Did you automatically say “cotton”? Many people do, mostly because cotton is a natural fiber, so many eco-conscious consumers believe it is a good choice.
Mainstream farming methods of cotton make extensive use of agricultural chemicals to fertilize the soil, fight insects and disease, control plant growth, and strip the leaves for harvest. Pesticides and other chemicals are well-known for seeping into local waterways, and most water treatment facilities lack the equipment to remove them. The fact is that cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses at least 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop. In the U.S., nearly 1/3 of a pound of chemicals is needed to grow enough cotton for just one t-shirt! And that’s just the beginning: conversion of cotton into textiles also has huge environmental impacts. For instance, the dye process and other production methods often result in large amounts of toxic wastewater discharge into water systems.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that your choice of cotton is still the superior “green” choice, because you’ve chosen organic cotton. It’s true that in its farming methods, organic cotton is almost certainly the better choice over conventionally grown cotton. Organic farmers use biological controls instead of chemical controls: mechanical or hand-weeding, crop rotation, introducing beneficial predator insects, and using natural fertilizers like compost or manure. However, the majority of organic cotton is grown and produced outside the US... much of it in India, Turkey, Peru, China, and Africa. That means that when you buy organic cotton here in the U.S., it was likely grown on the other side of the world, shipped somewhere else to be processed, shipped to a retailer, and then to you! That’s not a small carbon footprint.
And, maybe most notably, polyester is completely recyclable at the end of its life. While cotton is recyclable into new yarn and fabric (and even home insulation), the quality of the fiber is reduced, unlike polyester, whose recycled fibers are of high quality. In fact, many commonly used polyester fabrics have been developed using recycled materials such as clear plastic water bottles, or PET, as the raw material, a source of plastic that would otherwise go to the landfill. Recycled polyester fleece, a knitted pile fabric, is often used by outdoor clothing companies to make jackets. Patagonia is a well-known promoter of polyester recycling and has partnered with Teijin, a Japanese company, who has developed a closed-loop polyester recycling system.
Now what’s your choice as the “greener” product — cotton or polyester?
When considering its entire lifecycle, polyester is not as environmentally damaging as is commonly believed. From my research, recycled polyester is definitely giving organic cotton a run for its money.
Research and Data for this post was found in the following sources:
7. Textiles, Sara J. Kadolph.
Other interesting resources: