Searching on Google typically yields a sea of information, yet if you try to find accurate info about the fashion industry and sustainability, you are left with a lot of open questions. This is not because the businesses are trying to hide the figures - often the clothing lines themselves don't have a clear understanding of the impact they have on ecosystems. It is challenging to figure out how big of an ecological footprint garment production leaves due to how many things play a role in it.
Cotton vs Polyester
We will compare cotton and polyester, first being an organic fiber and the latter synthetic. Recently the word "organic" has become synonymous with "eco-friendly," which is not entirely true. Both of the fabrics require heaps of resources to produce, even eco-friendly cotton is resource-intensive. However, depending on how and for what you use the product, one material might be better than the other.
Let's dissect the organic side of the duo. To grow one kilogram of cotton, you need 20 thousand liters of water, which is enough to produce a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. In contrast, an average human who drinks 2 liters of water per day will drink 58 thousand liters of water throughout their lifetime. Meaning, the clothes in your wardrobe right now have probably seen enough water to supply a small community in a developing country with drinking water for their entire lifetime.
However, since cotton can be replanted, it is a renewable source. Sadly, this is clouded by the fact that most cotton is grown using incredible amounts of pesticides and insecticides. The situation gets much better when dealing with eco-friendly grown cotton, as there are no pesticides or insecticides involved. Even though chemicals are eliminated from the equation when it comes to eco-cotton, it is still very hungry for water.
Just like cotton, polyester is 100% renewable, and many governments offer recycling options in their cities (Japan, the Netherlands, and Denmark, to name a few). This practice is not yet as widespread as it should be, but it is a popular trend within cities, and of course, applies to cotton too. Polyester is also a more durable and stain-resistant material, meaning there is less waste from wear and washing.
On the other hand, polyester is production requires a lot of energy and oil to produce, which emits a considerable amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The greenhouse effects of manufacturing polyester can be largely mitigated by using recycled (post-consumer, post-industrial) polyester, but this is reliant on governments offering recycling options to their residents.
If your garment is under heavy wear, then we suggest using polyester instead of cotton as it is more durable and resistant to stains. Otherwise, we recommend using eco-friendly cotton.
Both of the materials cause considerable ecological damage, and both can be sustainable options. There is no clear-cut winner, even when comparing eco-cotton and polyester. If you choose to go with polyester, try and buy recycled polyester. If you purchase cotton, make sure it's cotton produced without chemicals. And as always, reuse and recycle.
In our products, at ToteLab, we have carefully evaluated our options and decided to stick with polyester* for our bags. Since we offer bags, we believe they should be able to withstand wear, tear, and stains. Polyester makes sure that the bag you buy will last you a long time and you won't have to worry about stains ruining it. We also offer most of our bags only in black or white, instead of a variety of colors. This dramatically cuts back on the amount of dye that gets used in the production of our bags. To read more about what we use in our products head to a product page or FAQ.