The Sustainability of cotton compared to Synthetic fibers
Unlike petroleum based fibers,
cotton is energy self-sustaining and does not contribute to net greenhouse gas emissions.
Most synthetic fibers are derived from some form of a petroleum product.
By the most optimistic estimates, the world's petroleum reserve will be depleted in 100 years;
therefore, even with recylcling, ultimately it is difficult to label synthetic fibers "sustainable".
Unlike synthetic fibers, cotton has the potential to be energy self-sustaining, even energy generating.
And in addition to being energy positive, cotton fiber is over 40% carbon,
thus actually reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
No petroleum based, synthetic fiber has the possibility of being energy or carbon positive
since their manufacture does not utilize solar energy and includes
a net movement of carbon from stored petroleum to released and consumed carbon.
Cotton compared to other Natural fibers
There are other natural fibers,
but none are as biologically efficient as cotton in producing a product ideally suited for apparel.
For example, both wool and silk require processing of plant based energy through an animal before a fiber is produced,
while cotton takes sunlight and converts it directly to fiber without intermediate processing steps.
Furthermore, wool requires almost four times the amount of land as cotton to achieve equivelent production mass.
That is, if all the fiber needs met by the cotton grown in the US were to be replaced by wool,
it would take 48million acres to support wool production as opposed to 12.5million acres of land for cotton.
Applying the same reaoning to silk production, where an acre of mulberry trees is needed to generate 35pounds of raw silk.
Which means 20 times the land would be required to produce fiber from silk as opposed to cotton.
Fibers that are based on corn and bamboo also require intermediate processing and harsh chemicals to create a rayon fiber,
which is still not a direct plant based production of fiber. Other plants do directly produce fibrous material,
but none have been domesticated for thousands of years for use in clothing the human race besides cotton.
This has lead to cotton having fiber length, strength,
and fineness properties that make it the ideal natural fiber for textile applications.
Hemp is marketed as an environmentally friendly fiber,
but it is typically associated with fiber uses similar to those of jute(hessian) and flax.
Not fibers that have found a significant market for apparel.
A US report in 2000 found that hemp production would not be economically sustainable .
Finally, market demand and production also provide evidence that cotton is the superior natural fiber in the world.
Based on average natural fiber production from 2001-2005,
cotton globally represented 72% of the natural fibers produced;
even when other natural fibers not used in apparel were included, such as jute and hemp in the same time period,
wool represented 11% and silk on 0.3% of natural fiber production.
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