How Cotton Can Help Protect the Planet

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Unlike synthetic, petroleum-based textiles like polyester, nylon and acrylic, which produce microplastic pollution and can take hundreds of years to decompose, cotton biodegrades quickly, something the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) points out.  It calls cotton “a natural fiber like no other,” one of the reasons being that its use decreases the number of plastics entering the planet’s waterways and helps to keep oceans clean.

World Cotton Day, celebrated in early October, is meant to both honor the natural fiber as well as show its enduring positive impact.  Cotton’s sustainability factor is just one of the reasons the official theme for World Cotton Day was, “Cotton for Good.”

Since cotton is made of cellulose, an organic compound that is the basis of plant cell walls and vegetable fibers, it biodegrades relatively quickly. This is the case in both soil and water. This quick and natural decomposition is vital, considering that every year, U.S. consumers alone discard more than 34 billion pounds of used textiles, according to a study from the Boston University School of Public Health, and 66 percent of it winds up in landfills.

“A study in the Journal of Hazardous Materials found that people on average may ingest from 0.1-to-5 grams of microplastics every week. For reference purposes, a plastic credit card weighs about 5 grams. Since its initial publication, an author of the study has stated it’s possible there are people in the world who could be consuming an even higher number of particles.”

Microplastics Crisis

More than two-thirds of all apparel (69 percent) is made of synthetic, petroleum-based fibers and more than half of that is polyester. When the tiny microfiber particles from synthetic clothing land on the ground or in the water, it is consumed by both aquatic and land animals, working their way up the food chain. Of course, that means it reaches us humans. And a study in the Journal of Hazardous Materials found that people on average may ingest from 0.1-to-5 grams of microplastics every week. For reference purposes, a plastic credit card weighs about 5 grams. Since its initial publication, an author of the study has stated it’s possible there are people in the world who could be consuming an even higher number of particles.

“Additional studies that have detected microplastics in additional food and beverage groups, which changes the dataset and thus potentially changes the estimated global average rate of microplastics ingested,” said Kala Senathirajah, a co-author of the study. “The findings could be a gross underestimation of the amount of microplastics ingested for some people.”

Incredibly, scientists estimate that if something doesn’t change, our oceans will carry more plastic than fish (by weight) by 2050.

Fossil-Based Fiber Emissions

But it’s not just the land and water that are affected by synthetic clothes. Polyester production has 50 percent higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emission than cotton, according to a study published in the journal One Earth. And an article from Action for the Climate Emergency points out that more than half of all apparel (57 percent) ends up in landfills every year. As the apparel sits and degrades, it releases methane  — “a potent greenhouse gas that is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.” Once landfills reach capacity, the trash is incinerated, releasing more GHG into the atmosphere.

But cotton can be a kind of hero in this landscape. In both plant and textile forms, cotton can help the climate impacts of clothes made from petroleum. The cotton plant captures carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, storing it in fiber, plant stalks and roots in the soil. The carbon captured on an acre of land is similar to the emissions from burning 657 gallons of gasoline – or 14,500 miles driven in an average gas-powered vehicle. And there’s more: the carbon capture can continue in consumers’ closets, as cotton holds CO2 in fabric. For example, one pair of jeans, on average, can sequester 2.5 pounds of CO2.

More Than a Marque

The Seal of Cotton, which was introduced in 1973, is being celebrated as a globally recognized symbol associated with fashion, durability, quality, comfort, trust, and sustainability. Research reveals that an increasing majority of consumers have come to associate the Seal of Cotton with the characteristic of being “sustainable,” rising significantly from 59 percent in 2016 to 77 percent in 2020, and then again to 82 percent in 2023, according to Cotton Incorporated’s 2023 Seal of Cotton Consumer Research.

Further, cotton dominates most textile perceptions as the majority of consumers say the Seal of Cotton best represents attributes like “natural” (90 percent, up from 86 percent), “safe” (85 percent, up from 80 percent), “sustainable” (82 percent, up from 77 percent), and trusted (81 percent, up from 77 percent), according to the 2023 Seal of Cotton Consumer Research.

Kim Kitchings, senior vice president of consumer marketing at Cotton Incorporated, says consumers just didn’t care as much about sustainability seven or eight years ago. “Today is a much better time to give these messages,” Kitchings adds. “You have to be where consumers are, and you can see just from 2016 to 2023 the increase in awareness. And it’s not just sustainability because of our logo, but cotton in general in the marketplace. People have heard about microplastics and other things that have affected this knowledge.”

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Consider that more than 8 in 10 consumers (83 percent) consider cotton safe for the environment, according to the Cotton Council International and Cotton Incorporated’s 2023 Global Sustainability Study. This compares to 43 percent for rayon, 42 percent for polyester, and 42 percent for nylon.

Aéropostale is a brand that has made use of the Seal, and plans to continue doing so, according to Michael DeLellis, executive vice president of marketing. “As a leading Gen Z retailer of comfortable, casual clothing, cotton is an integral part of Aéropostale’s success,” DeLellis says. “Over the past 50 years, the Seal of Cotton has been a symbol of premium quality and durability, which has set the industry standard high and continues to inspire us. We look forward to the next 50 years of the logo we all know and love.”

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