Last month, we wrote about how cotton’s future and fashion’s future are intertwined.  Cotton is everywhere: from jersey to corduroy, poplin shirts to performance fabrics.  And cotton’s legacy is long: it clothed ancient civilisations, it fuelled the industrial revolution, and it recently became the first fibre to digitise at source.

Being this widespread also places a great deal of responsibility on the cotton value chain, since cotton’s impact on the overall sustainability of the fashion industry is equal to its ubiquity.  But by the same logic, every improvement to cotton’s environmental and ethical credentials can ripple outwards and affect the entire industry.  Alterations to how the raw fibre is turned into fabrics will cascade down to almost every product category; and new opportunities to reclaim, reuse and recycle could have the potential to reach further than perhaps any other material.

All of which is why cotton’s circularity journey – from the earth and back again – is emblematic of the fashion industry’s broader reckoning with how to blunt the impact of its sourcing, production, usage, and disposal through innovation.  And all of which is why fashion still has a lot to learn from its original fibre.

Growing in the right direction

The sensible place to start following cotton’s circular path is in the soil. 

At the field level, a lot has changed when it comes to the cultivation and harvesting of cotton in the Western hemisphere – especially in the United States.  The cotton growing industry in the US has defined targets to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by close to 40 percent over a decade, at the same time as reducing water consumption, and halving the amount of soil lost. 

And many of these improvements have their roots in technology and process change. 

Better stewardship of planting land is being enabled by data-centric, geospatial monitoring systems that provide growers with new insights into their operations, and new tools to maintain and improve on responsible levels of growth.  Improved mechanical processes are measurably increasing the health of soil by avoiding the need to disturb the microbes that call it home.  New, hardier, genetic varieties of cotton could improve fibre yields each harvest.  And steadily replacing pesticides that rely on synthetic nitrogen with cover crops and smart sensors offers a clear route to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, new uses for cotton by-products are rife.  Its seeds can be made into oil for human consumption, feed for dairy cows, and the plant matter cast aside in the ginning process can have a second life everywhere from fabric dyeing to the production of medical supplies.

Design, develop, and manufacture

Cotton has also emerged at the forefront of material digitisation, as we saw last month, with the curation of new and evergreen material recipes that are being reborn as digital, and made available to designers and creatives in digital form.  This effort could lead to the replacement of physical samples and fabric swatches with digital alternatives for brands and retailers looking to carve a more sustainable product development path.

When a physical prototype is needed, work is already underway to mitigate the water, energy, and chemical requirements of processing cotton and manufacturing products from cotton-rich materials.  As both an innovator and facilitator of technology, not-for-profit company Cotton Incorporated has set out a swathe of solutions designed to improve the sustainability profile of textile manufacturing.  From innovations in salt-free dyeing and right-first-time colour matching, to solar water heating and high-tech filtration systems, preparing, dyeing, and finishing cotton fabrics are all set to become more sustainable processes.

Cotton Incorporated also has collaborated with several companies on a series of capsule material collections that spotlight innovations in responsible fabric finishing.  For example, the EarthColors® by Archroma collection uses biosynthetic dyes created from cotton by-products, while the cultivation of new strains of cotton are producing fibres that are naturally brown, green, or red – eliminating the environmental impact of synthetic dyeing.

Reuse and recycle

Throughout cotton’s history, fabrics have been repurposed and reused, but in response to growing consumer demand for their pre-loved products to have second lives, brands, retailers, and third parties are discovering and re-discovering ways to recycle cotton materials.

Cotton can offer a long shelf life, and the reuse applications for cotton span many different scenarios – from the secondhand market to cleaning rags around the house. However, cotton does not always lend itself well to being recycled for new apparel creation once it has been reclaimed from fabric to fibre due to the loss of fibre length and strength needed for making cotton yarns.  But cotton can be used across a range of different industries, and in some unpredictable applications.

Take Cotton Incorporated’s Blue Jeans Go Green™ programme, which to date has taken in more than three and a half million pieces of denim, and converted these into home insulation – an initiative that has donated to charitable construction causes and disaster recovery, as well as saving more than 1,750 tons of jeans and other denim from finding their way to landfills.

But new technical innovations in additive manufacturing and injection molding promise to bring recycled cotton back into the apparel cycle, to create opportunity for new alternatives to metal and plastic buttons, zippers, and other fixtures that have been difficult to source in a sustainable way.

Disposal does not need to be destructive

The sustainability conversation in fashion treats disposal as a dirty word.  This is understandable given that micro-fibres released by the treatment, use, and discarding of petroleum-based materials account for 35% of ocean plastic pollution – a problem that’s expected to see more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

Unlike oil-based materials, though, cotton fabrics biodegrade relatively quickly – whether they find their way into the oceans, into rivers, or into industrial compost.  In the latter case, cotton-only products have been shown to degrade in four weeks, while polyester fabrics will break down in twenty years at best.

There can be no doubt that the fashion retail industry has an over-consumption problem to solve.  An estimated 20 billion pounds of textile waste enters US landfills each year, accounted for at least in part by the average American throwing away seventy pounds each of clothing in the same time frame.  But this is an issue that will require long-term cultural change to address, and the volume of textiles being disposed of will continue in the interim.

Taking this into account, the more cotton the fashion industry can use – from cutting-edge performance fabrics to classic applications – the more it will be able to soften its impact on the natural environment.

This is why it matters that the cotton industry is demonstrating a commitment to bringing fashion full circle.