Imperfect alternatives to conventional cotton (follow-up post)

This is a follow-up to the my post about the environmental impacts of cotton.

There are a few alternatives to conventionally grown cotton, the obvious one being organic cotton. World Wildlife Fund launched the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) with support from Ikea to encourage better practices of cotton production. BCI has gained wide support and has been successful in reducing pesticide use and water consumption. BCI works with farmers and other stakeholders to implement new irrigation technologies and more eco-friendly cultivation methods. In Pakistan, farmers have reduced their water use by 39%, which significantly lessens cotton’s impact on the Indus River.

Hemp and bamboo are other common alternatives to cotton, but as with all textiles, they do come with their own sets of problems. Both are quick growing and less resource intensive than cotton. Hemp needs virtually no pesticides or chemicals to grow and uses half the water cotton does. Bamboo is also less water intensive, grows amazingly fast, and doesn’t need pesticides to grow either. In terms of growing these crops, they are better than cotton. However, processing methods for these materials can be energy intensive, expensive, and sometimes require harsh chemicals. Well, nothing is perfect. I know it’s frustrating, but we do need to clothe ourselves, so don’t agonize too much. If we improve processing methods and reduce the toxicity of chemicals in the manufacture of these products, it would significantly reduce the environmental impact of these materials.

The bottom line for shopping is finding materials that are cultivated using ethically and environmentally responsible practices, requiring as little water and pesticides as possible, and processed using relatively few toxic chemicals. Waste management practices of manufacturers also differ significantly, so finding responsible and transparent companies will reduce your environmental impact as well. Ethical shopping can be more expensive, so you really need to strike a balance between your wallet and your conscience. I buy new professional clothing and things like underwear and socks, but I also try to buy organic cotton or organic hemp products, and I shop at thrift stores.

Additionally, more companies are starting to sell eco-friendly clothing. Check out companies like Pact Organic and Patagonia.

On a personal note, I’ve found the transition to ethical shopping a bit stressful – greenwashingˆ is a big problem, there are lots of choices, and it’s expensive. The fashion industry has a long way to go in terms of human labor and environmental impacts. Pushing for transparency, ethical practices, and less environmentally intensive technologies is a good start.

I’ll dig into some of the issues and possible solutions more in future posts since it’s a pretty big topic.

ˆ Denotes a term that is defined/explained under the terms/concepts/glossary page of blog. Symbol found following the word the first time it’s used in a post.