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Fabric Focus: Cotton

Have you ever wondered what makes some fabrics more sustainable than others?This month we're taking a look at the fabrics used in the majority of clothes we stock, and what makes them a good choice for a sustainable wardrobe. 

This week's Fabric Focus is cotton, one of the oldest fabrics around. Cotton has maintained popularity for at least 3,000 years due to its versatility. It can be  woven, knitted or made into stretchy fabric, and at least 75% of the world’s clothes have some form of cotton present in them, making it the world’s most popular fabric.

How is cotton produced?

Cotton is a natural product derived from cotton plants. The plants are usually grown on large plantations, and take around 160 days to go from seed to final product.

Cotton it is a thirsty plant, with about 10,000 litres of water needed to grow 10kg of cotton. It's a highly labour-intensive plant that needs to be harvested by hand to ensure the crops aren’t destroyed in the harvesting process.

The pros & cons

From a positive point of view cotton grows naturally in tropical and subtropical regions including South Asia, where there is heavy rainfall in monsoon season, providing the right amount of irrigation for a healthy crop.

Cotton is also fully biodegradable if produced on its own or combined with other naturally occurring materials like linen or hemp. It can be placed on a compost heap and will break down in around 5 months.

Sadly this amazingly versatile material has also had disastrous consequences for both humans and the environment.

We know that cotton picking has been directly associated with slavery, particularly in the American Deep South and the Caribbean, where many people were kidnapped from their homes in Africa and forced to pick cotton on large plantations for white European slave owners.

Unfortunately slavery still exists throughout the world, as cotton is a huge commodity that has a high sales value, sometimes being described as 'White Gold'.  Uzbekistan has been condemned by the Geneva convention for forcing children to leave school during cotton harvesting to spend long hours picking cotton in fields.  China is also complicit in forcing prisoners and people from the Uyghur population to pick cotton in forced labour camps. It seems that forced labour associated with cotton picking is to be found in any country that grows cotton.  

Intensive cotton growing also has disastrous consequences for our environment. Non-organic cotton is grown quickly using pesticides and fertilisers which are often applied in huge quantities and leach into the soil. Water is also applied liberally to the already water-intensive crops, leading to water scarcity in areas where water is already scarce.

An example of this is the Aral Sea, located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Aral Sea was a huge inland sea with a number of thriving fishing ports. In 1930 the Uzbekistan government began to intensify cotton growing in the region. To do this they began to extract water from the Aral Sea. As cotton growing increased the sea became so salty that fish were no longer able to survive, and by the mid 1990's the sea had disappeared completely, replaced by desert littered with abandoned fishing boats. In recent years efforts have been made to re-flood the Aral sea, but unfortunately none of these have yet been successful.

Cotton Certifications

By buying organic or Fair Trade certified cotton we can help to stop the mass destruction that conventional cotton production creates. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the highest regarded certification in the textile industry. GOTS helps farmers by paying them more for cotton that has been produced organically and fairly, and ensuring the protection of the environment and people throughout the supply chain.  


The Fairtrade Foundation helps farmers to set up their own small farms by providing loans to buy land. They also educate farmers in organic cotton growing, which can provide an income to support entire families and send children to school.

When choosing brands to stock at 69b Boutique we always look for those that use certified or organic cotton. This helps to ensure the products we sell are not only made fairly, but that all those who are involved are able to live happy healthy lives.

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