An eco option? Advantages & disadvantages of organic cotton

An eco option? Advantages & disadvantages of organic cotton

Organic cotton field

It’s likely that if you look in your wardrobe you´ll find cotton clothing. Used in almost every facet of the fashion sector, the cotton industry is big business. Organic cotton promises a more eco-friendly outlook than its conventional counterpart and has become the go-to solution in the sustainable fashion sector. But what is organic cotton, should we use it and what are the disadvantages of organic cotton?

An estimated 100 million rural households rely on the cotton industry for their income, and cotton represents roughly 25% of fibre use. It´s true that in the modern market cotton faces competition from synthetic fabrics and other natural fibres such as linen and hemp. However, it is still an enormous part of the fashion sector that won´t be replaced any time soon.

So in a sector this vast, is organic cotton the solution for building a sustainable sector?

What is organic cotton?

Organic cotton refers to cotton that is grown to have a lesser impact on the environment. Normally tied into this, is a system of production that is fairer for workers and local communities as well. The main criteria for organic cotton however is the fact that it is grown without the use of pesticides, insecticides or fertilisers.

Instead of using harmful chemicals, organic cotton farmers are in-tune with natural growing conditions. Farmers use techniques such as using natural and organic compost, promoting beneficial insect life and growing cover crops (crops planted to improve soil health and better naturally manage farming cycles) to create an effective cotton yield.

The ban on toxic chemicals means better soil health, and biodiversity and supports healthy waterways. Organic cotton also is grown without the use of genetically modified seeds, which we cover in more detail below.

There are certifying bodies that many organic cotton producers work with to ensure that fabric is produced organically. Perhaps the best-known certification is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). While the organisation doesn’t exclusively deal with cotton, it is used extensively in the organic cotton industry.

Many certifying bodies also require proof of policies that support workers’ rights, providing an extra layer of protection for workers in organic cotton supply chains.

Overall organic cotton production takes a holistic approach, looking at how production impacts people, the planet and the product, and works to minimise risk to all involved.

Organic cotton garments
Organic cotton production poses less risk to biodiversity and human health. Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels

What are the advantages of organic cotton?

Conventionally grown cotton comes with a long list of issues, many of which organic cotton leaves behind. From improving transparency to supporting biodiversity, the advantages that organic cotton offers make it a core contender in the sustainable fashion sector.

No pesticides or insecticides

Conventional cotton production accounts for 16% of worldwide insecticide use. The industry is also responsible for just under 5% of annual pesticide sales. These potent chemical cocktails threaten biodiversity, pollute waterways, degrade soil and offer a real threat to the health of workers and the local community.

On just the human side, the pesticides used in conventional cotton production can contribute to everything from nerve damage to memory loss, paralysis and death. When considering the environment, the impacts of insecticides and pesticides are just as dire, impacting everything from soil microbes to killing birdlife.

Organic cotton farming is done differently. By not using synthetic pesticides and insecticides, it mitigates its impact on both local communities and the environment.

Better for biodiversity

It’s impact on biodiversity is another huge benefit of organic cotton. By using holistic pest management systems and eliminating the use of toxic pesticides; organic cotton is inherently better for biodiversity than its conventional chemical-laden counterpart. Farmers growing organic cotton crops have seen increases in biodiversity in the local landscapes, including increases in insect life and earthworms.

Increasing soil health through creating a naturally biodiverse landscape also helps to preserve soil quality for the future, creating a self-sustaining system.

Better for farmers

There are clear benefits that organic cotton provides communities and farmers by avoiding the contamination and health risks associated with pesticide use. Organic cotton also helps farmers by providing more secure farming conditions. 

Certifications such as GOTS have social as well as ecological criteria that certified organisations must meet, creating a safer environment for farmers. Many organic cotton certifications require suppliers to ensure worker safety and rights. Many also require strict policies to prohibit practices such as forced or child labour.

A transparent sector

A core part of building a sustainable fashion industry is supply chain transparency and traceability. The sheer size of the cotton sector often means that traceability gets lost in the mix. Organic cotton requires a clearer approach.

Many of the certifying bodies for organic cotton demand supply chain traceability, and many brands that use organic cotton are inherently transparent themselves.

In obtaining organic certifications, brands therefore also give consumers greater peace of mind that clothing was produced ethically and sustainably.

Girl in organic cotton field
It´s important to be able to trace cotton´s supply chain. Photo by Marcus Santos on Unsplash

Reduced water pollution

Tying back to the fact that organic cotton doesn’t use synthetic pesticides, insecticides or fertilisers, this type of cotton creates less water pollution. Water pollution from the conventional cotton industry impacts both local wildlife and biodiversity, and human health.

Glyphosate, a chemical used in conventional cotton production, has been found in waterways around the Mississippi River. Exposure to glyphosate is known to cause burns to the mouth and throat, vomiting and diarrhoea.

But not using such chemicals, organic cotton reduces the risk of water pollution and its associated impacts greatly. Reports have found that growing cotton organically can reduce water pollution levels by up to 98%, when compared to conventional cotton farming.

Better for skin

165 grams of pesticides are estimated to be lurking in one conventionally grown cotton t-shirt and 8,000 chemicals are used in producing conventionally grown cotton. Because of organic cotton’s chemical-free origins, there is a drastically reduced chance of irritants and chemical residue remaining in clothing. As such, it is better for your skin than traditional cotton.

