What is the difference between conventional cotton and organic cotton? Buying organic can often seem more expensive… is it really worth it?
With around 26 million tons of the iconic fluffy balls produced last year, cotton is the most used natural fibre in the global textile industry - with polyester in overall first place.
But not all cottons are created equal - and they are not treated equally subsequently either.
Not only are a slew of harmful chemicals used at each stage of growing, processing, dyeing and finishing conventional cotton, there are plenty of other reasons why organic cotton is a great choice.
Here are FIVE great reasons to buy organic:
1. Save Water
Cotton is a notoriously thirsty crop with one kilogram of cotton - the equivalent to a pair of jeans and a t-shirt - taking as much as 20,000 litres of water to produce. It would take a person 25 years to drink that amount.
On an island surrounded by water where it rains all the time, water may not seem a particularly precious resource, but the parts of the world that tend to grow cotton frequently experience high levels of water stress.
In fact a 2020 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN estimated 3.2 billion people live in agricultural areas with high to very high water shortages or scarcity. That’s almost half of the global population!
95% of water used to grow organic cotton is from rainwater and water stored in the soil.
Textile Exchange, The Life Cycle Assessment of Organic Cotton Fiber, 2014
So the 20,000 litres of water estimated for one outfit - multiplied thousands of times per farm, depending on how many kilos of cotton it produces - is pretty significant.
In good news, organic cotton is grown using techniques that significantly reduce the amount of water required. According to industry body Textile Exchange, analysis showed that organic cotton reduced water consumption from the likes of lakes, rivers and reservoirs by 91% compared to conventionally grown cotton.
2. Fight Climate Change
Organic farmers use natural methods to grow cotton, not fossil-fuel based fertilisers - so in the first instance they are not depleting the earth’s finite natural resources.
Secondly, they are not contributing to the release of nitrous oxide - a greenhouse gas associated with these synthetic fertilisers.
In case you didn’t know, N₂O is up to 300 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and agriculture is the main source of its emissions.
Analysis from the Textile Exchange suggests 62% less energy is used in the production of organic cotton and the total global warming potential is 46% lower than that of conventional cotton.
By working with nature and creating land which is more biodiverse, farmers build healthy soils which actually store carbon, helping in the fight against climate change.
3. Anyone for Cancer..?
Conventional cotton requires more pesticides than any other crop in the world.
According to a 2017 report by the Pesticide Action Network, it is responsible for 16% of all insecticides sold - despite accounting for just 2.4% of the world’s arable land.
The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 250,000 people die every year due to pesticide poisoning - a large proportion of which is used on cotton crops. Pesticide poisoning is also thought to cause three million chronic health problems each year.
The production of conventional cotton creates up to five times more water pollution than organic cotton.
Water Footprint Network, Towards Sustainable Water Use in the Cotton Supply Chain, 2016
And that doesn’t touch on the wildlife that suffers as a result of the run-off from fields, water pollution or from ingesting chemicals - needless to say, there are plenty of casualties here too.
Organic farmers use natural methods like crop rotation to control pests and diseases, rather than man-made pesticides, which can damage ecosystems, poison waterways and endanger workers.
And, with more stringent certifications like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), once the cotton has been produced there are no chemical nasties and synthetic dyes used in the garment factories either - protecting those workers and their surrounding environment.
4. Put Nature (and Farmers) Back in the Driving Seat
Remember learning about crop rotation systems at school? Well, the theory is still as good today as it was during the British Agricultural Revolution.
Organic farmers grow other produce alongside cotton. This breaks up the crop monoculture adding vital nutrients back into the soil and reducing the need for water and fertiliser.
It also attracts different types of parasites, insects and birds, among other things, which help with pest control.
The increased biodiversity not only has an environmental benefit, but it also provides a plentiful and diverse food supply for the farmers’ families and communities.
And because the farms are not reliant on one crop alone for their income it means they are more resilient to extreme weather conditions and to global market fluctuations affording farmers and their families better, more stable livelihoods.
300,000 - the number of farmers estimated to have committed suicide in India since 1995, the majority debt-related.
India's National Crime Records Bureau
Additionally, organic cotton produces its own seeds each year with farmers harvesting from the plants producing the most bountiful crop.
Over time they develop seeds that have adapted to suit their soil conditions and climate.
This is in contrast to 90% of cotton, which is grown from genetically modified cotton seed. Not only is it an expensive annual outlay but it sees farmers beholden to agrochemical companies for expensive pesticide and fertiliser to make them grow.
These plants are unable to produce seeds that can be planted - meaning farmers have to pay out more money each year.
Needless to say, all organic cotton certifications ban GM seed.
5. Your Clothes Last Longer (and are Softer!)
When it comes to high quality, long-lasting cotton, the most important factor is the length of the fibre - or staple length - produced by the plant.
A 2019 study looking at cotton grown in India suggests the average staple length of organic cotton is higher than that of conventional cotton.
Longer staple length gives greater uniformity and strength, and results in a finer yarn. And what’s more it also absorbs dyes better than shorter fibres. In other words, organic cotton is usually softer, more durable, and less likely to fade.
Basically, you’re getting better value for money - and a product that won’t break down.
Head of Wardrobe Final Thought...
When you buy organic cotton you are investing in water conservation, cleaner air, healthier soil, better livelihoods for farmers and workers and a product that is superior.
The price for organic cotton is sometimes, but not always, higher - however since you will need to buy fewer garments over time, the cost implication should not result in a significant disparity.
Choose well for yourself and your family, demand more from the brands you give your money to, and invest in the kind of world you want to see around you.