Is organic cotton kinder for the environment than non-organic?

Seventy percent of people we asked said yes: organic cotton is kinder for the environment than conventional cotton. However, less than 15% regularly checked whether their cotton products were organically sourced before buying.

Why the disconnect? With over 90% of respondents underestimating how much better organic cotton can be for the environment we wondered whether it’s due to a knowledge gap? Or is it more complicated than that? Many highlighted that the label ‘organic cotton’ only tells half the story. What about the dyes, fastenings, manufacturing process and working conditions? It isn’t really a simple yes/no question.

Fashion and textile is a highly polluting industry. It accounts for around 10% of global carbon emissions, and nearly 20% of wastewater. A cotton t-shirt alone takes up to 2,700 litres of water to produce. This is enough water for one person to drink for 900 days. Faced with these scary stats, we looked at cotton production further to understand whether organic cotton is a kinder alternative.

Where does cotton come from?

So, where does cotton come from? It’s a plant, usually grown in tropical and subtropical regions, and is one of the largest non-food crops. The fluffy fibre is picked and then spun into thread. Once woven it becomes a soft, breathable material, and makes up around half of the world’s textiles.

Why does cotton get a bad press?

The production of conventional cotton has a number of problems. Here are some of them:

  • Heavy reliance on chemicals, such as pesticides and insecticides: Cotton production uses around 2.5% of the world’s arable land, and yet accounts for 16% of all insecticides sold globally. Sadly, these chemicals have a negative impact on health, water usage and soil quality.
  • Harmful to health: Many of the chemicals used in conventional cotton production are toxic, and often end up in lakes and rivers. Although they have been diluted to ‘acceptable levels’ if this water is used for drinking, it can result in chronic low-level exposure to the toxins, leading to a range of health problems. The toxins cannot be metabolised, and can accumulate through the food chain, leading to further problems. This causes thousands of unintentional deaths every year.
  • Requires a huge amount of water: The World Economic Forum has identified water scarcity as one of the largest global risks in the next 10 years. Cotton production accounts for 3% of global freshwater withdrawal, and is often grown in water scarce regions. The water is used for both growing the crops and diluting the large amounts of pesticides and fertilisers used. The large amounts of water required cannot be supplied by rainfall alone. Irrigation from rivers and lakes is therefore necessary to make up the shortfall, affecting local ecosystems and communities.
  • Poor soil quality and erosion Large amounts of cotton can be produced quickly through conventional methods. However, this places stress on the soil. Why is this a problem? Poor soil quality requires more chemicals and more water to maintain the high yields. Nutrients are also more likely to be washed away into nearby lakes and rivers when the soil quality is bad.

How is organic cotton different?

Unlike conventional cotton, organic cotton is grown without toxic pesticides and genetically modified seeds. Instead, natural methods are used to nurture the soil and protect the crops from pests and disease. The benefit? It is ...

Kinder for the environment

  • No nasty chemicals: Organic farming avoids toxic pesticides and fertilisers, helping to protect the soil quality, and reduce the pollution of lakes, rivers and drinking water.
  • Less water used: A staggering 91% less water is required for growing organic cotton compared to conventional cotton. Why? Organic cotton is usually grown in rain-fed areas. This means farmers can use the rainwater to feed their crops, rather than diverting water from other sources. Organic cotton farmers use multiple techniques to reduce water usage, including rainwater harvesting, looking after their soil and using seed varieties that are drought resistant. The avoidance of toxic chemicals also helps save water, as it removes the requirement for large volumes of water as a dilutant.
  • Healthier soil: Sustainable farming practices such as crop rotation (i.e. alternating a cotton and vegetable crop) and composting are used to increase soil quality. Why is this important? When soil is healthy it acts like a sponge, soaking up water and holding it for longer during droughts. This is great for the crops, and requires less water overall.

Kinder for the farmers

  • Organic cotton farmers receive a better price for their cotton. And by growing other crops alongside their cotton, they receive another source of income and greater stability. Plus, the avoidance of nasty chemicals reduces possible risks to their health, and the health of those that live nearby.

Kinder for our skin

  • Organic cotton tends to feel softer and is more durable, as the fibres aren’t broken down by the chemicals used in the growing of conventional cotton.

Is the lower yield of organic cotton a problem?

A typical organic yield is 25% lower than that of conventional cotton. Does this make conventional cotton better? Whilst ‘more cotton, more quickly’ sounds attractive, the intense farming required for conventional cotton can have a damaging effect. Perhaps more isn’t always better? If we could evolve our buying habits, and buy better, but less, we wouldn’t need the higher yields.

What about the dyes and manufacturing process?

So far we’ve focused on cotton farming. But, the environmental impact goes beyond that. Once picked the cotton is spun into thread, bleached, dyed and turned into garments, often with a trim or fastening. At every stage of this process, there’s the potential for a negative environmental impact. ‘Organic Cotton’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the dyes and manufacturing process are organic themselves. There are however standards that check the process from start to finish, with GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) being regarded as the ‘gold standard’. GOTS checks the whole process, and includes both ecological and social (worker rights) criteria.

What’s our conclusion? Is organic kinder?

The farming and production of conventional cotton isn’t sustainable. We believe organic cotton provides a better, kinder alternative. Especially when it has GOTS certification, ensuring the whole process is organic from start to finish. We know though that organic cotton isn’t perfect. It still requires resources to grow. The absolute kindest alternative? To buy second hand :-)

How are we responding at Ducky Zebra?

All of our clothes are made with GOTS certified organic cotton. They are made to a high quality, and designed to last and pass from sibling to sibling and friend to friend. Sizing is generous, with features like turn-up cuffs to increase longevity. By putting these steps in place we hope children can wear our clothes for longer, and/or enjoy them as hand me downs. We also hope it puts less pressure on parents to constantly buy new clothes.

What are your thoughts? We’d love to know what you think of organic cotton.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published