Smart Key: A look inside the hidden face of cotton

Let’s unpack the secrets of sustainable fabrics through our Smart Keys. At the heart of eco-design issues, our Smart Keys series question all the available solutions to help you become more informed in your materials sourcing. Today, let’s discover the hidden face of coton. From denims to poplins, voiles, jerseys and velvets, cotton lends itself to multiple constructions and is an integral part of our wardrobes. The world’s leading natural fiber, accounting for 23% of production, cotton has been used throughout the ages and consistently keeps pace with fashion trends.

Cotton’s been in the spotlight ever since the dawning of social and environmental concerns, so what’s its actual impact ? And what opportunities are now available with the development of eco-friendly and socially-responsible cotton products?

Cotton cultivation: 3 major challenges

Cotton farming poses many challenges. Forced and child labor, irrigation, pesticides and chemical inputs are among the main issues.

Work conditions

Cotton farming has a long history of forced and child labor. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China’s Xinjiang province remain particularly problematic areas. Progress on human rights may be taking place in some countries, but the nature of forced labor is multifaceted. While child labor is no longer a systemic problem, significant progress is needed to address inherited debts, government-imposed coercive labor and deceptive recruitments.

Water management

Cotton consumes a great deal of water at certain periods in its growth, and its sensitivity to water stress varies with its growing stage. The first weeks of flowering are a critical period, when a regular water supply must be ensured.

Irrigation guarantees against poor crop performance and can avoid the risk of inadequate rainfall. For producers, it has economic advantages by protecting, stabilizing and increasing the yield and also helps with the chemical treatment of the crops.

Over-irrigation is therefore common in conventional agriculture. It’s a major contributor to the run-off of water, nutrients and chemicals used for crops.

Read also: International sustainability labels to know

The use of synthetic phytosanitary products

The substances used to facilitate and protect cotton cultivation have significant consequences. Pesticides are still often sprayed without masks or protective clothing and their toxicity has a severe impact on the health of workers.

The dispersal of inputs that accompanies excessive irrigation leads to runoff from the fields, which transports pesticides, herbicides and toxic fertilizers, polluting the surrounding bodies of water and adversely impacting the health of aquatic systems and individuals.

How can we address these issues? The answer in 3 Smart Keys.

Smart Key #1: Commit to best practices

A number of approaches aim to establish new standards for cotton cultivation. While the CMIA (Cotton Made in Africa), FairTrade, Cleaner Cotton, ABR (Algodao Brasileiro Responsavel) and BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) initiatives all converge in this direction, they set forth varying specifications in terms of environmental objectives and work conditions.

Consequently, we need to examine the various criteria in detail:

  • Traceability system: some adopt the mass balance, with labeled cottons that can be mixed with conventional cottons during their treatments, while other labels guarantee a full chain of traceability.
  • Water footprint: the origin and management of water resources can be diverse: rainfall input or the irrigation mix. Soil moisture management and targeted irrigation practices enable a sustainable use of water.
  • The use of genetically modified and non-genetically modified seeds
  • The use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides: to guarantee the absence of hazardous chemicals
  • Soil health management: compost, crop rotation, cover crops
  • Guidelines for enhancing biodiversity: restoration of degraded areas, increase of beneficial insects and protection of riverside zones.
  • Social protection framework: respect for International Labor Organization conventions, improved living conditions, decent wages and training.

Smart Key #2: Encourage restorative practices

Organic cotton

The ultimate virtuous cotton, organic cotton offers environmental guarantees by promoting soil health and fertility through crop rotation, the absence of pesticides, insecticides or synthetic fertilizers, and also supports biodiversity. The richness of the soil’s organic matter also improves water retention.

This type of cultivation also has important benefits for human health, presenting a safe alternative to the dangers of conventional treatments.

Thanks to the commitment of brands to responsible sourcing, organic cotton is experiencing such a boom that demand is outstripping supply. Many countries such as India, Pakistan, Turkey and Greece have undertaken important conversion programs in order to increase the volume of organic production.


  • OCS (Organic Cotton Standard) ensures the presence and quantity of organic material in a fabric.
  • GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is the most stringent organic certification and sets out specifications for the entire product development process, from fiber to garment, based on environmental and social criteria.

Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture is a more holistic approach that focuses on a system of principles rather than fixed practices. The techniques put in place aim to improve the quality and health of ecosystems in general, whether in terms of soil, water, crops, animals or humans. Best practices are adapted according to each territory in order to best respond to climate variability and animal and ecological dynamics.


Regenerative Organic Certified certifies products that meet the three pillars of the label: organic practices, animal welfare, and fair conditions for farmers and workers

Smart Key #3: Don’t produce cotton !

Design for circularity

In order to expand the circularity of materials, it is crucial to design fabrics so that they can be reclaimed. The idea is to aim for a mono-material composition and, when blending materials, to limit the use of elastane to 5%, or use a maximum of only 15% linen or wool blend.

Finishing can also complicate recycling, the best is to abstain from anti-crease treatments or coatings so as to favor the cotton’s new life in a mechanical recycling process.

Mechanical recycling

Recycled cotton is available on an industrial scale thanks to mechanical recycling. Technologies are constantly evolving, and collection and transformation channels are becoming more structured. Today’s compositions can contain up to 60% recycled cotton, and the technology is targeting 100% recycled cotton within 5 years.

Chemical recycling

Innovations are also emerging via chemical recycling, opening up the range of recyclable materials. These technologies allow greater flexibility in terms of the initial composition of the material, as here it is necessary to have at least 80% cotton in the fabric to be recycled. The start-ups Evrnu, Infinited Fibers and Renewcell offer new generations of cellulosic fabrics that are as high performing as they are comfortable to wear.


  • RCS (Recycled Claimed Standard) certifies a minimum of 5% recycled material throughout the product-development cycle.
  • GRS (Global Recycled Standard) guarantees the presence of at least 20% recycled material, establishes a framework for managing chemical inputs and sets forth environmental and social criteria throughout the value chain.

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