Cotton – we all wear it. It’s by far the most known fabric and worn by everyone around the world. It accounts for a quarter of the world’s fibre production. We have all been made to believe that organic cotton is better for the environment than regular cotton. However, is that really the truth?
Cotton is the number one profitable non-food crop. The production of conventional cotton provides an income for approximately 250 million people worldwide, especially in developing countries and it’s estimated that half of all our textiles are made out of it. Conventional cotton is often genetically modified to grow more crops with less resources which admittedly sounds good, but production methods are said to be environmentally unstable and harmful due to using synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals in the process. These steps outweigh the resources saved through genetic modification of the crops by far.
Organic cotton is cotton that is produced without using any toxic or persistent synthetic chemicals, including pesticides and fertilizers, or genetically modified seeds, therefore supporting biodiversity and sustaining the health of soils, our environment and the farmers. In order to grow, organic cotton relies on ecological processes and natural cycles adapted to local conditions. Organic cotton is grown in rotation with other crops which replenish the soil and it strictly requires a third-party certification, for example from GOTS.
The top five countries producing organic cotton are India, Tanzania, Pakistan, China and Turkey with many other countries like Brazil, Uganda and even the USA achieving strong growth in recent years. While organic cotton production only occupies 3% of global cotton production right now it’s continuing to grow rapidly in recent years as consumer demand is growing.
After gaining some general knowledge about the two versions of cotton production we’ve asked ourselves: What are the pros and cons? What other differences are there, other than the use of toxic chemicals?
The production method to grow cotton requires a great amount of water. Approximately 2,700 liters of water are needed to produce and manufacture a single t-shirt made of cotton. According to WWF that amount of water is enough to sustain one person for 900 days. Crazy, isn’t it? You could survive a zombie apocalypse with all the shirts hanging in your closet!
While some claim that conventional cotton needs less water than organic cotton due to it being genetically modified it is important to note that 75%-80% of the organic cotton production is rainfed, therefore reducing the pressure on local water resources in comparison to conventional cotton. Researchers found that organic cotton consumes 180 cubic metres of water per tonne, compared to 2,120 cubic metres per tonne of conventional cotton.
The use of chemicals producing conventional cotton is not only harmful to the environment but also to the health of the workers. Cotton farmers are exposed to toxic synthetic chemicals that are severely affecting their health status. What many don’t know, mental health is an important factor, too. Farmers have to deal with losing crops because of bad weather conditions. You’d expect good years of harvests to compensate for worse harvests, however, plentiful harvests have created issues for farmers up to the point where many take their own lives. In 2014, for example, India recorded a high number of harvests that in turn led to the prices dropping severely while production costs for the farmers were rising. Many farmers are in high debt and are struggling to keep afloat which makes them feel that there is no other way than committing suicide and leaving their families behind.
Organic cotton production on the other hand tries to ensure fairness and helps countries to achieve Sustainable Development Goals. These goals are an inter-governmental agreement between the U.N. and 193 countries providing a structure made of 17 goals in sustainable development, including social, economic and environmental aspects. With high principles of health, fairness and ecology organic cotton producers attract people to stay on the land rather than moving to the city, therefore slowing down urban migration.
There are many advantages for traders and retailers as well. Organic cotton fibre ensures a high traceability because of the strict requirements and certification and contributes to ecological and social sustainability making it possible for them to grow their own credibility.
Even we as consumers can do good by consuming organic cotton, for ourselves and for others. Not only is organic cotton made in a healthier process, it also follows clear standards. By buying products made from organic cotton we can have a positive impact on the farmers’ lives and the environment.