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What Is The Difference Between Organic And Recycled Cotton?

Cotton is definitely the most popular textile material in the world. It is used for the production of T-shirts, jeans, underwear, but also fabrics for furnishings and home. Talking about clothing, which is the most sustainable, organic cotton or upcycled cotton?

Its huge consumption makes it one of the main causes of global pollution. In fact, its production requires intensive cultivation, with wide use of pesticides; moreover, for its processing it needs huge quantities of water and dyes.

In addition to all this we should consider that the main crops of this material take place in countries where the exploitation of work is quite common, such as India and Pakistan.

When we talk about ethical and sustainable fashion we often meet terms such as organic cotton, the cultivation of which has less impact on the environment.

In this blog article we would like to talk about organic cotton and explore the difference between an organic virgin cotton and recycled cotton, trying to understand which one represents the most sustainable choice.


Recycled or upcycled cotton is a clothing fabric even more environmentally friendly than organic cotton and performs just as well. It limits textile waste caused by regular cotton production. Cotton production requires a lot of water, energy, labor, pesticides, and insecticides.

Recycled cotton prevents additional textile waste and requires far fewer resources than conventional or organic cotton. ... The quality of the cotton may be lower than new cotton. Recycled cotton is therefore usually blended with new cotton. The production of recycled cotton is still very limited.

Recycled cotton can be generally defined as converting cotton fabric into cotton fiber that can be reused in textile products. Recycled cotton is also commonly referred to as regenerated cotton, reclaimed cotton, or shoddy.

We can define recycled cotton as the transformation of cotton fabric into cotton fibers that can be reused in new textile products and fashion articles. This cotton is also known as reclaimed or regenerated cotton.

Although it is a natural fiber, conventional cotton is far from environmentally friendly. Cotton is mainly produced in dry and warm regions, but it needs a lot of water to grow. 99.3% of cotton is grown using fertilizers and genetically modified seeds.

Sustainable Fashion

While the fast fashion industry is producing 3% of humanity’s waste and is accountable for 10% of all the world’s carbon emissions, sustainable fashion is trying to pick up the slack. Using organic and sustainable fabrics, cutting back on the resources needed for production, and keeping waste down are just some of the points of focus of the sustainable fashion industry.

Sustainable fashion, also known as eco-fashion, is focused on having the least impact on the environment when producing both garments and accessories. This emerging trend shows a growing interest in reducing waste and keeping pollution down. One way to achieve that is by focusing on using sustainable materials and saving resources. That’s why organic, recycled, and upcycled fabrics are in when it comes to sustainable fashion.

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For instance, one of the most wasteful fabrics on Earth is the good ol’ cotton. There’s almost no person on this planet that doesn’t have at least one piece of clothing or accessory made of this natural fiber in his or her wardrobe. Conventional cotton is accountable for 16% of the global pesticide use (that number may be even higher with some estimates placing it at 24%).

Cotton is also very water intensive. It takes around 710 gallons (2,700 liters) of water to grow enough cotton to manufacture a single T-shirt. Large scale cotton production also depletes the soil and has an ugly impact on ecosystems and the people producing it.

Sustainable fashion has come with at least a couple of solutions to these issues - organic cotton and recycled cotton. Organic cotton doesn’t use harmful chemicals, genetically modified seeds, or water-intensive farming techniques. Recycled cotton, on the other hand, is sourced from already existing cotton, which means that it helps keep waste down and has a minimal impact on the environment.

Organic Cotton Vs. Recycled Cotton: Know The Difference

Recycled cotton is re-purposed, post-industrial or post-consumer cotton that would otherwise be deemed straight up: waste for the landfill. For example, imagine a factory that cuts patterns for clothing out of big sheets of fabric and has all the in-between pieces to discard. The scraps of such cut and sew facilities are post-industrial cotton “waste” that have the capacity to be recycled. Depending on how recycled cotton is used, it has the potential to greatly reduce water and energy consumption in sustainable fashion and apparel, as well as reduce landfill waste and space.

Certified organic cotton is cotton that is expected to have been grown without fertilizers and pesticides, with practices that promote biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil health. Cotton as a whole is considered to be one of the world’s “dirtiest” crops, covering 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land and accounting for 24% ($2.6 billion worth) of the world’s insecticide market. In terms of organic cotton, China, Turkey, and India are the world’s leading producers and sources. While organic cotton makes cotton cultivation “cleaner,” both organic and conventional cotton go through the same manufacturing process, which is water and energy intensive.

Working to re-purpose manufactured cotton that would otherwise be thrown away, Recover uses recycled cotton in their 100% recycled sustainable apparel. The way in which Recover uses post-industrial recycled cotton is better described as “upcycling.” Rather than degrading quality of product in the recycling process, upcycling involves taking unwanted material that would be waste and making it into a better product. By using recycled cotton in Recover products and innovating production, Recover’s manufacturing process results in a 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 66% reduction in energy consumption, and 55% reduction in water consumption compared to that of a conventionally dyed shirt. Constantly looking at the big picture, Recover keeps plastic bottles and post-industrial cotton scraps from going to the landfill and re-purposes them to make comfortable, soft, durable, and stylish apparel.