This makes it particularly valuable for those with sensitive skin and for use in children’s or intimate clothing.

No genetic modification

While genetically modified (GM) seeds may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, they have been used in crop production for years.

Developed to be resistant to pests and to increase yields, these supposed wonder seeds can be a disaster in disguise. The seeds need to be rebought every year, putting significant pressure on farmers as GM companies increase prices. Some GM cotton varieties also require more fertilisers, posing further risks to both farmers’ income levels and the local environment.

A high level of cotton farmer suicide has been reported in India due to being made financially destitute by being tied in to buying GM seeds.

A requirement for cotton to be labelled as organic is that it isn’t sourced from genetically modified seeds. This means that farmers have greater control over how they manage their farms, and less chance of being financially and socially ruined.

What are the disadvantages of organic cotton?

In the fashion sector, no material is 100% sustainable or 100% ethical, and there are sadly always disadvantages. While organic cotton does have some massive eco-friendly advantages, it also comes with some disadvantages.

Organic cotton sadly comes with some disadvantages like any fabric. Photo by Ron Lach from Pexels

More expensive

Ethical products cost more to produce, and as a result, this means that products made from organic cotton fabric usually cost more to buy. Organic cotton products have been reported to be on average 20-30% more expensive than regular cotton products. 

While ethical credentials are a good reason for an increased price tag, in a world that seems to be growing increasingly cash-strapped, it can price people out of the market. 

If a product is so expensive that the average person can’t afford to buy it it doesn’t solve fashion’s unsustainable problem. It simply makes sustainability a luxury for the wealthy.

The water myth

One of the major problems in the cotton sector is its excessive water use. The water use for cotton production is so problematic that it has been linked to environmental disasters including the drying of the Aral Sea. Irrigation (mostly for cotton farms) also accounts for 70% of surface water extraction in the Murray Darling Basin.

For some time, data was circulating claiming that while organic cotton still used a lot of water, it was significantly less than conventional cotton. However, this has since been debunked with several flaws pointed out in the report that supported organic cotton’s lower use of water. Unfortunately, whatever way we look at it, cotton is an inherently thirsty crop.

This is particularly brought into focus when we think about crops such as hemp or linen that only require a fraction of the water that cotton does. To learn more about hemp or linen check out our other articles.

Lower yield levels

On average, it has been found that an organic cotton yield is 25% lower than the yield of conventionally farmed cotton. This represents one of the distinct disadvantages of organic cotton because it means that to have the same yield farmers need to plant more cotton plants. This means more land cleared and more water and resources used.

If this increased farming land comes in the form of cleared natural landscapes, then the very organic cotton that is marketed as sustainable could be aiding the very deforestation that drives climate change.

When the same amount of cotton can be produced conventionally with fewer plants, organic cotton’s low yield levels impact both its economic and environmental benefits.

Confusing certifications

Certifications are a core part of a sustainable sector. However, if there isn’t a wide consumer knowledge base about these certifications then they become less useful. From GOTS to OCS the range of acronyms can quickly become confusing when trying to decipher which cotton is sustainable.

This is especially true when not all cotton with a certification is organic. For example, Better Cotton Initiative certified cotton doesn’t necessarily have to be organic cotton.

Lack of consumer information can cause people to buy cotton that they believe is organic but actually isn’t. It can also lead people into greenwashing traps and can cause mistrust that impacts the entire industry.

Some certifications to look out for that indicate sustainable organic cotton include:

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
  • Organic Content Standard (OCS) 
  • Soil Association Organic
There are way less organic cotton farms than for regular cotton. Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

There are fewer organic cotton farms

A 2021 report found that less than only 0.95% of cotton harvest for the prior year was grown organically. There simply isn’t enough cotton produced each year to meet the incredible demand levels of the clothing market.

This lack of organic cotton farmers represents a real disadvantage of the organic cotton industry. If there isn’t organic cotton available, then brands must purchase conventionally farmed cotton to stay in business.

A long and costly process

Having cotton labelled as organic isn’t exactly an easy process for brands to go through. It requires multiple hoops that have to be jumped through and, in a lot of cases, a lot of time and money spent. While having an organic certification does come with advantages, for many organisations, particularly smaller brands, it can seem unfeasible.

For just GOTS certification, organisations must pay a fee to be certified and then annual payments to maintain certification.

It’s still a new product

There is no getting around the fact that the world already has too many clothes. The modern fashion sector produces between 80 and 150 billion garments every year and while organic cotton clothing may be better than synthetic garments, it is still more clothing. Clothing that takes energy to make, is bought without thought, and often finds its way into landfill.

Nowadays there are many sustainable options like clothing and textile recycling and clothes rental services. So we are left asking the question of whether organic cotton clothes solve a problem or simply feeds a consumer mindset made to feel better by buying organic.

Is organic cotton the solution?

Organic cotton is often touted as the sustainable solution to fashion’s problems, and when compared to non-organic cotton, it is a much better option. Overall, it has a lower environmental impact and offers a kinder way of producing a widely popular fabric.

Another option that is starting to gain traction is recycled cotton, which you can read more about in our article on recycled cotton fabric. 

While the most sustainable solution is to buy less, this can’t be the only solution for the fashion sector. Fashion brands producing new clothing will always exist. Organic cotton offers a part of the puzzle to create a sustainable future and every part of that puzzle matters.

If every brand that uses cotton switched to organic cotton we would be looking at a much cleaner, greener and kinder industry.

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