Is Organic Cotton Better?
Why Organic Cotton Is the Only Option for Fashion
Ash Bailey / 13 Min Read / Responsibility
Patagonia's GOTS certified organic cotton t-shirt range
You’re probably reading this now with clothes on.
Well, I'd hope so.
It's more than likely you're draped in something that's made out of cotton.
The interesting question is how was that cotton produced?
Unfortunately, over 99% of cotton is produced through conventional means.
What does this mean? You may be asking.
Conventional cotton farming is a dirty business. And it’s beginning to falter environmentally, socially and economically (particularly in the long-term).
Various news outlets have been brandishing claims that organic cotton is just as bad for the environment due to low yields and inefficiencies.
We’ve put our investigative hat on to get to the bottom of some of the key questions surrounding this age-old crop.
Organic cotton farming is a far better solution and it's becoming widely accessible with lots of responsible fashion brands using it exclusively.
In fact, our friends, Patagonia have been 100% organic since way back in 1996!
“If we continue to make clothes with conventionally grown cotton, knowing what we know now, we’re toast!”
Yvon Chouinard - Patagonia Founder
But before we delve further, what is organic cotton?
- It's cotton that is produced without the use of agrochemicals - synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
- It does not use GMOs (genetically modified organisms), irradiation or industrial solvents during processing.
In this article, we’ll lay out the scale of the problem we’ve got on our hands, why organic cotton is a wardrobe must and what to look for when purchasing organic cotton products.
Conventional Cotton: A Brief Overview
You may have heard about the potato famine in the 19th century? It devastated the Irish countryside and in doing so wiped out a whopping 20 percent of the Irish population through starvation or migration.
Natural disasters like this have happened since the advent of agricultural farming.
And, they’re a big reason for the advent of agrochemicals.
Conventional farming methods, as we know them today, were born out of the many disasters we’ve faced over the last 5000 years.
We’ve adopted intensive farming methods that attempt to outsmart nature; eradicating pests, insects and weeds allowing our crops to grow to their roots' content.
Cotton: The ‘World’s Dirtiest Crop’
World War II ramped this farming intervention to new heights. The 1940s saw the creation of thousands of new chemical compounds. The most common of these was called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, otherwise known as DDT.
DDT, along with other chemical discoveries, were repurposed and branded as pesticides and herbicides.
They’ve been revolutionary, to say the least.
In fact, many call it the Green Revolution. Cotton production has increased by 500% since the 1930s. And while this has supported farming communities all over the globe, it hasn’t been without its issues.
In recent years, we’ve become aware of the adverse health effects, on both humans and our environment. The long-term socioeconomic effects have also started to unravel, with numerous farming communities left devastated with poor food supply and infertile pastures.
This agrochemical situation has been getting out of control for a while. In India - home to over one-third of the world’s cotton farmers - cotton accounts for 54% of all pesticides usage, despite occupying only 5% of the arable land.
Cotton covers 2.5% of the world's cultivated land, yet it accounts for 24% of the world's insecticide market and 11% of global pesticide sales.
Owing to the immediate positive impact on their yield, many farmers adopted these toxic chemicals as a vehicle to provide increased economic stability.
As a result, the uptake was fast and widespread.
In 2020, of the 24.4 million metric tonnes of cotton produced globally, 24.1 million utilised some form of synthetic fertiliser, pesticide or herbicide. Organic cotton accounted for a measly 1% of total production.
Bt Cotton's Hidden Risk
With the toxicity of agrochemicals becoming well documented. Bt cotton, a genetically modified seed, was developed and introduced in 1996.
Touted to eradicate the use of agrochemicals altogether, Bt cotton allowed US farmers to reduce their agrochemical use significantly by changing the gene makeup of cotton seeds to make them more resilient to pests and natural disaster.
Bt cotton’s gene make-up did not suit all climates and terrains, in particular India, largely due to their Monsoon conditions.
Just like its pesticides, Bt cotton cannot differentiate pests from other living things.
Bt toxin produced by Bt cotton crop has been shown to adversely affect predator species. Studies on lacewings - a pest predator - have uncovered higher toxicity and significantly lower survival rates.
We also know they have the potential to significantly change the microbial environment in the topsoil - disease incidence, nutrient mineralisation and plant growth are all known side-effects.
Interestingly, healthy soil environment is key to high water retention and carbon sequestration.
Is BCI Cotton A Distraction?
