Cotton – What you need to know about the most non-food crop grown in the world

Every one of us surely has the one or the other cotton t-shirt in his wardrobe, some more formal cotton shirts, a few types of denim in different fits and colours. 

Cotton feels like the go-to material for basic items for every day, but we also have some cotton cloth for our kitchen, some towels in our bathroom and some cotton bedsheets that guarantee us a soft sleep.

It feels like cotton is everywhere, in this “guide” you can find all valuable information about cotton.

Let’s start with the basics, what is cotton actually?

Cotton is a natural fibre, harvested from the cotton plant. The textile is made from the fibres surrounding the seeds of cotton plants, these fibres are the round and fluffy formation we have seen on many pictures. 

Cotton falls under the category of plant-based natural fibre. Meaning that it is no animal-based fibre or manmade fibre from plants (that went through some processes).

What makes cotton so popular?

Cotton is an organic material, which has the benefit that it does not contain any synthetic compounds and is fully biodegradable by the end of his life. 

As a material, cotton is very breathable and absorbent. These characteristics make it a go-to choice for warm-weather clothing. But its softness makes it a good all-year-all-rounder and it finds presence also in more formal and business wear.

But cotton is not just used for clothing like t-shirts, shirts, and jeans, it also finds usage in lifestyle items such as bathrobes, towels, bedsheets, and also when it comes to home decorations like curtains. Most of these products consist out of 100% cotton.

Which countries are growing cotton?

Cotton is mainly grown and harvested in India, China, Turkey, Tanzania and USA. They account for 97 percent of global production. 

How big is the cotton industry?

Cotton is the most common non-food crop in the world. The business around cotton is huge, as it provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide. Especially in developing countries where 7% of all people work in the cotton industry.

How is the cotton fibre produced?

The cotton pulp is harvested from the field and processed into yarn, no additional process to change the chemical structure are required.

At Stor-ey we think that sometimes we don’t know where the things we are using daily are actually coming from and how they are made. 

That’s why we included the video below, it explains the whole process from the harvesting to the final cotton thread that we know in our garments.

What is the environmental impact of cotton?

In the past years, cotton has got a lot of attention due to his massive environmental impact. 

Firstly, cotton takes a lot of water to cultivate and to process. E.g. 2.700 liters of water to make one T-Shirt and 10.000 liters to make one single pair of jeans (This is equal to 13 years of drinking water).

Cotton’s biggest environmental impacts result not just from the high consumption of water, the conversion of habitat to agriculture but also the use of agrochemicals (e.g. pesticides). According to Fashion For Good, the cotton production accounts for more than 10% of all pesticides and 25 percent of the insecticides used globally. These pesticides impact farmers and local communities with harmful chemicals. Statistics by the World Health Organisation show that in developing countries approx 20.000 people die of cancer or suffer miscarriages as a result of the chemicals used on the cotton. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, alone in the US, the same pesticides kill unintentionally at least 67 million birds.

What is Organic Cotton?

The major difference is that organic cotton is grown without pesticides, meaning that it is protecting the nature and health of the cotton workers and those around the plantages. Because of the lack of pesticides and fertilizers and using fewer mechanical practices, organic cotton creates 46% less greenhouse gas emissions than the conventionally grown cotton (Textile Exchange).

For this, there are internationally acknowledged certificates such as the Organic Content Standards (OCS) and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), these certificates make sure that the cotton has met all approved standards across the supply chain. The Fairtrade Foundation mark shows that also the farmers and everyone in the supply chain are paid a living wage.

But currently, not even one percent of all cotton is grown organically.

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