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When it comes to natural materials, cotton is one of the most adaptable. It can be used to make thin, delicate items such as underwear, in thicker weaves it can be used for comfortable knitwear and, if waxed, it is ideal for weather resistant outerwear. These properties also make it great for accessories and homeware – you can find it in bags and chairs, throws and shoes. In fact, it is amazing how often cotton is the perfect material for the job!

So, what are the downsides? Well, a common misconception is that cotton is not a sustainable crop because of the amount of water needed to grow it. However, cotton grows best in hot countries and is a drought-tolerant crop. It consumes less irrigated water than food crops such as rice, wheat, maize and soybeans. Indeed, one round of irrigation (or a monsoon, depending on the country) is enough for cotton to grow and flower. In drier regions like the Barind Tract, in Bangladesh, cotton yields better results than rice crops, which needs standing water and several round of irrigation.

In about half of the regions where cotton is produced, it is entirely rainfed. The other half need irrigation, so cotton grown in water-stressed regions can contribute to water scarcity. Cotton organisations are aware of this and work to educate producers about sustainable farming practices. Farmers are also encouraged to grow organic cotton, as its water consumption drops by 91 percent compared to conventional cotton. Research by the Soil Association suggests that pesticide use would drop by 98 percent if all cotton farming was switched to organic.

Which begs the question: if organic cotton growth can be achieved with little clean water, where in the production chain does all the use occur? The answer is garment manufacturing. This is true for all dyed textiles, not just cotton. It takes a lot of water to bleach the textile and then to apply the dyes and the chemicals that fix them.

Dyeing cotton is a more water-intensive process than dyeing wool or synthetics, but plenty of companies are developing less water-intensive, more efficient and cost-effective dyes and processes. Examples include the pre-treatment of cotton, pressurised CO2 dye application, the use of natural pigments from microbes and waterless digital textile printing.

Another major water-consuming phase is a result of the longevity of cotton garments. Because they last a lot longer than most synthetics, they need to be washed more. This means that high-quality organic cotton items can consume less water during the manufacturing stage than after they’re sold, but, of course, this is offset. Replacement synthetic clothes will still need to be washed more regularly, and they will carry the environmental footprint of the production of yet more plastics from oil.

Here at Only Natural we know that synthetic use needs to be avoided. They are not just harmful during production, but during use and disposal. Nylon, polyester, acrylic or elastane release plastic microparticles with each wash. Too small to be intercepted by waste water treatment plants, they end up in nature. It is estimated that 240,000 tonnes of plastic microparticles from synthetic textiles are dumped into the oceans every year. And then, when plastic-based materials are thrown away, they take 500 years to biodegrade while cotton takes from one week to six months.

When you see the pictures of textile dumps in Ghana or Chile that are visible from space, you can be sure if anything there is made from cotton, it won’t be there for long!

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