The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), introduced in 2005, looked at improving cotton farmer’s welfare whilst reducing its impact, without completely removing the use of agrochemicals. BCI cotton, on average, uses 40% fewer chemicals than conventional cotton.
Some 2.7 million farmers in 23 countries participate in the Better Cotton programme.
However, there is cause for concern.
BCI has been heavily criticised because it makes no commitment to organic cotton or minimum prices for cotton producers - both of which are vitally important socially and environmentally.
We find ourselves questioning is this enough?
Rather than covering up the cracks, farmers should be supported in transitioning to organic practices. Unfortunately, government support and NGO intervention are scarce.
There are various examples of innovative farming techniques having a profound impact…
In Egypt, organic cotton was intercropped with basil. It lead to a 50% reduction of the pink bollworm, stimulated epigeic fauna by 30% and yields remained the same.
Through education and on-the-ground investigation, innovative techniques like this can continue to support the transition to organic cotton.
Instead, we see widespread adoption of mediocre certification like BCI.
Fashion brands such as ASOS, Marks & Spencers and H&M joined the Prince of Wales International Sustainability Unit, pledging to use ‘sustainable cotton’ by 2025.
Interestingly, ‘sustainable cotton’ by their standard, incorporates BCI cotton.
No surprises there… Matthew 24.4
Why is Organic Cotton Better?
So, in short, the main reasons why organic cotton is better are:
- Organic cotton combats environmental degradation.
- Organic cotton improves the health of farmers and their communities.
- Organic cotton enhances rural economic prosperity.
Organic Cotton Reduces Environmental Impact
Cotton is like a needy child; it requires a lot of food and water, all the while, and like children it can often leave a trail of destruction in its wake!
A life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) was conducted in India, and it brought to light the micro and macro effects cotton farming is having on our environment.
It assessed each farming technique to give us a clear picture of what’s going on.
The results speak for themselves…
The presence of sulfur dioxide was 400% higher in both conventional and BCI cotton. Soil acidification - the reduction of soil pH - causes long-term soil depletion.
You may have heard on the news from time to time that farmer's plight is getting incrementally worse year on year…
…you can blame soil acidification for that!
What’s interesting, is each of the metrics analysed in the LCIA are closely related. Acidification is one thing, the knock-on effects hitting each other metric is devastating.
Here is an example of how each metric is inter-related:
- Soil acidification leads to poor water retention, further stressing local water supply through intensive irrigation systems.
- Soil acidification releases sequestered (locked) carbon dioxide, adding to global warming potential.
- Soil acidification affects soil conditions leading to infertile land, increasing the synthetic solutions used, which take large amounts of energy to produce prior to their deployment.
You soon start to see how things unravel.
When it comes to looking at environmental impact, it’s important to consider that any human interference comes at a cost - whether that is in energy or resources.
With that said, it’s vitally important to present the benefits of transitioning to a better alternative.
We’re not on a cotton bashing mission, I promise! Like many traditional practices in this modern world, it takes a sincere look into the past to fairly analyse where we are today, and where we can take things in order to try and rebalance the situation.
Organic Cotton Sequesters Carbon Dioxide
Organic cotton combats environmental degradation through sustainable soil fertility management which maintains natural biodiversity and reduces water scarcity.
Believe it or not, organic farming practices also reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.
On average, organic cotton can sequester 18,400kg more CO2 per square kilometre than its conventional counterpart.!
Now... if all cotton farming across the globe transitioned to organic production methods, an extra 2.5 billion kilograms of carbon would be sequestered.
Organic cotton doesn't stop there…
Organic Cotton Reduces Water Consumption
Particularly in near-equatorial climates, where the vast majority of cotton is produced, water scarcity is a huge problem.
Cotton is notoriously thirsty - up to 10,000 litres of water is required to produce a pair of jeans, unless, like Nudie Jeans, you recycle the cotton.
This is where organic cotton helps enormously.
Due to high water retention, water is used far more economically. In India, a 44% reduction of water irrigation was witnessed when organic cotton farming practices were used.
It’s important to note that despite BCI cotton concerns, it does reduce water consumption to the greatest degree.
Organic Cotton Preserves Natural Ecosystems
Intercropping can be defined as planting two or more species of plants simultaneously. Other than the economic benefit to farmers, intercropping supports natural ecosystems.
In China, a study found that intercropping practices increased the abundance of pest predators by 200% or more in all three years of observation.
