Organic cotton is cotton that is produced, and certified, according to organic agricultural standards. Of most importance is the fact that organic practices prohibit the use of ‘agrichemicals’ (artificial pesticides and fertilizers) along with genetically modified (GM) seed. Instead, organic cotton is grown as part of a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and locally adapted inputs in place of chemical inputs which can have an adverse effect on the farmer and the environment. Organic cotton production combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.
There is no evidence of a health benefit in wearing/using textiles made with organic cotton. However, there are significant differences between organic and conventional cotton when it comes to how the cotton is grown (without toxic or persistent chemicals) – which impacts our land, water and the farmers who grow the cotton.
Brands and retailers marketing products as organic should be willing and able to provide proof of any product claims. Standards, verified by an independent third-party, are often the best way to provide that proof. There are a number of standards to support a number of claims. The Organic Content Standard (OCS) can be used to support organic content claims, and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the most widely used standard to support comprehensive organic product claims from farm to finished garment.
Organic cotton is grown in a way that uses methods and materials that are environment-friendly. A big effort in the organic movement is to use growing systems that replenish and maintain soil fertility and build biologically diverse agriculture. Organic cotton uses far less water too. The main benefit of organic cotton is that the crops aren’t treated with pesticides, insecticides, and Genetically Modified Organisms. Organic cotton helps in the preservation of the environment.
Based on data from the 2015/16 growing season, a total of 107,980 mt of organic cotton fiber was produced by 18 countries. This is compared to 21 million mt of “conventional” cotton – meaning that, at present, approximately 0.51% of global cotton production is organic.
There are a number of other cotton sustainability initiatives, each with a slightly different approach, geography and focus area. For example, Fairtrade prioritizes trade, organizational structures, and community development; Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) focuses on livelihood improvement in Africa; and the Better Cotton Initiative aims to make the mainstream better. A more detailed description of some of the other cotton sustainability initiatives can be found in the Textile Exchange’s annual Organic Cotton Market Report.
Cotton is relatively drought tolerant however it still requires a lot of water. Furthermore, cotton is highly vulnerable to pest attack in certain geographies and climates. In conventional systems, it is therefore treated with large quantities of chemical pesticides and irrigation water. A Life Cycle Assessment showed that by producing cotton organically, negative impacts on the environment are drastically reduced.
In conventional cotton production, synthetic inputs (such as pesticides and fertilizers) are used to maximize yields and to manage pests, weeds, and disease. These inputs are prohibited in organic production and, instead, farmers use a variety of natural techniques. These most commonly include, but are by no means limited to; crop rotation, intercropping, minimum tillage, animal and green manures, composting, and biodynamic herbal or mineral powders.
Figures for 2014/15 reveal that over 92.16% of global organic cotton production stems from just five countries. India is by far the largest producer, accounting for 66.90% of global production. China is the second largest global producer, accounting for 11.69% of production, followed by Turkey at 6.49%, Kyrgyzstan at 4.93% and the USA at 2.16%.
After seeing a 10 percent rise in production of organic cotton in 2013/14, 2014/15 saw a slight downturn of 3.8 percent. However, the production looks set to increase again in 2017/18 when a number of in-conversion programs in India reach certification. Demand for organic cotton is without doubt growing and more and more brands have made commitments to use 100 percent organic cotton. This growth in demand will create opportunities to improve organic cotton supply chains and incentivize farmers to increase production.
Yes, organic cotton is definitely better than conventional cotton. Chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are being used very intensively during the cotton grow cycle, and some residue always stays in the fabric fibers which is not the case with organic cotton. So, yes, the products made from organic cotton are better for human skin.
Independent inspection and certification legitimately back up organic claims. All farms and factories that undergo inspection and certification are independently checked against strict criteria meaning that shoppers can rest assured that products carrying the GOTS and/or Soil Association logos really are organic.
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.