Thursday, February 12, 2009

Is Cotton Really That Green?

You might think you know which fabric is superior; you may even have debated the issue. But do you know which is better for the environment? The confusion lies in the fiber itself. Cotton is natural and polyester is synthetic. Natural has become synonymous with green and clean. So cotton is better, right? Not entirely.

Let’s be honest textiles are toxic to produce, energy consuming and water intensive given the raw materials required to produce them.

Cotton can be replanted and is therefore renewable but this doesn’t count for much if it is not grown sustainably. Cotton production contributes to an inconceivable amount of global pesticide and insecticide use. Organic cotton is fantastic in that does not use these but it is still incredibly water intensive, often diverting water away from communities. Cotton irrigation is a major contributor in the depletion of the Aral Sea.

Polyester requires less water but is more energy intensive requiring wood and oil to produce, thereby contributing to global warming from harmful greenhouse gases. Polyester however, is 100% recyclable and in some countries, like Japan, garment recycling is possible through recycling centers. This will hopefully be undertaken by many more countries, until perhaps
recycling our polyester clothes will become as commonplace as recycling other paper and plastic products. In addition to being recyclable, polyester fibres are now starting to be produced from post-consumer and post-industrial recycled materials.

Combining all these factors it is easy to assume that there is no clear winner for the environment in terms of production and perhaps there isn’t. But a garment’s ecological footprint does not end once it is produced. To derive a meaningful evaluation the life-cycle of the product must be assessed. For apparel this can include low-impact maintenance, as it is the energy and water consumption expended over the lifetime of a garment that must be considered.

Polyester is more stain-resistant. It can be washed in cold water and dries quickly. Cotton garments waste energy. They must be washed more frequently as they are less stain-resistant, often require hot water to remove stains and need to be tumble-dried to dry in a comparable time frame. Synthetic fabrics like polyester do not lose their shape like cotton and therefore increase their wear life, further reducing environmental impacts.

The nature of clothing and seasonal fashion means that the textile industry is a major contributor of global warming. The industry needs to become eco-conscious and as with all solutions there needs to be a multi-pronged strategy. Until manufacturers and growers are required to factor in environmental costs, products that do less damage will cost more. It is up to us as consumers to dictate demand. The real challenge is not people switching from natural fibers to synthetic ones as we have been wearing polyester for decades now. The real challenge lies in convincing the consumer to pay for more ecologically sustainable clothing. Would you?

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