Many organic growers use methods including making their own compost from on-farm waste, installing nearby predator breeding habitats and using ground cover plants to ensure their crop maintains high yields.
Other than preserving natural ecosystems, phasing out agrochemicals reduces the impact farming has on various animal species.
Organic Cotton Improves Farmer and Community Health
Up until now, we’ve not delved into the severity of the problem conventional farmers are faced with.
Obviously, no chemical exposure is ideal.
That’s why, in this section, we’ll present the side effects farmers and the wider community are facing.
Whilst you read this, it’s important to remember that the majority of farmers are from impoverished communities where access to health care is limited. Likewise, the adoption of western HSQE practices such as PPE is few and far between.
It’s important to remember these rural farmers do not partake in seasonal fashion.
Food for thought. Just to make clear it’s not exclusively far-distant growers subject to these costly chemicals. According to the Organic Trade Association, the U.S cotton industry uses a staggering 8.4 million kilograms of pesticides each year.
It's been found that everything from neurological disorders to birth defects can be traced back to exposure to agrochemicals.
Here are a ‘few’ side-effects witnessed by the cotton community and the general public at large…
Direct Effects of Agrochemicals
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1-3% of agricultural farmers suffer acute effects from agrochemical exposure.
Seems a relatively small number, right? Think again.
There are roughly 12 million cotton farmers globally, meaning up to 356,400 individuals are suffering short-term effects such as headaches, excessive sweating, burning eyes, breathlessness, skin rashes, vomiting, nausea and seizures.
That’s not to mention chronic illness.
This is far more difficult to quantify, however, many health organisations suggest it’s a far higher number. Cotton farmers are at a heightened risk of developing chronic illnesses such as:
- Neurological, nervous and hormonal conditions
- Leukaemia, lymphoma and brain cancer
- Decreased intelligence, behavioural abnormalities, and a weakened immune system.
A study of 2,273,872 Danish men and women revealed statistically-significantly high risks of Parkinson’s disease for farmers and for all men in agriculture and horticulture.
86% of producing households surveyed stored their pesticides in their bedroom - that’s bonkers!
Open access to contaminated equipment and pesticide drift from spray application in the field can lead to many of these direct health effects spilling over into the local community.
The unethical nature of synthetic spraying cannot be understated.
Indirect Effects of Agrochemicals
Pesticide residues have been present in newborn humans 25 years after the use of the chemicals ceased, suggesting long-term public health problems.
The chemical absorption and field runoff not only contaminates rivers, lakes and water basins but these toxic compounds find their way into underground water systems.
Underground water for most landlocked rural communities is their only source of clean, drinking water.
Remember, it’s not just local contamination, water travels far…
A study found that populations who have low dose pesticide exposure are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and endocrine disruption.
This is yet another example of the poorest individuals feeling the ill effects of western consumption and needless demand.
Organic Cotton Improves Farmer and Community Economic Prosperity
Now, it was once thought that conventional cotton farming brought with it economic prosperity.
Higher yields and resilience in the face of natural disasters were the two major benefits.
As is always the case, nature doesn’t deal well with human interference. When natural systems are affected, a subtle but devastating backlash is often witnessed.
This pattern is becoming clearer and clearer.
Over 70% of cotton production comes out of Africa, India and China, all of which have seen the largest backlash from intensive farming practices.
The constant depletion of soil means that farmers rely even more heavily on pesticides. This double whammy - extortionate startup costs and poor yields - results in lower profits year on year.
In recent years, organic cotton facilities throughout the supply chain have rallied together and several economic benefits have been witnessed:
- Higher premiums - organic cotton can be sold between 11% and 100% higher than conventional cotton
- Organic intercropping can provide extra profits at harvest
- Local food supply becomes diverse and plentiful
- Crop yields consistently improve year-on-year
- More operational cost is taken up by labour - improving local’s prospects
- Local fertiliser (i.e. manure) is needed in abundance - favouring local, circular supply chain.
Switching to organic cotton in Mali (Western Africa) has seen long-term economic benefits; farmers have witnessed a 20% increase in premiums.
Not only are premiums increased. In India, organic crop rotation (cotton-legume-corn) increased cotton yields by a staggering 11% over a two year period.
This also gives the farmer an extra source of income!
It’s been noted elsewhere, that yields have been ever-increasing since the transition to organic farming methods.
That’s crazy when you consider that other crops grow in its place for a large proportion of the year!
