt. Pesticides are harmful to human health and the environment by contaminating soils and groundwater. This interferes with the ecosystem by limiting biodiversity and increasing pests. In addition, these crops consume a large portion of agricultural land, thereby restricting the space available for food crops.

Cropdusting Plane over Cotton Crops.

CRUGER, MISSISSIPPI – SEPTEMBER, 17: A crop duster sprays pesticides and herbicides on a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta on September 17, 2004. Depending on the region, some cotton fields can be sprayed as many as thirty times in one season, eradicating infectious diseases, insects, often with harmful side effects on the surrounding environment. (Photo by Daniel Pepper/Getty Images)

With an increasing demand for new clothing and most production taking place in developing countries, the need for factory workers is growing. These workers often suffer from extremely low wages like $50 a month, and poor working conditions. Working conditions include long shifts and poor air quality leading to long-term health impacts. It is unfortunate that so much of our clothing is produced in these conditions. Cotton materials not only damage the environment, but also causes harm to those working in sweatshop factories.

Organic Cotton – The Alternative

Like organic foods, organic cotton is produced with no toxins or pesticides. The soil for crops remains healthy and the ecosystem benefits. Rather than using harmful chemicals for dying cotton, low-impact natural dyes with low metal content are alternatively used. Likewise, clothing made from organic cotton is manufactured in a healthier and safer environment for workers. This includes having reasonable living wages with fair working hours. Wearing clothing made from organic materials allows you to stand out in a crowd. Although it may cost more, you will have peace of mind that you are doing your part to reduce your environmental footprint.

Companies making change


With such a broad clothing market, it is difficult to initiate change. However H&M, a globally-known clothing company, has set a target to obtain sustainable materials in their cotton by 2020. This includes fully organic cotton and recycled cotton. To help achieve this goal, the company is working with its supply chain which involves meeting certain social and environmental standards to truly make a difference. Additionally, H&M is part of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) that aims to reduce environmental stress. Their vision is to train farmers on better harvesting practices such as using less water and pesticides. By 2020, BCI hopes to train 5 million farmers and produce 30% of all cotton globally.


With stores in 15 countries, Walmart launched a sustainability program in 2005 to focus on waste reduction, energy efficiency and much more. The program includes a committee to ban specific pesticides in Walmart products. It is difficult to make a shift to organic cotton with such a large company because of the limited supply of organic cotton farming. Their promotion of products has involved the consumer awareness of quality products and the environmental principles.

What Will You Do?

So, now that you’ve heard about the impact of cotton production from excessive clothing consumption, what will you do to support sustainable clothing? Choose locally produced clothing? Limit your closet size? Look at the tag of your shirt and see where it is from? By supporting local brands, you are putting the extra cost into more environmentally-friendly clothing, while ensuring the manufacturing process is ethical.

As a first step, you can reduce the number of clothes in your closet. There is no need to have a sprawl of clothes because it is likely that you do not wear all of them anyway. Confidence is key to success because it does not matter what other people think about your clothing. I believe that people must live in a compact way to ensure that their environmental footprint is at the minimum.


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About the Author

Vincent is an Urban Planning student at the University of Waterloo with a passion for environmental change. His interests are in land development and transportation planning to develop compact and high-density communities. Besides urban planning, he is an avid car enthusiast, particularly in performance vehicles.

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