Are cotton t-shirts sustainable?
Tips & Tricks
min read

Are cotton t-shirts sustainable?

Learn about the environmental impact and alternatives for eco-conscious fashion choices.

Cotton is used widely in clothing production but can harm the environment. Yet, textile companies and retailers are taking steps towards sustainable sourcing practices. When growing and harvesting cotton, these sourcing practices involve considering the environment, society, economy, and ethics. 

By doing so, they can produce responsible products from start to finish. With all the green language used, things can get confusing, so we're here to answer the question: How are cotton t-shirts sustainable?

We've seen many cotton t-shirts come down the line since we opened shop in 2009, so we're happy to share some info regarding cotton t-shirts and their sustainability (or lack thereof, in some cases.) 

Cotton types, pros and cons

Cotton is a natural fiber used to make fabric. It is soft, absorbent, and comfortable, making it suitable for various applications. It's a fiber produced by plants, and compared to other artificial synthetic fibers, it has significant advantages. It is soft, absorbent, and comfortable, making it suitable for various applications. Since cotton is a versatile material, it's used for everything from jeans to t-shirts.

Two main types of cotton are used to make fabric: organic cotton and conventional cotton. Organic cotton is grown without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and it is usually harvested by hand. Conventional cotton, on the other hand, is produced using pesticides and fertilizers, and it is generally harvested by machine. 

Manufacturers can use organic OR conventional cotton to make t-shirts. However, there are pros and cons when it comes to these two types of cotton.  

Pros of using organic cotton:

  1. Environmental benefits: Grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This reduces soil and water contamination, preserves biodiversity, and promotes healthier ecosystems.
  2. Health advantages: Free from harmful chemical residues commonly found in conventionally grown cotton. This makes organic cotton safer for farmers, textile workers, and consumers. It reduces the risk of allergies, skin irritation, and respiratory problems. 
  3. Soil and water conservation: Organic cotton farming practices prioritize soil health through crop rotation, composting, and natural pest control. These techniques improve soil fertility, water retention, and overall ecosystem resilience.
  4. Social Responsibility: Organic cotton production often adheres to fair trade practices, ensuring fair wages, safe working conditions, and social welfare for farmers and laborers. Supporting organic cotton contributes to sustainable livelihoods and community development. 

Cons of using organic cotton:

  1. Higher costs: Organic cotton cultivation requires more labor-intensive and time-consuming practices, which can increase production costs. This often translates to higher prices for organic cotton products compared to conventionally grown cotton alternatives.
  2. Lower yields: Organic cotton yields are typically lower than conventional cotton due to the reduced use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. This can result in lower availability and limited product options. 
  3. Limited availability: While the demand for organic cotton grows, it still represents a small portion of the overall cotton market. Finding a wide range of styles and options in organic cotton products might be more challenging than conventional cotton. 
  4. Land and water requirements: Organic cotton farming generally requires more land and water resources to achieve similar yields as conventional cotton. This can pose challenges in regions with limited water availability or already strained agricultural land.

Pros of using conventional cotton:

  1. Affordability: Often more affordable compared to organic cotton. The widespread availability and larger-scale production contribute to lower prices, making them accessible to more consumers. 
  2. Higher yields: Conventional cotton farming methods utilize synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, leading to higher crop yields than organic cotton. This increased productivity helps meet the global demand for cotton-based products. 
  3. Variety and availability: Conventional cotton offers various colors, styles, and options due to its dominant presence in the textile industry. Finding different conventional cotton products is generally more manageable than organic cotton. 
  4. Technological advancements: Conventional cotton farming benefits from ongoing research and advances in agricultural technology. This allows for more efficient farming practices, improved pest management, and increased productivity.

Cons of using conventional cotton:

  1. Environmental impact: Conventional cotton production relies heavily on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, which can harm ecosystems, water sources, and wildlife. These chemicals contribute to water pollution, soil degradation, and biodiversity loss.
  2. Health risks: Using pesticides in conventional cotton farming poses health risks to farmers, workers, and nearby communities. Exposure to these chemicals can lead to various health issues, including respiratory problems, skin irritations, and long-term health complications.
  3.  Soil degradation: Intensive cultivation practices in conventional cotton farming, such as monocropping and excessive chemical inputs, can deplete soil nutrients, degrade soil structure, and reduce overall soil fertility over time. 
  4. Water consumption: Conventional cotton farming is known to be water-intensive. It requires significant amounts of irrigation, putting strain on water resources, particularly in regions already facing water scarcity or drought conditions.

It's essential to consider these factors and weigh the pros and cons of both cotton types. You contribute to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly textile industry by supporting organic cotton. 

Considering conventional cotton's environmental and health impacts, there's a growing awareness and demand for more sustainable alternatives like organic cotton. 

By opting for sustainable practices and supporting organic cotton, it is possible to mitigate some of the adverse effects of conventional cotton production. 

Sustainable cotton t-shirts

When determining the sustainability of a t-shirt blank, other vital factors include the materials used, the manufacturing process, and the waste generated during production. Cotton is also considered sustainable when it is grown and processed without the use of harmful chemicals. Choosing a shirt supplier that focuses on these production processes is essential. 

Since cotton is a naturally occurring resource, it can be quickly grown and harvested in several climates. According to Cotton Works, cotton is a crop that requires a limited amount of water. Cotton plants can grow in areas with limited water supply because they can withstand drought and heat. 

While agriculture uses up 70% of the world's water, cotton production only accounts for 3% of the water used for crops. In the United States, 64% of cotton fields do not need irrigation because there is enough rainfall to meet the plant's water needs.

Over the years, U.S. cotton growers have progressed in water stewardship due to improved technology and irrigation systems, continuing to move towards a more sustainable production system. 

Sustainable Cotton T-Shirt Options

Real Thread carries t-shirts from sustainable suppliers to offer a wide selection of ethically produced and sustainably made custom apparel from wholesale partners such as Bella + Canvas, Allmade, RoyalApparel, econscious, Known Supply, and more. 

With us, you can choose from various eco-friendly materials, including organic cotton, hemp, and bamboo, to print your designs onto. Some of our favorite cotton sustainable t-shirts to print on are the Royal Apparel 64051 (known for its unique fabric blend) and the Allmade AL2004 (made partially from recycled water bottles), but plenty of other sustainable products are available on our website, and through our suppliers.

We're here to get things started; let us know how we can help you customize some sick sustainable tees. 

In the meantime, check out our T-shirt Buyer's Guide as a free resource to learn everything you need about ordering custom t-shirts.

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