Recycled fibers are a big step forward when it comes to sustainability, but organic cotton remains the most eco-friendly fabric option.

“It doesn’t create pollution like the microplastics that polyester materials shed throughout their life,” says Elizabeth Wimbush, PPAI director of sustainability and responsibility, “and at the end of its lifecycle it can biodegrade, while any kind of performance or blended material cannot.”

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The trick, she adds, is finding cotton that is traceable and certified. Fortunately, there are several easily identifiable standards and certifications to point you in the right direction, such as:

  • Better Cotton – The Better Cotton Initiative provides training and development opportunities to help farmers adopt more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable production practices that minimize the negative effects of fertilizers and pesticides.
  • bluesign– The bluesign criteria hold participating manufacturers to exacting standards for safer workplaces and textile products that are less harmful to the environment and to workers. Experts independently verify environmental claims on products, processes and the supply chain.
  • Cradle to Cradle – The Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard provides a framework to assess the safety, circularity and responsibility of materials and products across five categories: material health, product circularity, clean air and climate protection, water and soil stewardship, and social fairness/fair labor practices.
  • Global Organic Textile Standard – Developed in partnership among textile industry groups and organic agriculture and food organizations, these worldwide standards provide a recognized textile processing certification for organic fibers, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain.
  • OEKO-TEX – With offices in more than 70 countries and independent testing institutes in Europe and Japan, OEKO-TEX evaluates materials, production and supply chains for environmental impact. The OEKO-TEX Buying Guide online directory lists products, manufacturers and brands certified under its seven standards covering materials, chemicals and facilities, including organic cotton.

Denise Taschereau, co-founder and CEO of Fairware Promotional Products and a PPAI board member, agrees that cotton, particularly organic and recycled fibers, is the most eco-friendly fabric. She and her team look for certifications like Better Cotton, as well as garments made with recycled cotton that is traceable.

“We tend to look at either organic or recycled cotton,” says Taschereau. “I think recycled cotton is really making an interesting kind of comeback, but I feel like it’s coming into the space in a way that it hasn’t been historically, and I think a lot of the retail brands are pivoting and bringing more recycled cotton to market. I think it’s helping to deal with post-consumer textile waste in a way that organics isn’t.”

Circularity takes recycling a step further, with materials and garments designed and produced to be reused. One example available in the promo industry is Everywhere Apparel, which offers recycled cotton tees, hoodies and sweatshirts that can be returned to be recycled again.

“Circularity is something we need to start thinking about,” Taschereau says. “How can we enable that in the industry? We’re looking at that right now. We’re looking at some ways to help our clients deal with stale products and deal with it responsibly.”

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Beyond textile recycling, she adds, is the movement toward regenerative organic farming. Fairware, based in Canada, specializes in eco-friendly promo goods and apparel, and Taschereau says some of their customers are already asking for products made with regenerative cotton, although it’s still hard to come by in the promo industry.

Here are a dozen organic cotton options for your next apparel project:

person wearing white hoodie sweatshirt

This 100% Recycled Cotton Unisex Pullover Hoodie is made of recycled fibers and without dyes, bleach, fertilizers or pesticides. Features include a kangaroo pocket and a lined hood without drawstring. Available in white, gray or black, sizes XS-3XL.

Everywhere Apparel / PPAI 795141, S1

woman wearing baby blue recycled cotton T-shirt

Made in Mexico at a SEDEX SMETA audited facility, the econscious Unisex Classic Short-Sleeve T-Shirt features 100% organic ring-spun cotton fiber and a tear-away label. Available in 13 colors (ice blue shown) and sizes S-2X.

alphabroder / PPAI 156993, S16

  man wearing royal blue full-zip hooded sweatshirt

Made in the USA from 100% combed, ring-spun, certified organic cotton fleece, this Unisex Organic Cotton Full Zip Hoodie with kangaroo pockets comes in eight colors (nautical blue shown) and sizes XS-2X.

Royal Apparel / PPAI 269959, S1

man wearing olive green long-sleeved T-shirt with custom logo on chest

The tentree Organic Cotton Long Sleeve Tee is made of organic cotton that is both Fairtrade and Cradle to Cradle certified. Available in five colors (olive night green shown), men’s sizes S-2X and women’s sizes XS-XL. A tree is planted for every purchase.

PCNA / PPAI 113079, S15

man wearing green recycled cotton T-shirt

The classic-fit SoftShirts Organic T-Shirt, made of 100% GOTS organic combed ring-spun cotton, offers 11 colors (pine shown) using low-impact dystar reactive dyes. Tees are washed and biopolished for lint-free softness and easy printing. Sizes S-3X.

S&S Activewear / PPAI 256121, S12

man wearing charcoal gray crewneck sweatshirt

The super-soft Allmade Unisex Organic French Terry Crewneck Sweatshirt, made of certified organic combed ring-spun cotton, is also carbon-neutral through third-party, verified carbon offsets purchased through Carbonfund. Available in four colors (shown in Terrain Grey) and sizes XS-4X.

SanMar / PPAI 110788, S16

natural cotton jogger sweatpants

Made of super-soft and sustainable midweight brushed fleece, with classic legs and pockets, the Everyday Jogger sweatpants include a back yoke to make sure the seat fits just right. Certified Fairtrade, GOTS, OEKO-TEX Standard 100. Available in black or sandstorm (shown) and women’s sizes XS-XL.

The Good Tee / PPAI 807609, S1

baby wearing recycled cotton onesie bodysuit in green

Parents will love that this super-soft Infant Organic Short-Sleeve One-Piece Romper with snap closure is made in the USA of 100% combed ring-spun organic cotton. Complies with GOTS. Available in 17 colors (avocado shown) and sizes 0/3 months to 18/24 months.

Royal Apparel / PPAI 269959, S1

recycled cotton fanny back belt bag Terra Thread

Not too big, not too small, the eco-friendly Terra Thread Fairtrade Waist Pack is a great way to carry essentials. Made with Fairtrade and GOTS certified organic cotton canvas, this handy bag features a main zippered compartment divided with a simple drop-in pocket, an external zippered pocket and an adjustable strap with a snap hook. Black only.

PCNA / PPAI 113079, S15

natural cotton tote bag with custom logo

Tote bags, like T-shirts, remain a top seller in promo. This reusable Premium Tote made from 100% organic, non-GMO, GOTS-certified heavy natural cotton canvas features double-stitching for strength (50-lb. carrying capacity) and durability. Each bag sold includes a contribution to to help promote environmental literacy in schools. Bag comes with a hangtag that shares the story.

Bagito / PPAI 745508, S3

pink organic cotton baseball cap

Keep cotton top of mind with an Organic Self Strap Lowstyle Cap. Made in the USA in a unionized shop, this structured six-panel cap features a self-fabric strap with antique brass buckle and buttonhole. One size, 19 colors (fuschia shown).

Unionwear / PPAI 111926, S1

reversible cotton bucket hat with logo and custom imprint

This Reversible Organic Cotton All Over Print Bucket Hat is made from eco-friendly organic cotton and available in 15 standard colors (or choose from 140 stock colors). Plus sizes available.

AZX Sport / PPAI 224494, S6