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Article: Organic Cotton & Us

Man with midlength wavy hair wearing an Illustrate 'The Wandering Bear' t-shirt
Illustrate News

Organic Cotton & Us


The fashion industry is huge, it accounts for about 2% of global GDP, and has it's fingers in just about every other major industry on the planet; agriculture, technology, oil, you name it and fashion is a major player. As a result it is, unsurprisingly, an incredibly polluting industry, indeed one of the key offenders in that respect (and others) on a global scale. A statistic often bandied around is that the fashion industry is in fact the second most polluting industry in the world, nice and eye catching sure but not actually correct - here's a fantastic blog just on that subject using data collected by Global Fashion Agenda (really the last word on sustainability in the fashion industry.)

Clothes shop exhibiting a wide range of colours


The blog works out that fashion is probably (there is always a degree of uncertainty when calculating such mammoth things) the fifth or sixth worst offender in terms of pollution - hardly as punchy as the second but damning with faint praise indeed. As previously mentioned, fashion, as an industry, overlaps with a huge array of other industries both in it's operation and, most importantly, in it's supply chain, which means that any reform of the fashion industry would produce an enormous domino effect leading to change across most major industries on the planet.


Of all aspects of the fashion industry perhaps the worst offender is what we'll refer to as 'conventional cotton' - that is cotton grown with the use of pesticides, mostly in a highly intensive way and which accounts for the lion's share of world cotton production. It is the gluttonous use of chemicals during the production of conventional cotton which really does the damage; damage to the soil, the water system, the air and even to the farmer overseeing it.

Cotton field leading off into the middle distance


  • Cotton farming accounts for 3% of the world's farmland but over 10% of pesticide used globally (Green America)
  • Roughly 20,000 people die each year due to the chemicals used in conventional cotton cultivation (WHO)
  • Millions of wild animals are killed in the US each year due to pesticides (US Fish and Wildlife Service)
  • Of the top 15 most commonly used pesticides on conventional cotton, 7 are listed as potentially carcinogenic (US EPA)

These are levels of environmental and human degradation which are wholly unsustainable not too mention abhorrent. So what's the alternative?


Organic cotton pushes against this trend and, like other organic produce, seeks to be as natural as possible, sacrificing artificially high yields for crops which not only don't harm the ecosystem they're part of but actually benefit it. A commitment to growing organic cotton also means not using genetically modified seeds and to crop rotation - this lessens the impact of farming on the soil and ensures it stays fertile. In rejecting the use of pesticides farmers of organic cotton are presented with new problems - just how do they deal with pests? Many opt to introduce insect predators to deal with this issue having the added benefit of promoting biodiversity, there is however also a growing range of botanical pesticides which naturally degrade in oxygen and sunlight. Of course we understand that organic cotton isn't perfect, for one thing no matter how you grow it, it remains a highly water intensive crop which, in a world where water is becoming more and more precious, is only going to become more of an issue as time progresses.


Current legislation only covers the actual growing of the cotton meaning that, once within the textile industry proper, there is nothing to stop the cotton then being treated with a variety of chemicals e.g. flame retardants, anti-stain treatments and the like. Lawfully this would still be organic cotton in spite of the fact that it now contains many chemicals which are irritants to human skin, often such chemicals will not be easily removed by washing machines and effect the afterlife of the product - the cotton itself may decompose but the chemicals will then be introduced into the wider environment. Given that avoiding just that is a key goal of organic cotton many involved in the industry have lobbied for amending the legislation as well as forming bodies, such as the Organic Trade Association, who provide their own voluntary rules and provide certification for cotton which avoids chemical treatment through the entire production line.

Stack of coloured rolls of fabric


Illustrate is an ardent supporter of organic cotton, as well as of efforts to reform the fashion industry as whole, and has been since our inception. From day one we have only used suppliers that are dedicated to sustainable fashion who have an ethos which encompasses every aspect of both environmental sustainability and CSR (corporate social responsibility.) Our tees are all now made entirely from organic Indian cotton, with the peace of mind we are actually getting organic cotton that benefits the planet and our workers as an annual audit is carried out to ensure our factories comply with the FWF's (Fair Wear Foundation) Code of Labour Practises that protect the rights of workers. Furthermore, our Earth Positive range of t-shirts are produced in factories powered by green energy as well as being constructed from low impact organic cotton meaning that the carbon footprint of an Earth Positive t-shirt is a drastic 90% smaller than for a standard tee - as a result all Earth Positive tees are proudly marked as carbon neutral. We are now also trialling extending this to our sweatshirt range as well.


We're by no means perfect and we recognise that there is still a long journey ahead of us to reach the level of sustainability we aspire to. There are issues with organic cotton as well, not to mention the levels of wasteful consumption in all areas of our life cycle. What Illustrate aims for is a commitment to staying on that journey, always looking for new ways to streamline and to do things better.

- Illustrate Sustainability


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