Despite its status as a sustainable fabric, organic cotton presents some unique challenges. It has been argued that the organic cotton manufacturing technique is more harmful to the environment than conventional cotton. The lack of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides, as well as the absence of GM organisms in organic crops, have led some to conclude that this kind of farming is more eco-friendly.
Soil quality is preserved in organic farming because natural fertilisers like compost, waste, green manure, crop rotation, and mulching are used instead of synthetic ones. There has been a recent uptick in the demand for organic cotton garments, with many consumers making the switch out of concern for the planet. Although this may be the case, there are some other details to consider.
Is Organic Cotton Recyclable? Here's What You Should Know
Some doubt has emerged regarding this cloth as a reliable alternative due to the wasteful processes used in the manufacturing of non-organic cotton. However, conventional cotton and also its organic cousin are very different. Organic cotton is a more sustainable option than you might imagine when you factor in its lower environmental and human impact.
FAQs About Organic Cotton
Organic cotton isn’t perfect, as it still uses up resources, but it’s far better for the environment than its conventional counterpart. According to About Organic Cotton, a resource funded by the textile sustainability nonprofit Textile Exchange, it uses 88 percent less water than conventional cotton. According to environmental activist group Hubbub, it’s up to 91 percent less. That’s because most of it is grown in rain-fed areas, reducing the pressure on other water supplies.
Organic cotton is also kinder to the soil. According to the Organic Trade Association, when cotton is farmed organically, crop rotation strategies and soil building practices are used. This keeps the soil healthy, which in turn is good for the climate. Healthy soil helps pull carbon from the atmosphere. Organic cotton production also uses zero toxic chemicals. The latter is nonnegotiable because pesticides are actually banned in organic cotton production. Instead, crop rotation helps to protect plants from diseases and other threats, like pests.
Because cotton is a plant, it’s naturally biodegradable. But whether that process helps the environment or not depends on the type. When non-organic cotton biodegrades, all of the chemicals used to treat it go back into the earth, causing damage to local habitats. Birds and other animals may end up digesting the toxins. Organic cotton, on the other hand, is untreated with chemicals. So when it breaks down, it’s less harmful to the earth. Organic cotton takes up to five months to biodegrade.
So, how do you know the cotton you’re buying is really organic? It’s important to check for bonafide certification, not just the use of buzzwords like "eco-friendly". Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), for example, traces materials used in clothes to ensure they are processed sustainably. Organic Content Standards (OCS) offers a similar certification. Both track the chain of custody with transaction certificates, and the former also addresses social issues, based on guidelines from the International Labour Organization. The rule of thumb when it comes to brands and environmentally-friendly materials? If they are officially certified, they will proudly tell you. Look for a section on sustainability on their website, and inspect labels carefully.
Hint: if there’s no section on sustainability, it’s unlikely that the brand uses organic cotton or other environmentally-friendly materials.
Looking to get rid of a cotton-based garment? There are a few things you can do. If the item is still in decent condition, there’s the obvious solution of donating or selling. Research local charity shops, or use resale apps like Depop or Vinted. If the item is no longer in reasonable condition, you can also check with your local council, to see if they will accept the clothes for recycling. Some retailers, like H&M and The North Face, will accept old clothes to be recycled.
When it comes to recycling cotton, it is not a perfect process. Cotton has to be blended with other fibers to be made into new yarn. This is necessary for strength and durability but means cotton cannot be continuously recycled. One answer is to buy products that are made to last. Organic cotton will last longer than conventional cotton because the quality is much better.
Right now, less than one percent of the cotton used around the world is organic. But Liesl Truscott, Textile Exchange’s director of Europe and materials strategy, says consumers can help to change this by showing demand and supporting the brands that do choose organic over conventional.
It’s important to point out that organic certification does not always mean that all social issues in the supply chain have been effectively addressed. It’s down to brands to try and ensure their supply chain is as ethical as possible, by creating supply registers and visiting each of their manufacturers. Cotton is a complicated industry; it is fraught with issues, and we are far from achieving the perfect solution. But there are things you can do as a consumer to ensure you’re doing your part.
Cotton's Brief History
Cotton, which has been grown and woven in India since at least 5,000 B.C., is currently widely consumed and worn around the globe. About 27 million metric tonnes are generated annually. Cotton is a natural material that comes from the cotton plant (the seeds look like small fluffy balls). The natural fibres are made of wool and then woven into cloth.
Mass cotton production began in Britain during the Industrial Revolution because of technological advances in textile production. The multi-spindle spinning frame known as a "spinning jenny" was developed in the 1760s. As a result, cotton products accounted for 42% of Britain's exports by the turn of the nineteenth century, as reported by Historic UK. However, that was not to be. When it comes to cotton production, Britain was an early pioneer, but today the United States, China, & (once again) India are where it's at.
