When trying to live more eco-consciously, buying fewer clothes or organic clothes is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. Today, many different brands offer clothing made from organic cotton and other natural materials. However, many of these are dyed to give them different colours or patterns. How bad is this for the environment?
What is organic cotton?
Organic cotton is cotton farmed using methods and materials that have minimal impact on the environment. This means that the seeds are usually non-GMO (Genetically Modified Organism), and the farmers do no use pesticides or fertilizers to treat the plants. Instead, they will use natural insect repellents or fight harmful insects using predatory insects.
All crops grown organically must follow the requirements of the NOP (National Organic Program) to be certified organic.
The non-organic cotton industry uses 10-16% of the total pesticides and fertilizers applied globally, which contributes heavily towards the increase of our carbon footprint. Organic cotton, on the other hand, doesn't use these pesticides and thus lowers its own carbon footprint.
Not only does organic cotton have non-GMO seeds, no fertilizers and no pesticides, but they also have many ethical obligations as well. These companies are not allowed to use child-labourers, they must provide safe and hygienic working conditions, and they must offer adequate pay for their employees. This is the primary reason that organic cotton is sold at higher prices than non-organic cotton.
Dyes in organic cotton
Naturally, organic cotton has a slightly beige colour when made into fabric. This is because of its natural colour. There are also a few different types of cotton that provide different colours like cream-white, light green-ish and, of course, beige. These colours are not as vivid as dyed fabrics but are a great way to wear non-dyed and non-bleached clothing.
However, bleached cotton and dyed cotton also exist. So how do they get dyed, and what components are used for this process?
To answer this question, we will first look at the types of dye there are. There are three types of dyes that are used to colour clothes.
Conventional dyes. These are synthetic dyes that are machine-made, mostly consisting of chemicals and usually have the most vivid (or unnatural) colours.
Low-impact dyes. These are also synthetic dyes but don't use certain metals or chemicals to keep the dyes biodegradable.
Natural dyes. Natural dyes are made using natural products like flowers, berries, herbs, etc. These colours are usually less vivid and don't have a palette as big as the synthetic ones but are 100% natural to use.
Most organic clothing companies use low-impact dyes. This is because it allows manufacturers to create a different colour palette with ease, without needing to find a special way to sustain the colours made from natural sources. These dyes also do not contain chlorine, which is better for the environment.
Low-impact dyes also absorb about 70% of the colours, which prevents more excess colours from being washed away or the quick greying of shirts.
While low-impact dyes may be less damaging to the environment, it doesn't mean that they are good either.
What should you look out for?
Most clothing stores promote their organic collection, but not all stores follow the guidelines of what organic should be. Therefore, it's always helpful to check the labels before buying an item or research the store.
H&M's conscious collection, for example, only use a very small percentage of organic cotton and also only recycles up to 20% of cotton in its clothing. That's not as conscious as they make it seem.
When checking out a clothing article, always look at the tag. Is it made of one material only, or are there combinations made? A garment can consist of 60% organic cotton, but if the other 40% is manufactured polyester, it's still not very friendly for the environment as polyester is made from plastic.
How to buy sustainable clothing
If you want to convert your wardrobe into an eco-conscious and sustainable collection of clothes, there are a few steps you can take.
Buy from sustainable stores. This is probably the most expensive option since organic clothes need to follow many requirements to be certified organic. Most of these items are either recycled or grown using a 100% organic method. These clothes are also more durable and thus last longer in your closet. Another way to work this advice is: don't buy fast fashion.
Buy second-hand. To create one t-shirt, up to 2700 litres of water is used. This is equivalent to taking 42 showers of 8 minutes or 332 minutes of showering in total!
Buying second hand is, therefore, a very sustainable way to prevent clothing from being thrown out. There are many websites offering hip second-hand clothes and stores like goodwill usually have some exceptional vintage items as well.
Trade. Another way to stop buying clothes at all is to trade. If you know people that wear the same size as you do, you could offer to swap clothes with each other, keeping both your wardrobes fresh. Some shops or initiatives also create swapping events where you can meet up with multiple strangers and exchange clothes. This is also a great way to meet new people.
Upcycling. If your favourite jeans tear, or that one white shirt has yellow stains all over it, you can also choose to upcycle your clothes. Rather than throwing damaged clothing away, you can use the fabric to create decorations, bags, a fancy collar for your dog, and much more. Old t-shirts make great rags, and old pillowcases can be turned into fabric grocery bags. This saves you some plastic as well, and perhaps you find yourself with a new hobby.
So I shouldn't buy new items?
Of course, you can always buy new but if you want to keep it sustainable, make sure you are well informed before making a purchase. Research the fabrics and brand before you buy and make an informed decision.
Organic cotton is always the best option as it is good for the environment and the people in it. If everyone chose to buy organic, the use of pesticides and fertilizers would be significantly decreased. In addition, there would be a better working environment and fair wages for those involved in the production of organic materials. Our carbon footprint would be reduced, and the way of life for many would be improved.
There is no one way to be eco-friendly and reduce your carbon footprint. Whether you choose to buy new or used, organic or not, the important thing is to be aware of the impact these decisions can have.