What is Sustainable Cotton?

AJ Gonzalez | December 21, 2021

Cotton Grower, By Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar|

Sustainable products are a primary focus these days, and industries must do a better job in research and communication with customers.

The 79th plenary meeting of the International Cotton Advisory Committee dedicated a significant segment of time to discuss this important topic.

A recent discussion with Dr. Kater Hake, Vice President for Agricultural and Environmental research at Cotton Incorporated, provided good insights on the value of sustainability.

When asked “What is Sustainable Cotton,” Hake answered, “Any sustainable product has to meet the needs of humans globally without sacrificing the wants of the future generation.” The cotton industry, from fiber to fashion supply chain, is working hard towards this goal.

Cotton is tolerant to drought and salts and is grown in rainfall-deficient regions like West Texas and Africa. Growers are adopting many sustainable practices such as no or reduced till and reduced fertilizer inputs, while aligning sustainability with profitability, stated Hake.

I have articulated sustainability as a System with 3Es – Environmental, Energy, and Economical – in an article, Sustainability in the Industry: Where Do We Go Next?”

Cotton provides jobs for many farmers in countries like India where a farmer may own one hectare or less. This helps with social sustainability, giving opportunities for farmers in developing regions of the world.

While there is no doubt that sustainable products come with a cost, that cost gets absorbed over a period and life cycle of the products. With cotton prices now riding above one dollar per pound and the highest rate of inflation in four decades in the United States, how such increased cost would be received by consumers is interesting to observe.

One solution to tackle the price issue with natural fibers is to increase global production to reduce the price, stated Professor Mohamed Negm, Chairman of the International Cotton Researchers’ Association. Perhaps global cotton production should increase to 35 million metric tons/year from the current level of about 25 million tons/year, he added.

While the technical textiles sector is dominated by synthetics, there is growing interest and to go plastic-free.

“Sustainability can mean different things to different people, so there are a wide variety of sustainability claims made to get on this bandwagon, using terms like ‘natural’ and ‘free from and adding small percentages of cotton, hemp, wood-based fibers and others,” stated Dave Rousse, President of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry. “There is a push for a plastic-free wipes substrate by 2025, and a lot of material science activity to achieve this.”

The climate change issue has heightened the need to go sustainable in all sectors. An immediate need is to engage in dialogue with all stakeholders, particularly with consumers, by improved communication strategies.

More importantly, immediate research investments need to be made by both private and public entities. Benefits to such investments are huge, stated Hake, by highlighting few developments that have happened in the cotton sector like increased fiber strength, which has led to a reduction in the weight of cotton garments and the amount of fiber needed to make durable products.

Plastic pollution in small water systems and large marine environments is attracting due attention, driving the sustainable development of biodegradable products.

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