What is Cotton?


Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber on the planet. Unfortunately, it is a water intensive crop that takes a significant toll on the soil and is associated with deforestation. Cotton is also particularly vulnerable to pests and other insects, which has led to a flourishing agrochemical industry around its cultivation. Almost 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of all insecticides are used for the cotton industry.

Want a hot take? Even though cotton is more water-intensive than plastic, we still think you should opt for cotton-based products over plastic-based ones. Read on for why!

Is cotton “sustainable”?

In general, plant-based materials like cotton require less energy to manufacture compared to petroleum-based alternatives like polyester. However, the production and maintenance of cotton products requires a lot of water. Luckily, some cotton is grown in ways that can be kinder to our planet. In an LCA looking at the differences between organic cotton and conventional cotton, the Textile Exchange found that organic cotton is 46% less harmful to global warming, creates 70% less acidification of land and water, the potential for soil erosion drops 26%, surface and groundwater use falls 91%, and the demand for energy can drop by as much as 62%.

Should I opt for organic cotton?

Yes. Organic cotton means that the crop is grown without relying on the use of harmful chemicals, leaving the soil, air, and water with fewer contaminants. It also produces around 46% less carbon dioxide compared to conventional cotton. Plus, conventional cotton can have nasty pesticide residues that can lead to endocrine disruption and cancer. No, thanks.

What kind of products are made with cotton?

Cotton is one of the most common materials that our bodies touch. Our clothing, mattresses, bedding, dish towels, and even our menstrual products are typically made with some form of cotton. It’s a popular material due to its soft fibers, breathability, and absorption.

Are there certifications I should look out for?

Yes, and it depends on if you’re purchasing products with organic cotton or conventional cotton. For products made with organic cotton, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the most rigorous certification, ensuring compliance with strict social and environmental standards across the entire supply chain. For conventional cotton, OEKO-TEX certifications ensure that the product does not contain chemicals detrimental to human health.

Still want to learn more? Check out some of our favorite references: