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STYLE / Cotton Conundrums

Did you know that it takes up to 2,720 litres of water to produce one cotton t-shirt? In other words, the equivalent of around 34 baths or 3 years worth of drinking water! 

This is even more shocking when you think that cotton is typically grown in some of the most water scarce parts of the world. The irrigaton systems for this thirsty crop have already been implicated in the drying of the Aral Sea, and sadly there's more to its story...

Cotton is one of the most widely used materials in clothing, loved for its versatility, comfort and ease of care. Most of us will dress in at least one cotton piece of clothing each day, often choosing it for its more natural appeal. We probably don't think each morning of how conventional cotton cultivation is also dependent on agri-chemicals and is thought to be using up to a third of the world's pesticides and fertilizers. There is also a history of unjust payment for local farmers and forced child labour. Cotton suddenly starts to look a little less natural and appealing to wear.

What can you do?

1. Buy Organic

I don't suggest we completley fall out of love with cotton, it involves the livelihood of millions, even forming part of cultural identity in India for example, where a spinning wheel features on the national flag. There are many initiatives that are striving for positive change so that cotton can become the sustainable resource it has the potential for.

Cotton production does not have to be chemically intensive and there are ways of growing it alongside other food and cash crops, using crop rotation, and compost which will result in an organic matter rich soil. This soil will also retain water more efficiently, requiring up to 91% less than conventional cotton cultivation. 

Supporting organic production is a significant contribution to sustainable development and greater demand from customers could mean that one day these methods might become the norm. 

Look out for clothing brands with organic certification, OCS 100 or GOTS are the most thorough of these at present. 

In Wellington you can find organic cotton clothing from Thought, Seasalt and Mudd and Water at The Sporting Duchess, GOTS certified loungewear at Kin Lifestyle or daywear at Olive and Rosy both on North Street.

2. Consider innovative materials as an alternative to cotton

Exciting innovations are happening all the time. There is a company in Bolzano, Italy currently making leather from apple skins whilst down in Sicily fabrics are being made from citrus juice. However, there are some great new fabrics which are becoming increasingly available on the high street. Tencel/Lyocell is a plant based fabric derived from wood pulp or bamboo from responsibly managed forests and produced through a closed loop process to minimise toxic waste. You could also look out for regenerated or recycled fabrics.

Both The Sporting Duchess and Olive and Rosy stock clothing made with some of these alternatives.

As a more traditional option, consider European linen instead of cotton which uses a quarter of the amount of water in its lifetime, with 80% of this being from its care rather than its production. Flax, from which linen is derived,  thrives in temperate climates and is a resilient plant requiring few fertilisers or pesticides. Usual rainfall is enough to irrigate it and many cultivations are already close to organic standard. Kanya always have a good range of linen pieces.

3. Start with simple switches

Start small with socks and underwear which tend to have a shorter lifespan due to regular use. Begin to phase in more sustainable replacements. The Emporium have a lovely little selection from Thought.

Build up from here with other basics; a classic t-shirt or pair of leggings when you next need them.

4. Buy Less, Buy Better

Be prepared to pay a little more in consideration of the true cost, the production of cheap clothing by necessity can mean cutting corners further back in the supply chain. Develop a 'maintenance mindset', commited to the care and repair of the clothes you buy. You can pop along to one of the Repair Cafe's run by the Transition Town to brush up on skills or visit Dotty Dolly for advice and mending supplies.

5. Re- Use

Buy second hand, there is already a vast amount of cotton clothing in circulation and many shops in Wellington in which to discover something which may just be perfect!


Fashion Revolution website

Dr Helen Crowley  Head of Sustainable Sourcing Innovation - Kering 2018

Lucy Siegle - To Die For? Is fashion wearing out the world? 2011

Common Objective website

Textile Exchange: Achieving SDGs through Organic Cotton

Good on You  fabric guides

Dress with sense: The Practical Guide to a Concious Closet - Redress 2017

Close the Loop: A Guide towards a Circular Fashion Industry

Fashion at the Cross Roads - Greenpeace 2018

Kate Fletcher

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