Today, cotton is the second most used fibre in apparel manufacture, after synthetics.
And I've found the subject of organic cotton one of the most frequently discussed when talking about sustainable fashion. Perhaps because it's an easy concept to understand, in theory, and also because it is now widely accessible.
But what does organic really mean when it comes to cotton?
I'm often asked, what are the environmental benefits of organic vs conventional cotton production? How much more, on average, does a garment made of organic cotton cost? Is there a difference in the way it feels against your skin? And to be frank, there were only a few answers I felt comfortable giving until now. So I decided to dig a little deeper for everyone's benefit.
Let's start with a clear and digestible summary of what organic production means.
It is 'a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects.' It 'combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.' (Life Cycle Assessment for Organic Cotton, 2016).
What is organic cotton?
In a nutshell, it's cotton that is not grown with the aid of chemicals or artificial substances but in a way that gradually and naturally builds soil fertility, and protects biodiversity.
Here's a quick breakdown of the differences between conventional and organic cotton in the growing phase:
Put simply, conventional cotton relies on the use of chemicals at almost every stage of the process, while organic cotton does not.
What does 'GOTS certified' mean?
GOTS stands for Global Organic Textile Standard and the certificate is arguably the most recognised and respected when it comes to clothing labels on organic cotton garments.
What makes it different from other cotton certifications is that it not only ensures the organic status of textiles from seed to finished garment, but it also ensures socially responsible manufacturing (taking into account employee issues such as working conditions, pay, health and safety and more) throughout the supply chain.
How much of the cotton grown worldwide is organic?
This answer is staggeringly small - the latest figure is less than 0.5%.
Currently, India is the global leader in organic cotton production, producing more than half.
What are the environmental advantages of growing organic cotton?
- Organic cotton water consumption is up to 91% lower than that of conventional cotton.
- CO2 emissions into the atmosphere are 46% less when growing organically (this is mainly due to the lack of chemicals used in its production, as well as the fact that most organic cotton is produced by small farmers who use manual labour as opposed to industrial machinery that needs fuel).
- As no synthetic chemicals are used in organic cotton production, there is no water or soil contamination.
What are the social advantages of growing organic cotton?
- Farmers and communities have more food security. By planting different crops between the cotton crops (inter-cropping) farmers and communities can access fresh organic produce for themselves.
- Famers are more financially stable. They can get a higher price for the organic cotton they sell in addition to cutting costs because they don't have to buy expensive chemicals and GMO seeds. Furthermore, by growing other crops and selling them, farmers have an additional source of income.
- A farmer and the surrounding community also have fewer health risks, as they are not exposed to chemicals.
Does a garment made with organic cotton cost more?
I'm calling on The Textile Exchange for this one, since they already have the perfect explanation:
'It's not that organic cotton "costs more" it's that conventional cotton "costs too little" because it does not cover all its true costs. Health and environmental costs are often externalized, meaning neither the consumer nor the retailer "pays" for them, the farmer and the environment does. When a fair price is paid, it makes a huge difference to producers and only a small difference to the consumer.'
Does organic cotton feel noticeably different on your skin?
There is currently no evidence that wearing a garment made with organic cotton feels different on your skin. Having said that, it certainly should make you feel happier in your skin.
It is clear from the environmental and social impacts outlined above that organic cotton production not only dramatically reduces pressure placed on the environment, but also provides market-driven relief against poverty.
By buying garments made with organic cotton you are investing in the long-term health of the planet and the lives of those working in the supply chain.
How do we make a change?
Like many issues, it will take a combination of things to make a change. Among them, insightful government regulation, the development of forward-thinking business structures and us, educating each other about the need for change.
So share this post, learn more about organic cotton and incorporate it into your purchases when you can, because YOU play a leading role in this fashion revolution.
This post was originally published on the STUDY 34 blog.