Material Monday EP. 5: Conventional vs Organic Cotton

Cotton is a natural material. It’s also a staple material of the fashion industry, in fact, cotton represents about half the fibre used to make clothes and other textiles worldwide! And it’s gaining more and more popularity among consumers, since most people believe that “natural” equals “sustainable”. However, that is not true at all, which is why sustainable fashion brands choose to use organic cotton instead of conventional cotton. But what’s the difference?

Keep reading to find out what the difference between conventional and organic cotton is. But to understand why one is more sustainable than the other, let’s start with the basics… What is cotton?

What is Cotton & How is it made?

Cotton is a natural fibre derived from cotton plants. The fabric usually used in the clothes we wear is produced in two main steps: the “spinning process,” where thread is made from raw cotton, and the “weaving process,” where the thread is woven into fabric. It’s important to note that there are four different types of cotton: 

1 PIMA COTTON – which is considered the finest type of cotton in the world, as pima cotton’s fibres are extra soft and extra long. The cotton is native to South America and the American Southwest. 

2 EGYPTIAN COTTON – which is very similar to pima cotton. It has the same qualities, but is grown in the Nile River Valley in Egypt.

3 UPLAND COTTON – this type of cotton has very short fibres and makes up about 90% of the world’s total cotton production. The crop is native to and grown in Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and southern Florida.

4 ORGANIC COTTON – this is any type of cotton that is grown without chemicals and from plants that are not genetically engineered. Unfortunately, less than one percent of all cotton grown is organic.

Is conventional cotton sustainable?

No – unfortunately, conventional cotton is not sustainable at all.

Cotton starts out as factory plant and undergoes multiple chemical procedures, both in the farming and the processing phase. These chemical procedures are often highly toxic. Fun Fact that’s not so fun: Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other crop in the world. It is estimated that each year the production of cotton uses as much as 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and more than 10 percent of the world’s pesticides; an incredible amount for one just one crop.

Cotton also requires an enormous amount of water and land to grow – in fact, it takes about 2,700 litres of water to make enough cotton for one t-shirt.

The farming and processing of cotton also contributes to climate change. If you are interested in the nitty gritty, click here.

Ethical issues

The production of conventional cotton also has a series of social and economic risks, especially for small farmers in developing countries. The toxic chemicals that are used in both the farming and the processing of conventional cotton often cause serious illnesses or even death. 

As the farming of cotton causes soil degradation, farmers often face declining yields and are forced into poverty.

How sustainable is Organic Cotton?

Organic cotton is cotton which is produced according to the internationally recognised organic farming standards. It is grown in a way that uses methods and materials that lessen the impact on our environment. Efforts are made to replenish and maintain soil fertility and build biologically diverse agriculture. Organic cotton also uses far less water, reduces levels of water pollution, saves energy and creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions. 

Conventional vs Organic cotton

Conventional Cotton

  • requires an enormous amount of water
  • 1 T-shirt: 2700 litres of water
  • mostly ‘blue’ water (from groundwater, lakes, water etc.)

Organic Cotton

  • requires around 91%  less water 
  • 1 T-Shirt: 243 litres of water
  • 95 % of the water used to grow organic cotton is green water (rainwater and water stored in the soil) (source)

Conventional Cotton

  • requires an enormous amount of water

  • 1 T-shirt: 2700 litres of water

  • mostly ‘blue’ water (from groundwater, lakes, water etc.)

  • use of toxic chemicals

  • use of GMO seeds

  • high levels of water pollution

  • high levels of greenhouse gases by using nitrous dioxide-releasing fertilisers and pesticides, and using mechanised farming practices.

Organic Cotton

  • requires around 91%  less water

  • 1 T-Shirt: 243 litres of water

  • 95 % of the water used to grow organic cotton is green water (rainwater and water stored in the soil) (source)

  • no use of toxic chemicals

  • no use of GMO seeds

  • reduced levels of water pollution by 98% (source)

  • creates 46 % fewer greenhouse gas emissions, mostly due to being fertiliser- and pesticide-free (source)
  • use of toxic chemicals
  • use of GMO seeds
  • no use of toxic chemicals
  • no use of GMO seeds
  • high levels of water pollution
  • reduced levels of water pollution by 98% (source)
  • high levels of greenhouse gases by using nitrous dioxide-releasing fertilisers and pesticides, and using mechanised farming practices. 
  • creates 46 % fewer greenhouse gas emissions, mostly due to being fertiliser- and pesticide-free (source)

However, organic cotton production is not perfect: since organic cotton yields fewer fibres than GMO cotton, it requires more plants and therefore more land to produce.

Plus, before the organic fibre is turned into a t-shirt, it requires lots of processing and dying, which are also very chemically intensive. Unless the garment is GOTS certified, it can be hard to tell if the dyes used during production were organic or not… which leads me to the last point:

BUying organic cotton

When opting for organic cotton, make sure it is GOTS-certified (GOTS = Global Organic Textile Standard). GOTS covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of textiles, and ensures that both environmental and social standards, such as safe and hygienic working conditions, no workplace discrimination and fair pay rates, are respected.

Conventional cotton is one of the thirstiest and most chemical-intensive crops to grow. Organic cotton has a much lower impact on our planet. It uses far less water and the crops aren’t treated with harmful toxins. Unfortunately, less than one percent of all cotton grown today is organic. It’s definitely time to make a change!

Make sure you check out the other Material Monday episodes, if you want to know more about how sustainable and ethical viscose, wool, and leather are.  

Please let me know if you have any questions, thoughts or recommendations.

 

Thanks for reading!

Pauline xx

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