On the whole, with transitional support from the government and NGOs, organic cotton most definitely provides economic benefits to farming communities and safeguards arable land for future production and prosperity.
What are The Challenges Associated With Organic Cotton?
Organic cotton doesn’t come without its challenges.
It’s far more vulnerable to natural disasters. Pest epidemics, drought and torrential rain can wipe out an entire year’s work in a matter of days! This acute fear is often what stops conventional farmers from transitioning.
The risk can be reduced, however.
The Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative is an example of a tight-knit collective of growers acting as a support mechanism against the infrequent disasters farmers face. Not only do they offset the cost of disaster, but they also rally together ensuring consistently high prices.
Similarly, rural producers need support - just in a slightly different way.
The transition to organic cotton is not without its up-front costs. The risk of getting the organic set-up wrong can be detrimental to entire farming communities.
There is far more knowledge and skill required in organic methods. Much of this expertise needs to come from external NGOs, to ensure the transition is smooth.
For example, intercropping and crop rotation are not easy to implement; determining proper products for the area, which are able to market, make an increase on farmers’ income and conveying information to the farmers requires specialist input.
Just like any other global industry, organic cotton prices differ considerably from region to region.
Turkey, once the largest producer of organic cotton, has been priced out of organic cotton.The production cost of $1.04kg is less than the selling price of $0.60kg. This requires government assistance in the form of subsidies to support Turkey in maintaining organic production.
This surprising lack of institutional support and investment in organic cotton is witnessed all over the world, even the US government lack the necessary intervention. When agricultural debt soars and environmental pressure is higher than ever, what better time to invest in organic cotton facilities.
What Should I Look Out For?
After reading this far (well done, I may add), you should be pretty sold on the idea that organic cotton is a wardrobe must.
Remember, just like BCI cotton, there are various accreditations that detract us from hearing more about the special qualities of organic cotton through promoting schemes that are more aligned to conventional practices.
There is also a stark difference between organic cotton and farm-to-finish organic cotton.
Bottom line: if you’re purchasing organic, you want to know that it’s the real deal!
What’s the point in brandishing the term ‘organic’ if the dyes used are synthetic and the stitching is made from conventional cotton? There isn’t any.
Here are three things you should look out for…
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), founded in 2006, is a voluntary certification that seeks to identify clothing as ethical on both environmental and social counts.
The cotton fibre must be grown and farmed without GMO seeds, and without the use of agrochemicals. The end-product must be made with at least 70% organic fibres.
Ethical business practices are measured on child labour and working condition variables.
GOTS is well known for its rigorous auditing process - the entire process from farm to the final product is assessed.
The standard’s popularity amongst brands and consumers is growing rapidly in the last few years. As a result, in 2019, the number of GOTS registered facilities grew by 34% to 10,388.
Organic in Conversion
At the point a farm or facility decides to transition to organic practices, it takes up to three years before they can qualify as organic through the GOTS certification.
GOTS has developed an ‘in conversion’ endorsement. This allows farmers and producers access to organic markets whilst in the transition phase.
During this time, farmers implement organic methods, build up soil biota and cut all prohibited inputs. This is audited annually by certification bodies as per the international organic production standards.
- 95% or more organic material, as long as the remaining content is not of the same type as the organic material - accompanied by the phrase “Made with Organically Grown Material.”
- 100% organic material - accompanied by the language “Made with 100% Organically Grown Material.”
The application alone takes between three to four months to complete!
A Sustainable Future For Cotton?
Should nothing change, the ill effects of the cotton industry are going to continue to unravel at an alarming rate.
When assessing the cotton industry it’s important to remember the cyclical nature of the problem.
The global warming effects associated with conventional cotton will only add to the uncertainty we face surrounding extreme and random weather patterns.
Likewise, continuing to mess with ecosystems could unravel and cause disaster on a monumental scale.
Both of which, put further strain on farmers’ livelihoods.
Yes, organic cotton comes at a cost, both to farmers and consumers, but the economic cost of conventional cotton soon will become clearer - let’s hope it’s not too little, too late.
As a society, we’ve got two options; we continue to increase our use of agrochemicals and GMOs and fight a long, hard battle; or, we ramp up efforts to transition to organic cotton production.
Granted, if all conventional farmers transitioned to organic methods tomorrow, it wouldn’t be without its problems; supply shortages and increased prices for the end-user.
But it would forge a sustainable future for all the millions of people that heavily rely on the industry.