How organic cotton is better than conventional cotton

organic cotton growing
Cotton growing / Gloria Cabada-Lehman via Flickr

Of all natural fibers, cotton is the most used in the clothing industry. (About 65% of all fabric is or includes polyester, nylon, or other synthetics.) Organic cotton fabric is so far used much less than ordinary cotton, though. Nonetheless, people who care about sustainability prefer it.

Cotton fabric has a long history. Unfortunately, the past three centuries or so have demonstrated some of the more disreputable aspects of that history. What’s more, growing cotton on a large scale has had disastrous environmental consequences. The cotton industry has worked to clean up its act, but organic cotton points the way out of many of these problems.

Cotton comes from a shrub found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. It grows in a boll that contains the seeds and a surrounding fluffy fiber. Its use as a fabric dates back perhaps 7,000 years. Early evidence of its cultivation comes from Asia and South America. Alexander the Great found it when he invaded India. Europeans began to import cotton from India shortly afterward. 

Even though it required intense manual labor to separate the fiber from the seeds, cotton blends clothed people of all social classes. The invention of the mechanical cotton gin in 1793 revolutionized the cotton industry. 

The trouble with cotton

Production of cotton soon became associated with such atrocities as slavery, colonialism, and child labor. Environmental issues with cotton include its heavy water use, reliance on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and soil depletion. Once ruined soil began to erode, cotton plantations made no attempt to reclaim it. They simply moved to other land and started the degradation all over. 

Most conventionally grown cotton now relies on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It also relies on heavy machinery for harvesting. 

By the way, GMOs are not necessarily evil. The technology merely speeds up processes of plant breeding farmers have used since prehistoric times. So some GMOs have a questionable environmental impact, while others can be beneficial.  

Conventional cotton accounts for more than 10% of all the pesticides used in agriculture. Therefore, it has a huge negative impact on the environment. These chemicals harm farm workers and anyone in the vicinity exposed to them. They run off and pollute nearby streams, ponds, lakes, and groundwater. 

Also, conventional cotton, usually grown as a monoculture, depletes the soil. Erosion can be a huge problem.

Finally, cotton requires a lot of water. It takes about 2,600 gallons of water to produce one pound of cotton. That’s that approximate amount of cotton for one tee shirt and pair of jeans. And unfortunately, much of today’s cotton comes from parts of the world prone to water shortages. 

The agriculture industry has made tremendous strides in water efficiency in recent decades, but ineffective irrigation, transportation, and storage still waste a lot of water. 

Organic cotton, on the other hand, amounts to only about 1% of cotton grown worldwide. More growers must turn to organic production before organic cotton can have much of an effect on sustainable agriculture. 

What is a sustainable fabric?

organic cotton thread

Melanie O via Flickr

Defining a sustainable fabric is surprisingly difficult. It should be a natural fiber grown sustainably. Natural fibers include wool, silk, flax, bamboohemp, and, of course, cotton.

But turning natural fibers into fabric often requires various toxic chemicals. Some natural fibers become various kinds of rayon. Rayon is not a synthetic fabric like polyester, but it’s no longer quite a natural fiber, either. It’s very soft, and making really soft cotton requires comparable chemicals. Some of these chemicals can remain on the clothes when you get them home from the store. 

And no one wears only fabric with its natural color. The dyeing process likewise affects the environment. 

Just because some cotton is organically grown doesn’t mean it’s organically dyed. Many fabric dyes contain toxic chemicals that present all the same problems to textile workers, the water supply, and our skin.

Many factories take care to handle all these chemicals safely and dispose of them properly. But too many endanger their workers and then dump used chemicals into the water supply. Also, every process in manufacturing and transporting clothing requires a lot of energy. Companies vary in their willingness to promote energy efficiency. 

Finally, social sustainability requires paying workers well, not relying on child labor, and providing a safe working environment. It’s a safe bet that really inexpensive clothing has been produced by companies and processes that exploit and endanger workers. 

Fast fashion violates both environmental and social sustainability. Discerning consumers can look for certification of environmental best practices and fair trade. These products will cost more but be of much higher quality and last longer. 

The benefits of organic cotton fabric—and a couple of drawbacks

Although the organic cotton industry claims that organic cotton fabric is absolutely more sustainable than conventional cotton, reality is more complicated.

Organically grown cotton by definition does not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. It also relies on crop rotation both to help protect the plants from various pests and diseases and to keep the soil healthy. It uses no genetically modified organisms. 

Using no synthetic pesticides doesn’t mean using nontoxic pesticides, however. Natural pesticides must by definition be toxic to insects and weeds. They still present potential health hazards for farm workers. 

Organic cotton also uses much less water than conventional cotton. It is more likely to be picked by hand instead of by energy intensive equipment. Alas, the extra manual labor contributes to organic cotton being more expensive than conventional cotton. And, perhaps, to exploitation of farm workers.

Genuine organic cotton comes with official certification. Certification, however, means that the cotton is organically grown. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it has not been grown using child labor or other social abuses. So far, we have no way to trace the supply chains. The best we can do is look for both organic certification and fair-trade certification.  

Organic farming in general requires more land than conventional farming to achieve the same crop yield. In fact, for organic cotton to completely displace conventionally grown cotton would require 25% more land. That, in turn, means more land to irrigate. 

And the most usual way to increase farmland is to cut down trees. Deforestation potentially neutralizes many of the benefits of organic farming. 

On the whole, however, organic cotton is a great choice for consumers who want to be environmentally responsible and realize that no fabric is perfect. 

Shop related products:

Burt’s Bees Baby – Fitted Crib Sheet, Solid Color, 100% Organic Cotton Crib Sheet for Standard Crib and Toddler Mattresses

Fair Indigo Women’s Fair Trade Organic All-Cotton 30″ Leggings

100% Organic Cotton Sheets – Crisp and
Cooling Percale Weave, GOTS Certified 4 Piece Bedding Set, Deep Pocket with All-Around Elastic

econscious Men’s 100% Organic Cotton Short Sleeve Tee

Mens Robe, Certified Organic Bathrobe – 100% Organic Turkish Cotton Kimono Style Terry Cloth Bathrobe

Fair Indigo Women’s Fair Trade Organic Scoop Neck T-Shirt Dress

All the pros and cons of organic cotton you might want to know about / The Pretty Planeteer
Complete guide to sustainable fabric / Trvst. May 27, 2021
How sustainable is organic cotton? / Charlotte Pointing, Live Kindly

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