Cotton – easily one of the most frequently used fabrics in the world. However, traditional cotton is facing some environmental and ethical challenges which compromise its sustainability. Organic cotton, on the other hand, solves many of these issues thanks to more sustainable and ethical practices in the supply chain. In this article, let’s have a closer look at organic cotton, how it compares to its non-organic cousin, why we love using it in our products and what are some of its opportunities for improvement.
What difference does organic make?
Since cotton is one of the most popular fabrics in the world, cotton farmers and manufacturers had to find ways to adapt to rising demand over the last decades. In order to make this as cost-efficient as possible, many started relying on seeds genetically modified not to attract insects, heavy use of pesticides to maximise harvests and replanting in the same plot of land over and over again, leaving the soil stripped of nutrients.
Pesticides are not just harmful to the planet but also the people harvesting the crops. The use of genetically modified seeds is surrounded by many ethical and environmental issues – among others, their distribution is controlled by biotechnology companies who have obtained patents on the seeds, which poses a severe threat to farmer sovereignty!
Benefits of organic cotton
Thankfully, this heavy use of pesticides, GMO seeds and intensive replanting did not go unnoticed, giving rise to organic cotton farming, which tackles all these issues. It’s grown from non-genetically modified plants and without the use of synthetic agricultural chemicals. The soil used to farm the crops is rotated which, while leading to the use of a larger area of land, leads to a lower water usage is moisture can be retained better. Cotton is a very thirsty crop, so any water that can be saved makes a big difference!
When organic cotton is planted, crops are rotated and mixed to allow for more biodiversity in the fields – more crop species attract a wider variety of animal species. The avoidance of pesticide use also helps save on greenhouse gas emissions, as nitrogen fertilizers used in conventional cotton farming have a size able carbon footprint.
Let’s quickly compare cotton with one other family of materials that is being used to substitute it more and more frequently: synthetic fabrics such as polyester, acrylic or nylon. These fabrics are made from plastic fibers and therefore contribute substantially to climate change and plastic pollution. Organic cotton, on the other hand, is a natural fibre which will biodegrade at the end of its lifespan, giving it a significant edge when it comes to sustainability.
We can’t talk about sustainable cotton farming without also talking about the ethics of it. An increasing number of organic cotton certification bodies includes regulations on the use of child labour and forced labour in the industry, improving the standards. It is not, however, part of every single organic cotton certifying body yet, although change is coming.
Lastly, let’s also talk about the way organic cotton feels when you wear it. It’s much softer than standard cotton and more breathable. Most importantly, it is not full of chemicals left from the use of pesticides and chemical dyes, which could irritate the skin!
Sustainable cotton challenges that remain
Organic cotton does a lot of things right and eliminates many of the industry’s issues. However, how would we ever progress if we didn’t critically evaluate where we are now? Cotton remains a very thirsty crop, even when farmed organically and watered by water collected from rainfall or monsoons, it still takes about 2,700 liters of water to make a conventional cotton t-shirt. The regulation of child and forced labour could also be improved upon – hopefully more certifying bodies will consider this in the future!