Choosing a fibre from a design perspective can be challenging enough, but the fibre that a fabric is made from also has numerous environmental and social impacts. It can be difficult to work out the best option when selecting a fibre.

Introducing Fibre Focus, our fabric blog that breaks down the various impacts of a fibre from an environmental, social justice and design standpoint. It is important to also consider any potential impacts a fibre might have if it were to become more popular.

Cotton:

Design advantages:

  • Strong, lightweight and durable fabric
  • Versatile fabric that has a wide range of applications
  • Affinity with all dyestuff
  • Comfortable for the consumer to wear
  • Ideal surface for printing
  • Different thicknesses are easy to obtain – canvas, poplin, muslin etc
  • Insulating fabric – cool in summer and retains heat in winter

Design disadvantages:

  • Can fade in direct and prolonged sunlight
  • Fine cotton can tear easily
  • Thick cotton can take a long time to dry, think wet jeans
  • Cotton can crease easily compared to other fibres

Environmental impacts:

  • Cotton fibre is natural, biodegradable and renewable
  • Even organic cotton is a water intensive crop that can lead to soil degradation and water source depletion if farmed irresponsibly
  • Unlike other natural fibres, cotton plants typically only have application in the textile industry
  • Conventional cotton requires heavy chemical intervention such as the routine application of pesticides and fertilisers
  • Growing cotton requires clean water – “with accessible water amounting to less than 1% of the world’s water supply, this resource is both valuable and finite. 97% of the world’s water is salty, a further 2% is trapped in ice and snow, and 70% of the remaining 1% is used for farming crops.” National Geographic
  • Prolonged and routine use of pesticides and fertilisers causes air, water and soil pollution – all of which have knock-on effects that threaten ecological equilibrium
  • Pesticides are often referred to as ‘ecological narcotics’ because the crop rapidly builds up a tolerance to the chemicals and therefore a larger quantity is required for every crop
  • Cotton is recyclable
  • As with most crops, cotton photosynthetsises to an extent during growth

Social impacts:

  • Cotton farming provides jobs, which generate income for households
  • Working closely with pesticides has been shown to cause cancers
  • Residential areas surrounding cotton farms contain residual chemicals in the air, water and soil – this is detrimental to human health, especially children. In the Punjabi region of India – a major player in the nation’s cotton industry – levels of neurological development issues are much higher than other states in the country.
  • Residential areas surrounding cotton farms generally face water shortages or water pollution
  • Cotton farmers using pesticdes can quickly become indebted to large chemical corporations that dominate the pesticide/fertiliser/genetic modification industry. Over the last 17 years, over 250,000 farmer suicides have taken place in India due to mounting debts and falling yields
  • Cotton is a comfortable fabric that is easy to care for during its useful life
  • Organic cotton is non-allergenic
  • Cotton machine washes well at lower temperatures – this can save consumer households money
  • Cotton can be hand processed and spun (Khadi) – this has no carbon emissions and preserve traditional handicraft

Positive potential impacts:

  • Decreased presence of non-biodegradable textiles in landfill
  • Increased presence of organic and recycled cotton
  • Preservation of jobs
  • Preservation of handicrafts – Khadi
  • Preservation of finite oil resources

Negative potential impacts:

  • Pollution of air, water and soil
  • Decreased ecological equilibrium
  • Increased dependence on large chemical companies and a related risk of farmer suicides
  • Depletion of vital and finite water sources
  • Increased human health risk associated with chemical pesticide use – especially in children living locally to cotton farms

So there you have it, a simple breakdown on cotton’s various impacts that you can keep in mind when next buying, sourcing or designing.