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From cotton towels and crisp cotton sheets to blue jeans and shoelaces, cotton has become the most widely used natural fibre on the planet today.

Cotton fibres are natural hollow fibres, giving the fabric its soft, cool, breathable and absorbent characteristics. Cotton fibres are strong, easily dyed and are resistant to abrasion wear and high temperatures, making the material the perfect everyday textile.


3000 years BC, in the Indus River Valley in Pakistan, cotton was being grown, spun and woven into cloth. At a similar time, cotton clothes were being made and worn in Egypt’s Nile Valley. Cotton cloth was brought to Europe around 800 AD and, by the year 1500, cotton had become widely known around the world.

Cotton was first spun by machinery in 1730. The 1760-1840 industrial revolution in England, alongside the invention of the cotton gin in the U.S., made it possible for large quantities of cotton fibre to be supplied to the fast-growing textile industry. Within ten years, the value of U.S. cotton crop production rose from $150,000 to more than $8million. This paved the way for the global growth of the cotton industry and led cotton to become the most widely produced natural fibre on the planet today.


From cotton towels and cotton sheets to blue jeans and shoelaces, cotton materials have become a key part of our daily lives. Clothing and household items are the largest sectors for the cotton industry.

Each part of the cotton plant is useful. The fibre, or lint, is the element used for making cotton cloth, and linters – the short fuzz found on the seed – can be incorporated into high quality paper products and processed into batting which pads mattresses, furniture and vehicle cushions.

Cotton seed can be crushed and separated into three products – oil, meal and hulls. Cotton seed oil is primarily used for cooking oil and salad dressing. The remaining meal and hulls are used as fertilizer or livestock, poultry and fish feed. Finally, the stalks and leaves of the cotton plant can be plowed to enrich the soil.

Production Process

Approximately two months after cotton seeds are planted, flower buds appear on the plants. After three weeks, cotton flowers blossom, turning from cream to yellow, then to pink and finally, red. Once these petals have withered and fallen, green pods called cotton bolls are left behind.

Inside the boll, moist fibres grow and push out the newly formed seeds. The fibres continue to expand under the warm sun until the boll eventually splits and the fluffy cotton bursts through.

Hand labour is no longer used in the U.S. to harvest cotton, instead machines harvest the crop. Cotton picking machines have spindles that pick and twist the cotton seeds from the burs that are attached to the plants’ stems.

At the textile, the lint is mixed and cleaned via the processes of blowing and beating. The mixed and fluffed cotton then enters a carding machine which combs and straightens the fibres, making them into a soft, untwisted rope called sliver.

Looms and modern spinning frames weave and spin the cotton fibres into yarn for knitting or weaving into fabric. This woven fabric is then sent to a finishing plant where it is bleached, pre-shrunk, dyed, printed and applied with a finish, before being made into clothing or homeware products.


Cotton’s most prominent environmental impacts result from the use of agrochemicals and water consumption. Aligning cotton production with acceptable environmental standards is pivotal. However, initiatives and regulations are shifting the industry’s production standard.

Organisations are working to promote more sustainable production, reduce damage to freshwater systems, encourage the use of advanced irrigation technology and implement more ecologically sound growing methods.

The WWF’s Better Cotton Initiative is one example of a project promoting better ways of growing cotton. Farmers who adopt the Better Cotton best management practices are growing healthier cotton, using less pesticides, fertilisers and water overruns, driving major change in cotton production methods.

In 2012, the Better Cotton Initiative helped cotton farmers in Pakistan reduce their pesticide and chemical fertiliser use by 47 percent and 39 percent, respectively. Yields remained the same, with an average of an 11 percent rise in income in comparison to farmers using conventional and harmful practices.

The Future of Cotton

With the vision to set new standards in sustainable cotton production, the implementation of initiatives such as the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol help drive full transparency and continuous improvement in reducing the industry’s environmental footprint. Today, this protocol works in partnership with over 700 mills and manufactures and 40 brands and retailers, ranging from Levi’s to Gap.

Projects such as this are key in ensuring that the future of cotton production is sustainable, placing cotton as a natural fibre with minimal environmental impact in the fashion and textile industries.





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