Cotton Clothing: Good or Bad?

Cotton field in West Texas

I wrote about cotton several years ago, while researching in India. I have been thinking a lot about cotton lately as well, because of long drives through Texas and seeing miles and miles of cotton plants along the way. Cotton was the big driver of this country's rise as a global player and features prominently in the history of the American South, slavery, and the development of capitalism. And for better or worse cotton continues to shape the planet.

What is it about this plant that we love next to our skin? Once it's picked and processed, and spun into yarn (thread), then woven or knit, then bleached or dyed or printed with patterns, then stitched into garments, it's then (with any luck) worn and loved for many years. With each wearing this fiber gets softer and softer, yet also remains durable. With a twill weave in cotton denim, it can take years of wear and tear and keep improving all the while. It feels good. It breathes. It's the only wearable fiber in the heat. Most humans in the world are big lovers of cotton.

Unfortunately, like everything else in the manufacturing / garment industry, the making of cotton cloth is a dirty business. Americans buy literally tons of cotton, from cheap t-shirts to jeans to towels to sheets... you name it. But the environmental cost is high -- to the air, soil, and water. And even organic cotton takes a huge amount of water (5000 gallons to make a t-shirt and a pair of jeans). But synthetics are not the answer, either. Man-made fibers take up less water to make, but use more chemicals, and aren't biodegradable. (Though companies like Patagonia are doing work to create a closed-loop recycling from their polyester clothing.)

Once you start weighing the options of what type of fabric to wear, the only conclusion I can come to is that everything we buy that is manufactured takes a toll on the planet and impacts people worldwide. So, what is the answer? I think it's to purchase less (even if we have to spend more) -- but the purchases that we do make should be made well and should be worn as long as possible. And recycled if possible -- passed down or given to loved ones. The best way to shop for clothes is to find things that give us MEANING -- because it's the meaning that keeps us wearing and loving these things over a long period of time. If an object is meaningful to us, and has a story behind it, we will treasure it more and get real pleasure out of it. It becomes a part of us.

I'm trying to create some of these meaningful, treasured objects in a world of too much that's disposable and cheap. These prints and cotton clothes won't be for everyone, but I've experienced enough of a revelatory "YES!" moment when people see them, touch them, and try them on that I know that these clothes will be loved for many years to come. That is my favorite thing to witness. 

ps --

If you want to read some more about the clothing industry and cotton, here are a few good sources:

  • NPR's Planet Money did a great series following the life cycle of a cotton t-shirt. 
  • An excellent book that traces the global history of cotton is Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton, here reviewed in the NY Times.
  • The fashion industry's impact on the planet, including the use of cotton, here.




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