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Is Organic Cotton Sustainable?

Organic cotton is a sustainable fabric, but it has its own set of problems. Some people would argue that organic cotton isn't as good for the environment because the production process is more intensive. Others feel that it's better for the environment because there are less chemicals used in production and organic farmers don't use pesticides or genetic modifications to grow their crops. Organic farming uses natural fertilizers like compost, manure, green manure, crop rotation and mulching instead of synthetic ones which can have negative effects on soil quality over time.  Many people are choosing to purchase organic cotton for their clothing because they believe it is better for the environment. While this may be true, there are some things you should know before making your decision. 

Is Organic Cotton Sustainable? Here’s What You Need To Know

Due to the wasteful methods used in the production of non-organic cotton, some skepticism has popped up around this fabric as a sustainable option. However, there’s a big difference between traditional cotton and its organic counterpart. When considering the environmental and human impacts in comparison to other materials, organic cotton is a more eco-friendly material than you may think.

FAQs

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.

A Brief History Of Cotton

Originally produced in India—as far back as 5,000 B.C—cotton is now used and worn all over the world. Approximately 27 million tonnes are produced every single year. Made with natural fibers from cotton plants (they look like little fluffy balls), cotton is soft and versatile. To make it into a wearable fabric, the natural fibers are spun into yarn.

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Thanks to some innovative manufacturing developments, the mass production of cotton started during the British Industrial Revolution. In the 1760s, the spinning jenny, a multi-spindle spinning frame, was invented. It helped revolutionize the industry, and, according to Historic UK, by the beginning of the 1800s, cotton products made up roughly 42 percent of Britain’s exports. But it wasn’t to last. While Britain was a driver of the mass production of cotton, nowadays, the U.S., China, and (once again) India dominate the industry.

How Is Cotton Produced?

There is more than one way to harvest cotton. In the early days of production, the crop was extremely labor-intensive and was picked and separated by hand everywhere. Now, some countries rely on machinery to harvest cotton. Mechanical pickers and strippers are used. The former picks the cotton ball from the plant, leaving the rest in the ground. The latter strips the cotton balls, as well as the leaves and stem of the remaining plant. Both can harvest around six rows of the crop at a time.

However, while there have been developments in machinery, in many countries cotton is often still picked by hand. This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. Organic cotton, for example, is almost exclusively hand-picked; this ensures higher quality, as none of the fibers are damaged in the process. Organic cotton is also far kinder to the environment (more on that later). But in some cases, hand-picking leads to exploitation. According to a report by the BBC, in 2014 more than 400,000 children worked on India’s cotton farms. Children are sometimes used because they have smaller fingers, but also, according to one farmer, their work ethic is better.

Venkatram Reddy, who has a farm in Andhra Pradesh, told the BBC: “It is not possible with adults. They don’t work as hard and don’t come on time. Although we pay them both the same wages, it is children who work sincerely and honestly.” Child labor in cotton is not exclusive to India. In 2016, a report by the U.S. Department of Labor found child labor present in cotton production in 18 countries, including China, Uzbekistan, and Brazil.

While many brands and retailers state they do not knowingly buy cotton harvested using child labor, it can be very difficult to trace. The BBC notes that cotton can change hands a number of times before it reaches the factory to be processed into clothing. However, there is a way you can ensure your cotton is produced ethically. When you buy certified fair trade cotton, much of the crop may still be picked by hand, but the workers are treated fairly, and child labor isn’t used. Make sure you look for official fair trade certifications.

Is Cotton Bad For The Environment?

While the cotton industry may have once been the pride of the British Empire, much like the latter, it has an ugly side. In addition to child labor and exploitation, this soft and fluffy crop takes a significant toll on the environment. Excessive cultivation depletes and degrades the soil, and uses huge amounts of water.

Water Consumption

It is an undeniable fact that non-organic cotton is incredibly damaging to the environment. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce just one cotton t-shirt. Organic cotton however, tells a much different story. The Soil Association found that organic cotton can be grown using 91% less water than its non-organic counterpart. Seeing as 80% of organic cotton crops are rainfed, not irrigated, farmers are also able to produce these plants without drawing heavily on local water resources.

