How greenhouse-grown cotton can transform the denim industry | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 19, 2024

BY THE OPTIMIST DAILY EDITORIAL TEAM

The fashion industry has long struggled to source cotton in a sustainable way. While Patagonia, Citizens of Humanity, and Christy Dawn have embraced regenerative agriculture, Dutch denim company G-Star Raw is looking into a new alternative: greenhouse-grown cotton. This forward-thinking method has the potential to drastically minimize the environmental effect of denim production.

Innovative solutions: greenhouse-grown cotton

G-Star Raw’s collaboration with Wageningen University, a leading agricultural research institution, resulted in a pioneering experiment: growing cotton in a greenhouse in the Netherlands. Cotton thrives in hot, humid regions, particularly in China, India, Brazil, and the American South. Northern Europe, with its colder climate, is an unusual region for cotton farming, posing new challenges and opportunities.

G-Star’s head of sustainability, Rebecka Sancho, emphasizes the complexities of procuring cotton from distant places. “It also makes traceability more complicated,” Sancho says. “And the first step to sustainability is traceability.” With new EU regulations requiring detailed supply chain tracing, the capacity to grow cotton locally could transform the sector.

High yields and environmental benefits

The greenhouse project at Bleiswijk yielded extraordinary results. Greenhouse-grown cotton plants grew to be more than 16 feet tall, as opposed to the average five feet of field-grown plants. This vertical expansion led to a 2,300 percent increase in cotton production per square foot. Each plant generated nine to twelve times as much cotton as its traditionally grown cousins.

Water usage, a major concern in traditional cotton production, was significantly reduced. Conventional cotton growing can use up to 10,000 liters of water every kilogram of cotton. In contrast, greenhouse cultivation needed only 800 liters per kilogram, with watering based on recycled rainwater. Furthermore, the regulated greenhouse climate eliminated the need for pesticides, hence reducing environmental effects.

Greenhouses also provide the benefits of renewable energy utilization and lower carbon emissions. The absence of soil tilling, which emits carbon into the atmosphere, and proximity to manufacturers, which reduces transportation emissions, all contribute to a smaller overall carbon footprint.

The journey to local denim production

G-Star Raw sought to manufacture denim solely in the Netherlands, a difficult task given the global movement of the textile industry to Asia. The company worked with local vendors to gin the cotton, spin it into yarn, weave it into fabric, and then color and sew the jeans. This full local production process produced five pairs of jeans, demonstrating the possibility of a sustainable, locally sourced denim supply chain.

Willeke Hendriks, G-Star’s chief product officer, was delighted with the outcome. “We were extremely happy with the results,” Hendriks says. “It made us realize there was a lot of potential here.”

Scaling up: the future of greenhouse-grown cotton

While the pilot experiment shows promise, increasing greenhouse-grown cotton production to satisfy industry demand presents considerable obstacles. G-Star Raw and Wageningen University intend to continue their relationship, with the goal of producing larger batches of cotton and persuading other fashion businesses to consider greenhouse growing as a viable alternative.

“This project is also a reminder that the fashion industry is still very early in its efforts to come up with sustainable solutions,” Sancho says. The experience with greenhouse-grown cotton highlights the industry’s need for new approaches to sustainability.

Industry-wide implications and next steps

The success of G-Star Raw’s greenhouse initiative may inspire wider transformation in the fashion industry. Hendriks emphasizes the importance of collaboration: “It will require a lot of industry collaboration to get this off the ground.” As fashion manufacturers engage more in regenerative agriculture and fabric recycling, greenhouse-grown cotton provides a fresh tool for decreasing environmental impact.

Sancho reflects on the project’s potential: “At first glance, greenhouse-grown cotton didn’t seem like a realistic solution. But this experiment has been very encouraging, and we really believe that one day, it can be done at a wide scale.”

The transition to sustainable fashion is still ongoing. Projects such as G-Star Raw’s greenhouse-grown cotton provide a glimpse into a future in which locally sourced, ecologically friendly denim may become the standard style.

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