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Our BlogThe case for being careful with cotton

The case for being careful with cotton

4 Feb 21

by Andrew Muirhead, Living Lighter Project volunteer

Singapore has done better during the pandemic than many countries. It is now even possible to open art galleries. A new exhibition is called ‘R for repair’. The public was asked to supply broken or worn-out items with sentimental value. A group of young designers repurposed them to give them added life.

This is a casio watch. Over time the plastic strap broke and it has now been put into a walnut frame to be used as a clock.

The designers make the point that built in obsolesce and disposable items fits the current economic model. Unfortunately, this model is not sustainable and must change. Artists and craftspeople such as these, have frequently been in the forefront of social change from the 18th century onwards.

When a developing country tries to pull itself out of poverty, clothing manufacture is often chosen as a starting point. Clothes are exported to richer nations. In the UK, a substantial proportion of clothes are discarded after very little use, often within a year of purchase. Cotton is commonly used for clothes and furnishings. Cotton accounts for more than a third of all textile production.


Cotton is grown in warm countries where water is scarce. Conventionally farmed cotton using fertilisers and pesticides, requires a lot of water. I kilogram of cotton takes up to 20,000 litres of water to produce. Organically grown cotton reduces water consumption by up to 90%. Cotton production uses 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land but accounts for 16% of insecticides and 4% of nitrogen fertilisers produced. Dyeing and finishing textiles also uses a lot more water and chemicals which are washed into water courses with harm to human health. When considering the cost of cotton, we should therefore include the environmental cost of cloth.

When the farmer relies on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, then the topsoil is washed away and much more water is needed for irrigation. Natural fertiliser such as compost or manure helps the land to hold much more water. Rainwater is trapped in the soil making the fields much less reliant on aquafers and diversion from rivers. Genetically modified cotton seed is expensive and usually requires the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. It is therefore not used in organic farming. Already 19% of cotton is grown sustainably under the following initiatives: “Better cotton initiative”; “Cotton made in Africa”; “Fairtrade” and “Reel”. The gold standard is organically certified cotton badged by a recognised organisation such as “Organic 100”; “Global organic textile standard” or “The soil association”. If an item is badged “organic cotton” without any other kite mark, this means next to nothing.


Stylish organic cotton baby clothes. The baby will grow out of them before they are worn out. These can be passed on.







Do you have a favourite clothing brand? Have you asked your supplier how their cotton is sourced? Do you buy textiles to last? Do you repair clothes and repurpose or recycle old fabrics?


Upcycled fabric can be made to look stylish







The Living Lighter project at the Salisbury Centre in Edinburgh runs upcycling workshops aimed at reducing carbon footprints and pollution. This is much more than being thrifty, it is essential to preserve goods for environmental reasons.

This pocket repair is only seen when not being worn. There is no need to throw the trousers away yet.

This chair has been painted. It was not broken, but the owner wanted something that looked new and stylish. Sometimes this can be achieved without a new purchase.

Repairing can be sociable

The Living Lighter project is a Scottish Government Climate Challenge Fund project designed to gain support for reducing carbon emissions.

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