May I repeat again: There is no such thing as perfect.
I usually say that with regard to items of clothing, as in, “there’s no one perfect pair of jeans,” or “the perfect black dress”; perfect is subjective, and also time-sensitive, I think. What might be “perfect” for me now, may not be in a couple of years. And what is perfect for you, will not be perfect for me.
Now though, I want to use it in terms of creating a more sustainable, conscious wardrobe. I’ve said before, that better is better than nothing, and small steps in the direction you want to go DO make a difference. There is no such thing as a perfectly sustainable wardrobe, or perhaps even a perfectly sustainable dress, or other item of clothing.
Some would argue that most of what we do as consumers doesn’t work, or even lends itself towards promoting sustainability or changing the fashion industry at all. Depressing, no? Instead of get mired in the idea that if you can’t be “perfect” or do EVERYTHING YOU POSSIBLY CAN to be THE MOST SUSTAINABLE you can, you may as well give up, I prefer to take it one step at a time, using my brain to figure out the best, most reasonable & realistic course of action at a given moment.
Often, that means choosing better rather than best (assuming we even KNOW what best is..). And I’m okay with that.
In my Sustainable Fabrics post, I mentioned that I thought that aside from secondhand fabrics, hemp or linen, organic cotton is the most “readily available” sustainable fabric right now. I still agree that organic cotton might be the most readily available “eco-friendlier” fabric right now, but I wonder if it is actually “sustainable” – meaning does organic cotton farming have longevity? Can it “sustain” itself and compete economically? Because that is at the heart of sustainability; it’s not just about being environmentally friendly RIGHT NOW, it’s about long-term efforts to change the fashion industry.
It’s a very complicated issue, and requires a lot more digging and research, but a reader sent me a link to this article recently at the Genetic Literacy Project and it sparked my interest. It clearly comes from a pro-GMO point of view, and that is disclosed, as are the publication’s relationships with companies and organizations, but I am never one to shy away from reading and trying to understand points of view that may be different from my own. And I’m not even entirely sure I’m 100% anti-GMO yet, I just haven’t learned enough about it to have a FIRM opinion one way or another. It feels not right to me, but I do also believe in science, modernization, and advancement for the benefit of the world’s population. So…but I digress.
Back to organic cotton. Is it sustainable? A couple of points from the article:
Since organic cotton growers do not use synthetic herbicides, weed control is a huge issue. Each row must be cultivated every time there is any type of moisture or light rain. Sometimes farmers need to be out in the dark with a flashlight just to monitor their crops, almost like farming back in the 1950’s. These methods are heavily dependent on tillage, tractor passes and rotary hoes. Sometimes tillage and cultivation needs to be done two to three times per week! This means much more fuel emissions, wear and tear on equipment, with a higher carbon footprint.
Insects can have devastating effects on cotton farms but organic farmers are limited on what insecticides they can use. There’s not much they can do if insects invade their fields. This can lead to 50 percent or greater loss in yields and a lower quality fiber. The crops may also need more irrigation, thus requiring more resources. Since they don’t use synthetic fertilizer, they can’t compete with plant growth and quality of modern production methods. There are some insecticides approved for organic such as neem oil or Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as Bt.
While organic farmers spray their crops with Bt, farmers who use genetically modified cotton seeds have the natural Bt built in, reducing their spraying to almost nothing.
Ninety percent of the organic cotton grown in the U.S. comes from this small region in Texas* because it is fortunate enough to have the ideal growing conditions: 15 inches of annual rainfall, higher elevation, light soil and wind. These conditions conditions do not occur in a majority of the cotton belt, however.
I don’t think, after reading this article multiple times, that all of these points mean that organic cotton is NOT sustainable, only that it isn’t the “perfect” natural fiber as many would have us believe. Organic cotton isn’t the savior of the fashion industry, nor is it even as eco-friendly as we thought it was (water usage is a HUGE problem for cotton, organic or not). NOTHING is ever as “perfect” as we think it is…to get back to my main point 😉
A lot to digest there, and think about, but I still believe that I’m doing the right thing by trying to reduce my consumption of conventional cotton and synthetic fabrics, replacing it with recycled fabrics, hemp, linen and/or organic cotton as much as I can. Even being “eco-friendly” right now is better than nothing, and perhaps with more of us consuming organic cotton, creating more of a demand for it, we will at least keep the organic cotton farmers in business, helping them to create a more sustainable enterprise, and making it more economical for others to do the same.
I wrote this and posted a “contrarian” article to start a conversation and make a point that there is no simple way to change the fashion industry to be more sustainable. It’s great that Emma Watson is trying to draw attention to the issue/industry by wearing modern, appealing, more sustainable clothing, but often what that does is just create attention around the buzzword “sustainable.” Then, as we saw in the late 2000’s all sorts of marketing pops up and greenwashing abounds – back then it was all about bamboo, now it’s “sustainability.”
I was writing about eco-fashion back then, and while bamboo was all the rage, I posted my share of articles and caveats about bamboo, it was never as eco-friendly as it was made out to be. And now, I try to do the same with sustainability – as I re-think using it as often as I do.
In conclusion – there is no conclusion. Sustainability and more environmental & people-friendliness in the fashion industry is something we should all strive for, I think. As it is now, with fast fashion still a major driver of fashion consumption, it is absolutely not sustainable and is only a matter of time before another Rana Plaza tragedy or worse. But there is no one way to accomplish that, nor is there an easy fix; it will take time, and a shift in overall consumption patterns from today’s unsustainable levels: we are simply consuming & then discarding too much for our earth, and the people and animals in it to take.
What do you think?
*Zady’s t-shirts use organic cotton from a farm in Texas:
Sporting the USDA organic certification means that their non-genetically modified cotton is grown without the use of chemical pesticides, defoliants, or fertilizers. In place of which, natural fertilizers in the form of compost, naturally-derived mineral fertilizers, and rotational crop practices enhances biological cycles. This is how our organic cotton keeps chemical pollutants out of our air, our waters, and our t-shirt.