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What's in Your Jeans? The Cotton Problem. - Soorty X Denim Dudes cont.

Last week we looked at the different fabrics and sustainable technologies I used to create my 3 piece outfit for my collaboration with Soorty Enterprises and Denim Dudes. This week, I'd like to dive into the actual fibres.

I chose to only use fabrics consisting of organic cotton, linen, and Tencel that had a Cradle to Cradle certification, meaning after the use of the product, the materials are taken back and are reintroduced into the supply chain. The value chain is viewed from raw materials, all the way to the remanufacture of the product. Most people think that the washing/finishing processes are the most water intensive stages in denim production, but according to Levi's, fibre production accounts for 68% of total water usage in producing a pair of jeans. This is due to cotton being the primary fibre used for making denim.

Growing cotton can contribute to over-consumption of water, depending on where and how it’s grown. The global average water footprint of seed cotton is 3,644 cubic metres per tonne, the equivalent of nearly 1.5 Olympic swimming pools.

There are many factors that affect how much water is used and how much pollution is generated which include: whether or not the cotton is rain-fed, irrigation methods used, which types and quantities of fertilizers and pesticide are applied, and soil types. It is estimated that 60% of cotton grown globally is irrigation fed, leaving 40% rain-fed.

Not only does cotton production require the exhaustive use of water, it can also pollute a significant amount of it. When cotton isn't grown according to sustainable practices, it uses an incredible amount of pesticides and petroleum based fertilizers. Inappropriately used, pesticides and fertilizers seriously pollute water sources and decrease soil fertility. They also have significant harmful effects on human health and biodiversity, as these toxins leech into our water systems.

Although the use of toxic pesticides has been reducing over the years, 10% of all agricultural chemicals are used for cotton which currently uses 2.5% of the world’s arable land. More chemical pesticides are used for cotton than for any other crop, accounting for 16% of global insecticide releases.

With world population set to reach 9 billion by 2030, the increased demand for food will also create more challenges for cotton production. As cotton alone, amounts to 2.5% of the land suitable to grow food, there will be an increasing pressure to convert land use from fibres to food and fuel.

As there are many environmental concerns with cotton production, the human side has major concerns, as well. According to Cotton Up Guide, "over 60% of the world’s cotton is produced by smallholder cotton farmers, who are among the poorest and most vulnerable in the world. Around 90% of these estimated 100 million smallholder farmers live in developing countries and grow the crop on less than two hectares." Many of these farmers live below the poverty line, making less than they need to meet their basic needs such as food.

BUT, THERE IS HOPE! Sustainable cotton has the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty by providing a stable income and good working conditions. For example, e3 Cotton and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) provide sustainable cotton sourcing solutions.

BCI is a non-for-profit organization that aims to transform global cotton production by working with a range of stakeholders across the cotton supply chain to promote measurable and continuing improvements for the environment, farming communities, and the economies of cotton-producing areas.

On the other hand, e3 cotton focuses on the farmer and require them to sign up and commit to grow cotton more efficiently and decrease the impact on the environment. Their cotton is certified and verified through independent audits, as well as traceable specific environmental and social measures to an individual farmer. There are also future plans to facilitate specialized training and information sharing among committed farmers to encourage and recognize improvement efforts on the farm.

As you can see, cotton is quite a controversial fibre, as it is known to be one of the best natural fibres out there. Soorty's marketing manager, Eda Dikmen, notes that she would like to see more hemp used as an alternative to cotton, which would allow denim to have the same durable stiff feel as cotton denim, with a significant reduction of environmental impacts! Tencel and Refibra are also huge in the denim industry as a cotton alternative, which you can read more about on my learn more page.


Look for brands who are fully transparent, and ones with BCI or e3 cotton labels, but most importantly, just do the best you can! This post doesn’t have extremely actionable takeaways, but the more we know, the more these issues become a topic of conversation and thus, can be solved. So let’s keep on learning and be a part of the crowd who are creating a better world for everyone in it 💙

Follow me @SimplySuzette for more sustainable denim and fashion wins.


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