The Reason Your Clothes Could Be Hurting the Environment

June 8th 2016

Taylor Bell

We all know the common pollutants, like plastics and fossil fuels. But what about your clothes? If you own a lot of cotton material, you might be hurting the environment depending on where you shop.

According to an article by the Huffington Post, a company called Rank a Brand scored the cotton sustainability of different clothing brands. They found that companies like IKEA, Nike, H&M, and Adidas scored high in cotton sustainability, whereas Macy's and Walmart scored among the lowest. Here are the ratings from Rank a Brand, presented in a report from the World Wildlife Fund.

Rank a Brand Sustainability Ratings

As the Huffington Post pointed out, "more sustainable options like organic cotton and fair trade cotton can be produced with less harm to the planet but popular companies are doing a poor job of ensuring the cotton used in their supply chains is sustainably sourced."


The failure of clothing companies to use sustainable practices can cause a lot of damage to the environment.

Cotton is the "most important natural fiber," accounting for up to "40 percent of textile production," according to a report from the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education. But this textile comes at the cost another crucial material: water. For example, it takes about 5,000 gallons of water to make one pair of jeans and a T-shirt, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The environmental impact of growing cotton extends beyond water use.

Twenty-four percent of global insecticide sales and 11 percent of global pesticide sales go toward growing cotton. The exposure to these chemicals can subsequently cause health problems for field workers. In fact, "10,000 farmers die every year from cancer related to these chemicals," according a World Resources Institute report cited by the Huffington Post in 2013.

"IKEA, C&A and H&M are showing how cotton sustainability is good for business but many top companies are failing to deliver," said Richard Holland, Director of Market Transformation for WWF, according to PHYS.org. "Sourcing more sustainable cotton has never been easier, so there is no excuse for companies not to offer more responsible products to customers."

So why don't more companies invest in more sustainable cotton use?

Sadly, the market doesn't yet incentive sustainable cotton.

"The main challenge is that the market doesn’t work properly – current economic rules don’t attach environmental and social costs to conventional cotton production, so the mainstream market is given a massive hidden subsidy as society and the environment bear these costs instead of the conventional producers," Liesl Truscott, a representative for Textile Exchange, told Triple Pundit.

Basically, Truscott is arguing that because conventional farmers aren't penalized for the environmental harm they cause, organic farmers struggle to compete in the market.