Recycled cotton is salvaged cotton that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill. Most recycled cotton is made from the scraps of cotton produced by sewing plants worldwide. This type of cotton is also known as post-industrial recycled cotton. Used cotton garments that no one has a use for any longer may also end up as recycled cotton, aka post-consumer recycled cotton. The major drawback of recycled cotton is that it cannot be recycled ad infinitum. In the process of recycling, cotton fibers’ length, resistance, and appearance are usually negatively affected.

What’s more, recycled cotton needs to be mixed with other fibers, such as (recycled) polyester, for a quality end product. This is why you won’t find pieces that are made of 100% recycled cotton with current technologies. While some companies strive toward 50% minimum content, recycled cotton is still better than newly produced fabrics if reducing waste is your main concern.

Cotton Cultivation

Let's start where this material comes from: the plant. Cotton plantations need a hot and dry climate, in fact they are historically widespread in continents such as Asia, Africa and America. Just think of the black slaves of America bent to collect cotton in Virginia's field. In fact, cotton is obtained by spinning the fiber balls, which, once the fruit is dried, are used by the plant to protect its seeds. The huge demand for cotton in the world leads to very extensive and intensive crops that deplete the soil and pollute, often leading to an increase in the incidence of death from cancer in the local population.

To get an idea of what the cultivation of cotton represents in the world we can take the example of the United States: here the cotton is grown on 12 million acres, an area greater than the entire Po Valley in Italy. In these areas, very large tractors, or even planes, pass by spreading pesticides and chemicals, in order to guarantee abundant and efficient crops.

Organic Cotton Characteristics

The main difference between organic cotton and non-organic cotton begins with the fundamental part of the plant: the seed. The seeds that are used to grow traditional cotton are genetically modified and treated with insecticides. All this to ensure maximum yield and to be able to meet the market demand, spoiled by disposable fast fashion consumption. Organic cotton is therefore made up of an older plant, whose production is more compatible with the ecosystem.

But paradoxically, the cultivation of organic cotton saves water. Having a lower yield in fact, it leaves the soil richer in mineral salts. Always to respect the land, cultivation also includes a technique called crop rotation. This mechanism allows us not to destroy the soil, but to make it more fertile and so to need less water, alternating the crops year after year.

Organic cotton should also be harvested by hand. This guarantees greater purity of the fiber compared to machine harvesting in large plantations.

As with all crops recognized as organic, organic cotton cultivation is carried out respecting the environment and workers. It is also certified by internationally recognized standards. They are independent companies to issue the certifications, after checking the whole process: from cultivation to production.

To find out if the shirt you are buying is made with real organic cotton, you can take a look at the label and check if one of the recognized certifications is present, usually these:

Organic Cotton Benefits And Upcycled Cotton Benefits

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So let's recap the advantages of choosing organic cotton:

  • Reduction of global pollution
  • Reduction of consumption of water and energy resources
  • Use of ancient and non-genetically modified seeds
  • Reduction of diseases caused by harmful substances in the air
  • Protection of workers' physical health and boycott of child labor exploitation
  • Purity of the fibers

All these advantages can be found in a minimal part of the cotton produced. In fact, organic cotton is rare: only 1% of the cotton produced worldwide is certified organic. Although the environmental impact of organic cotton over traditional cotton is certainly preferable, it still must be grown. So it is not equal to 0. What if we delete this part too?

The only cotton that doesn't need to be grown is the one that already exists, the one recycled therefore from industrial waste or old clothes. In this case the cultivation of cotton, whether organic or intensive, can halve its environmental impact. In fact, it will be possible to recycle the fiber at least for one cycle.

Upcycled cotton is produced from textile waste, which is frayed and reduced again to fiber and then spun again. Recycling of cotton is therefore a mechanical process, which does not involve liquids, and reduces the consumption of water to almost 0.

Even for the coloring of upcycled cotton in many cases water is not necessary, since the waste is selected by color before, in other cases instead the cotton is dyed in yarn. The disadvantages? Only one. Compared to virgin cotton fiber, upcycled fiber is shorter, therefore it must be strengthened with a minimum percentage of natural cotton or synthetic fibers to make it resistant.

To Conclude

Certified organic cotton fiber has been grown without pesticides or fertilizers through a process that preserves biodiversity and respects the environment. Since it is a cultivation process that does not use chemicals, such as herbicides or insecticides, the certified tissue is not allergic and guarantees that it does not contain substances harmful to health. In addition, it highlights the controlled traceability that takes place throughout the entire supply chain of certified organic cotton.

On the other hand, recycled cotton is the result of the conversion of cotton fabric into fibers that can be reused to make new textile products. We can talk about 2 types of sources of recycled cotton: pre-consumption, which are remains of waste material in the cutting and making process; and post-consumer, which includes clothing items already used.

In this way, one of the main differences between organic cotton and recycled cotton, if not the largest, is the origin. Despite this, both processes imply a lower environmental impact than conventional methods: organic cotton, avoiding the use of chemical products for its cultivation, and recycled cotton, reducing the amount of water and energy needed to grow and generate virgin cotton.

With some precautions, in fact, upcycled cotton can match the results of virgin cotton. Sometimes the words related to sustainable clothing can confuse: organic, natural, sustainable.

To save us from the greenwashing you must be informed and know how to identify the advantages of each fabric. We also should consider that the production of new materials is always damaging to the environment, while recycling and reuse are the real key to a sustainable future.

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