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Mailbag Monday: Why don’t you use organic cotton?

Aloha Thread,

I was very excited to receive your swatch kit and T-shirt. I had not had a chance to look through your website yet and so though my initial reaction was “wow these look and feel great!”

I was then bummed to see the cotton listed as non-organic. I work pretty exclusively with organic natural fibers and it is very important to me. Conventional cotton uses more carcinogenic pesticides than any other crop on the planet and I am reluctant to source fabric from a company that uses it. I am open to the idea of a 100% recycled content fabrics. I would like to see more information about the actual conversion process and the environmental impact of converting the plastic into a fabric,factory conditions etc. I would also like to know more about ‘reclaimed cotton’. I am having a hard time finding this info out on your website and would love to learn more.

Hi there!

Thanks for your question regarding our use of cotton. Cotton is a fairly controversial crop – and for good reason. The land use, water use, and pesticide use required for this crop globally is astounding. I’ve written in depth about the issues with cotton before on our blog.

So, how can we call ourselves a responsible triple bottom line and still use conventional cotton?

This is a discussion we’ve had in our office regularly. There are a few of reasons I believe our fabric is still environmentally responsible despite being blended with conventional cotton.

1) All of our cotton (in Thread products today) is sourced domestically. Cotton used in Thread Ground to Good™ fabric is grown and harvested in the U.S. (The Carolinas and Texas to be exact.) This is an important distinction because of the strict oversight in place by the USDA regarding pesticide application and safety requirements around it. More importantly, our reclaimed cotton is ‘waste’ cotton collected at the factory level. Literally, the stuff that they sweep up off of the factory floor. It is a combination of several batches and rather than sending it to landfill – we blend it all together and use it as a raw material in our reclaimed jersey fabric.

I would not feel comfortable simply sourcing conventional cotton as a commodity without knowing where it was grown and harvested. I’m not saying the U.S. is perfect, or that there aren’t concerns with pesticide use, GMO’s, Monsanto, but there are more compliance practices put into place than in other areas of the world where cotton is grown. As we grow, we are looking into sustainable cotton options such as BCI cotton.
Domestically sourced conventional cotton used in Thread’s Ground to Good fabric.

2) If you source organic cotton abroad, and import it into the U.S. before it is processed – so before it is spun into yarn or turned into a final good – then that organic cotton is required to be fumigated with methyl bromide. This is a fairly nasty substance, and in my opinion, it negates the organic benefit of the cotton.

3) The 50/50 poly cotton blends that Thread has created are replacing fabrics that were 100% cotton. This cuts down on cotton use at a commercial level by 50%. That translates into huge water savings, reduced pesticide use, diverts plastic bottles from landfill and supports job creation and growth in Haiti.

In the world of sustainability, decisions aren’t often black or white. People can decide that one process or product is “better” than another, but often that is subjective opinion rather than objective fact. Decisions around sustainability are personal and need to align with your or your company’s core values. For example, we completed an LCA for our blended fabric and compared it to the 100% cotton that we were replacing. The water savings are substantial. So, while the cotton is conventional, we’ve reduced the consumption of a valuable resource by more than half.
Light grey jersey knit Ground to Good fabric

Thread takes waste from the poorest places in the world and turns that into jobs and useful stuff people love. Our focus is on up-cycling as many plastic bottles from Haiti and Honduras as we can into responsible fabrics. We believe that conventional cotton produced in the U.S. meets our standards of responsibility, and blending with conventional cotton allowed us to fulfill our mission of turning trash from Haiti into valuable fabric. We were able to significantly cut down on the amount of cotton our customers are using, which we consider an environmental win.

Know that as a triple bottom line company, we assess our social, environmental, and economic impact of every decision we make. We didn’t take the choice to use conventional cotton lightly, and we appreciate that you don’t either.  This is how we came to the decision to work with conventional cotton – research and consideration across several months time.

We also have developed fabrics that are 100% recycled polyester and hope to continue to produce fabrics that use more recycled-poly. Long-term, we’re investing in trials to use recycled cotton from textile waste, or other fibers made from recycled textiles. We view the conventional cotton we use now as a stepping stone, allowing us to invest time and money into creating 100% recycled fabrics for future seasons. Sometimes progress has to be more incremental than we’d like but the faster we grow our orders the sooner we can have more influence.

I continue to make sure I can learn everything I can around cotton and its impacts. I recently attended the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference where an entire day was devoted to organic cotton. While there are many benefits associated with the growth of organic cotton, it is also not a perfectly sustainable fiber, especially when accounting for the social impacts of organic farming.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any further questions you may have.


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