Water Pollution

The copious amount of pesticides and insecticides used in traditional cotton farming has made it one of the world’s dirtiest crops. Non-organic cotton farming accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide sales and 11% of global pesticide consumption. Organic cotton, which is grown without these harmful chemicals, can reduce water pollution by up to 98%. Reducing runoff from pesticides protects both the ecosystems and people that depend on the local water supply. 

Global Warming Impacts

In addition to polluting our soil and water, pesticides also are a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. A lifecycle analysis by PE International found that the total global warming potential for organic cotton was 46% lower than traditional cotton. Eliminating pesticides is an essential part of reducing the fashion industry’s emissions.

Health and Safety

When we talk about sustainability, we can’t just talk about environmental impacts. Fabrics must be supported by humane labor practices that ensure the health and safety of farmers to truly be sustainable. The toxic chemicals used in traditional cotton farming pose a massive health risk to farmers around the world. There is a link between consistent inhalation and consumption of these chemicals and cancer, neurological diseases, and reproductive complications. By purchasing items made of organic cotton, consumers are not only supporting a far more environmentally conscious production method, they’re also helping protect the health of cotton farmers worldwide.

The Sad Truth About Cotton

The Planet

Water

Cotton is the thirstiest crop in the world. It requires a shocking 2,700 litres of water to produce a single t-shirt! To put that outrageous figure into perspective, that’s enough water for one person to drink for 900 days.

Pesticides

The production process for conventional cotton uses a massive 16% of the world’s insecticides; more than any other crop in the world. Pesticides can infect local waterways, destroying the environment and harming animals. Pests continually build a resistance to the chemicals used, so new pesticides are continuously developed, resulting in greater pesticide use and spiralling costs for farmers.

The People

Pesticide poisoning isn’t limited to the environment. Food and water supplies can be easily contaminated from runoff, and it’s the local communities, sometimes already facing hardship, that suffer through disease, illness and even birth defects. In many developing countries, cotton is hand-picked. In countries like Uzbekistan and India, it is usually children who do this backbreaking work, taking them away from pursuing a life-changing education while running the risk of injury and illness.

The Alternative – Organic Cotton

But it’s not all bad news! Organic cotton is a good sustainable solution, which is grown without the use of pesticides, from seeds which have not been genetically modified. Organic farming practices avoid using harmful chemicals while aiming for environmental sustainability and the use of fewer resources. Chemical-free agricultural land even stays fertile much longer than land which is hampered by the constant use of pesticides, so organic cotton farmers generally have a longer cotton commodity lifespan than otherwise.

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The benefits are clear; using fewer pesticides means that the health of workers improves dramatically, communities can live in relative health with access to clean water and food supplies, and the land has a longer lifespan because it is not being damaged by chemicals. On the social front, organisations, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), have been working to make sure organic textiles also enhance (or at least do not harm) people’s lives.

GOTS covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of textiles, ensuring that both environmental and social standards, such as safe and hygienic working conditions, no workplace discrimination and fair pay rates, are respected. By seeking out organic cotton alternatives to everyday products, you can quickly act ethically and sustainably by encouraging the production of cotton grown without pesticides and reduce harm for the planet and people!

An Imperfect Solution

Organic cotton is not the magic solution we’ve all been looking for. There are legitimate drawbacks to organic cotton that should be considered. Concerns have arisen that unsustainable farming practices may offset the potential benefits of organic cotton. Research from the University of Oregon found a link between large corporations entering the organic cotton market and an increase in unsustainable farming practices.  As consumers become more interested in sustainable markets, it’s even more important to research the brands you buy from. Know the difference between a brand that’s making a positive difference in sustainable fashion, and a brand that’s taking advantage of conscious consumers.

Many sustainable fashion advocates will offer up sustainable fabrics like hemp or tencel as alternatives to organic cotton. While these are excellent solutions, they aren’t currently scalable to the degree needed to fully replace all use of cotton. These options should be further researched and encouraged, but right now organic cotton is an effective next step.

Moving In The Right Direction

Organic cotton isn’t the end of sustainable fashion advocacy, but it’s a meaningful step in the right direction. Sustainably farmed organic cotton is a far preferable alternative to most large scale fabric options. Organic cotton currently makes up less than 1% of the world’s global cotton production, while the other 99% is poisoning water supplies, wasting resources, and harming farmers. As more brands switch to organic cotton, fewer pesticides and microplastics will be released into our environment. That’s something we need to get behind. 

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