How Is Cotton Grown?
Cotton can be gathered in a number of different ways. Extreme manual effort was required at every stage of production in the beginning, when the crop had to be picked and divided by hand. Some countries now use harvesting machines to get their cotton. Pickers & strippers are mechanical and are utilised. The former only harvests the cotton ball, leaving the remaining plant intact. This second method removes not only the cotton bolls but also the plant's remaining leaves and stem. About six rows of crop can be picked by both at once.
Despite advances in equipment, cotton is frequently still picked manually in many nations. This is not always a terrible thing, though. As an example, practically all organic cotton is chosen by hand, which results in superior quality because no fibres are harmed. Additionally, organic cotton is far more eco-friendly (more on that later). Hand-selection might yield desirable results, but it can also result in abuse. More than 400 thousand Indian children were employed in cotton fields in 2014, according to a BBC report. Because of their smaller fingers, children are sometimes used, but one farmer also cites their better work ethic as a reason for using them.
According to Andhra Pradesh farmer Venkatram Reddy, who spoke with the BBC, "it is not conceivable with grownups." They're not reliable and don't put in as much effort. We pay both adults and children equally, yet it's the kids that put in the most effort. Cotton farming employs children in more than just India. U.S. Department of Labor study from 2016: 18 countries use child labour in cotton production; includes China, Pakistan, and Brazil.
It can be difficult to trace cotton that has been harvested using child labour, despite the fact that many brands and sellers claim they do not knowingly purchase such cotton. According to the BBC, cotton can go through as many as seven different hands before it finally makes it to the factory where it will be turned into apparel. However, you have a method at your disposal to guarantee the moral cultivation of your cotton. Much of the crops may still be harvested by hand, but workers are compensated properly and no child labour is utilised when you purchase cotton that has been certified as fair trade. In order to ensure you're getting the real deal, check for fair trade certificates.
Is Cotton Harmful To The Environment?
While the cotton business was originally a source of national pride for the British Empire, it has since developed a less admirable side that is consistent with that empire's history. The use of child labour and other forms of abuse are just two of the ways in which the environment suffers at the hands of this fluffy crop. Extraordinary water usage and soil depletion result from overly intensive farming practises.
Consumption Of Water
The environmental damage caused by conventionally grown cotton is well-documented. One cotton t-shirt requires 2,700 gallons of water to produce, reports the World Wildlife Fund. When compared to conventional cotton, organic cotton reveals a very different picture. The Soil Association determined that organic cotton can be cultivated using 91% less freshwater than its non-organic cousin. Because most organic cotton is grown without irrigation, farmers can grow this crop without depleting precious water supplies.
Pollution In The Water
Cotton is notorious for being a polluting crop due to the widespread use of toxic herbicides and insecticides in conventional farming. Both insecticide sales (24% of the total) and pesticide consumption (11% of the total) can be traced back to conventional cotton growing. When these toxic chemicals are not used in its cultivation, organic cotton can reduce the water pollution by as much as 98 percent. Protecting ecosystems and the people who rely on them requires taking steps to reduce pesticide discharge.
The Effects Of Global Warming
In addition to harming our land and water, herbicides also are a huge contributor to climate change in agriculture. According to PE International's lifecycle research, organic cotton has 46% less global warming potential than conventional cotton. Getting rid of pesticides is a crucial step in making the garment sector more environmentally friendly.
Safety And Health
Discussing sustainability requires considering more than just environmental effects. To be truly sustainable, textiles need to be backed by humane labour practises that protect farmers' wellbeing. Farmers' exposure to the harmful pesticides used in conventional cotton production is significant. Persistent exposure to these substances by ingestion or inhalation has been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, and birth defects. As well as protecting the health for cotton farmers throughout the world, consumers can help the environment by purchasing products manufactured from organic cotton.
The Sad Truth About Cotton
Cotton requires more water than any other crop. To make just one t-shirt, an astounding 2,700 litres are needed. That staggering sum is equivalent to the water needs of a single person for nine hundred days.
Producing conventional cotton consumes more insecticides than any other crop around the world (16% of all insecticides). Unfortunately, pesticide runoff can contaminate nearby water sources, causing environmental damage and animal suffering. When pests acquire resistance to a chemicals farmers use, they have to resort to using even more pesticides, driving up the price for farmers in the process.
It's not just the environment that can be harmed by pesticides. Communities already struggling may see an increase in the prevalence of disease, illness, and even birth deformities due to the contamination of their food and water by runoff. Cotton is typically plucked by hand in many third world nations. Oftentimes, children in countries such Uzbekistan and India are the ones doing the heavy lifting, depriving them of an opportunity to receive an education that could change their lives for the better and exposing them to danger.
