Circularity of Cotton

Cotton – Naturally Circular.


Cotton can be reused, recycled**, and returned∞ to the earth. Explore these three intersecting paths of cotton’s circular lifecycle and start envisioning your opportunities.

Lifecycle of Cotton


 Grown from Earth

 Material Selection

 Product Manufacturing

 Consumer Use




 Gives Back to Earth

Circular Lifecycle of Cotton



Cotton is a natural fiber – grown from sunlight, water, and earth – that stores carbon dioxide the plant has absorbed from the atmosphere.* Through the open exchange of best practices and extensive research, cotton producers continuously improve their stewardship of the land and natural resources.



When you select cotton fiber, the rest of the plant is utilized too. For example, cottonseed is used for both edible oil and feed for dairy cows. Gin waste – natural plant matter – is incredibly versatile, with uses ranging from fabric dyes to medical supplies. And once your cotton fiber product has completed its first use, it shouldn’t go to waste then either. There are abundant possibilities for what’s next in its circular lifecycle.



During this phase, smart processing solutions, such as enzymatic scouring and water-conserving dyeing technologies, are continuously being developed to reduce water, energy, and chemical (WEC) inputs, as well as waste. Fiber quality is at its peak the first time it goes through the manufacturing process.



For specific product categories, like apparel, consumer use is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in cotton’s lifecycle due to laundering.* The product’s original purpose and post-use condition then determine whether a product can be reused, recycled, or composted. If its first use is a shirt or a bedsheet, then it can be reused or recycled. If its first use is a wet wipe, on the other hand, the product can be composted instead.



Well-made cotton apparel is durable, which makes it a perfect match for the blossoming secondhand market where it can be reused over and over again.


Of course, there are still environmental impacts from laundering the garments.* But no new resources have gone into manufacturing, and no still-valuable resources have been lost in the landfill.



Textiles made of 100% cotton can be recycled** and may be used to create new products.


Textile applications include apparel, home goods and fabrics that are made using nonwoven manufacturing techniques. The wealth of non-textile applications that could be cotton’s next stop in the lifecycle include insulation, filters, and automotive uses. Cotton fibers can also be used in non-textile processes such as 3D printing and injection molding.


One recycling example from Cotton Incorporated is the Blue Jeans Go Green™ program, transforming used denim into natural cotton fiber insulation.



After it can no longer be reused or recycled,**cotton products can be discarded. Cotton can degrade in industrial compost∞, wastewater, saltwater, and freshwater environments, and it also degrades faster than manufactured cellulosic fibers like rayon and oil-based synthetics.†


Ultimately, cotton can be returned to the earth during decomposition under certain conditions.



Farmers can return the remains of the cotton plants to the soil after harvest for nutrients. Brands and manufacturers can also play a role in this circular path and benefit Earth by choosing cotton as their preferred raw material. They know that at end of life, their 100% cotton products can decompose∞† to improve soil health and nourish natural resources.

Download the Brochure




Grow your opportunities to advance the circular economy.


You know cotton as comfortable, durable, and incredibly versatile — a natural fiber you can use in products as wide-ranging as shirts, sheets, wet wipes, and 3D printed buttons.


Cotton can also be reused, recycled**, and returned∞ to the earth. So whatever product you make, there’s a circular path ahead when you make it with cotton.


Download our Cotton’s Circular Lifecycle brochure.

** Cotton products are recyclable only in a few communities that have appropriate recycling facilities.
∞ In composting tests, cotton fabric samples underwent a weight loss of approximately 50-77% after 90 days in a composting facility.
Li, Lili; Frey, Margaret; Browning, Kristie (2010). Biodegradability study on cotton and polyester fabrics. Journal of Engineered Fiber and Fabrics,
5(4), 42–53.
* Cotton Incorporated (2017). LCA Update of cotton fiber and fabric life cycle inventory
Research conducted with North Carolina State University (2018)
± Blue Jeans Go Green™ (2020)