Organic Cotton As An Alternative
This is not all terrible news, though! Organic cotton, which itself is grown sans the use of pesticides from non-GMO seeds, is a solid long-term option because it reduces the environmental impact of cotton production. The principles of organic farming emphasise the avoidance of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, as well as the conservation of natural resources. Organic cotton farmers typically have a longer silk commodity lifecycle than conventional cotton farmers because chemical-free agricultural land remains fruitful far longer than land which is impeded by the frequent use of pesticides.
Workers' health improves considerably, communities may thrive thanks to improved water and food quality, and the land lasts longer without chemical degradation. Organisations like the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) have been trying to ensure that the social impact of organic textiles is positive.
Environmental and social requirements, such as no discrimination in the workplace, fair pay rates, and clean and safe working conditions, are upheld throughout the whole GOTS process, from raw material procurement to final product distribution. Find alternatives made from organic cotton to rapidly take an ethical and environmentally responsible action towards reducing harm to people and the earth.
An Inadequate Solution
Even while it may seem like the perfect answer, organic cotton is also not the way forwards. There are real concerns with using organic cotton that must be taken into account. Concerns have been raised that the advantages of organic cotton could be nullified by unsustainable growing techniques. The University if Oregon found that unsustainable agricultural techniques have increased as large firms have entered the organic cotton industry. More and more shoppers are becoming interested in supporting sustainable industries, making it all the more crucial to do your homework before making any purchases. You should be able to tell the difference between such a company that is truly committed to sustainable fashion and one that is just looking to cash in on conscientious shoppers.
As an alternative to organic cotton, several eco-fashionistas recommend eco-friendly materials like hemp or tencel. Although these alternatives are promising, they lack the scalability to completely replace cotton in the near future. More study and support for these paths are warranted, but in the meanwhile, cotton yarn is a practical next step.
We're Heading In The Right Direction
Advocating for sustainable fashion doesn't end at organic cotton, but it's a significant positive step. Most industrial fabrics aren't as eco-friendly as organic cotton that was grown in a sustainable way. Less than one percent of the cotton grown worldwide is certified organic, while the remaining 99 percent is damaging water supplies, wasting money, and injuring farmers. Organic cotton has the potential to reduce environmental harm by eliminating the use of harmful chemicals and the production of tiny plastic particles. Yes, we need to rally around that idea.
There has been an upswing in demand for organic cotton apparel, with many buyers making the switch out of concern for the earth. Some concern has emerged about this cloth as a trustworthy substitute due to the inefficient techniques employed in the manufacturing of non-organic cotton. When you consider the reduced effects on both people and the planet, organic cotton becomes a more viable option. Mass cotton production began in Britain during the Industrial Revolution. Some countries currently employ harvesting machines to acquire their cotton.
However, while hand-selection often produces the most desirable outcomes, it is equally vulnerable to exploitation. In 2014, cotton farming employed more than 400,000 youngsters in India. China, Pakistan, and Brazil are just three of the 18 countries that employ children to harvest cotton.
- Though it's widely regarded as a sustainable fabric, organic cotton does have its own set of difficulties.
- Some have claimed that conventional cotton production is better for the environment than organic cotton production.
- There are others who believe that organic farming is better for the environment since it does not use synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, or herbicides, and it does not use genetically modified organisms.
- Natural fertilisers such as compost, trash, green manure, crop rotation, and mulching are used instead of synthetic ones in organic farming, which helps to maintain soil quality.
- The demand for organic cotton clothing has increased recently as more people make the switch out of environmental consciousness.
- Still, there are a few other factors to think about.
- Concerns have been raised about the viability of this fabric as a replacement for conventional cotton due to the excessive resources expended during its production.
- However, there are significant distinctions between conventional cotton and its organic counterpart.
- When you consider the reduced effects on both people and the planet, organic cotton becomes a more viable option.
- As a result of advancements in textile technology, mass manufacturing of cotton began in Britain during the Industrial Revolution.
- In the 1760s, a spinning frame with several spindles, commonly called a "spinning jenny," was invented.
- Consequently, by the turn of the nineteenth century, Historic UK reports that 42 percent of British exports were cotton products.
- Although Britain was an early leader in cotton production, the United States, China, and (once again) India are now well ahead.
- In the beginning, when the crop had to be picked and divided by hand, a lot of hard manual labour was necessary at every stage of production.
- Despite technological advancements, cotton is still commonly picked by hand in many countries.
- BBC reported that in 2014, around 400,000 Indian children worked in cotton fields.
- The smaller fingers of children are an advantage, but one farmer also notes the children's superior work ethic.