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Between greenwashing, sci-fi sounding materials, convoluted processes and an array of acronyms, it can be hard to see the wood through the trees when it comes to earth friendly fabrics.
Like we’ve done with cashmere, wool, fleece, vegan leather, and others, we’re going to pick our way through perhaps the most famous fabric in all of the sustainability circles: organic cotton.
Why organic cotton?
Because it actually is sustainable and has proven to be a legitimate alternative to its non-organic counterpart. Still, we want to know why organic cotton is sustainable and find out exactly how sustainable it is.
So pull on your big girl (or boy) biodegradable cotton pants and join us on our foray into one of our favorite fabrics.
Organic cotton is simply cotton grown in a way that doesn’t require the use of pesticides or toxic chemicals. The “organic” refers to the fact that all inputs come from the earth; no synthetic substances.
To replace chemicals, organic cotton farming relies on growing cover crops, applying organic fertilizers and compost, using beneficial insects, or opting for human labor for weed control.
Not only do these growing methods have a reduced impact on the environment, but many actually benefit it. Thus organic production systems produce crops that have zero persistent pesticide and fertilizer residues (better for us and the planet), and are known to help support soil fertility and increase biodiversity.
It’s also processed sans toxic chemicals, but with natural or biological methods and substances (including azo-free earth-safe dyes and chlorine-free bleaching).
One of the best ways to understand what organic cotton is is to look at what it is not. Nowhere is that distinction so clear than when compared to its own in-organic brother.
If you’ve been saying “OMG” about GMOs you may be surprised to find that one of the most popular genetically modified crops isn’t necessarily something that we put in our mouths… in fact, you might be wearing it right now.
Cotton is one of the top four genetically modified crops in the world. GMO cotton and conventionally grown cotton make up 95% of global cotton production, making their way into bedding, towels, clothing, and even processed foods.
So what’s the big deal? Cotton’s a natural material, right?
Well, cotton has earned a problematic nickname: the world’s “dirtiest crop.” It requires heavy amounts of pesticides — 80% of which are considered “moderately to highly hazardous” by the World Health Organization. It also uses some of the world’s most dangerous insecticides. Even though it only accounts for 2.5% of land in cultivation, it requires 24% of the insecticides sold worldwide.
We’ll put it this way, it takes one third of a pound of synthetic fertilizers to grow enough conventional cotton to make one t-shirt.
- Insecticides: bifenazate, imidacloprid, esfenvalerate, acetamiprid, abamectin, bifenthrin, thiamethoxam, propargite, buprofezin, thiamethoxam, fenpropathrin, novaluron, naled, dimethoate, diflubenzuron, fenpyroximate, pymetrozine, imidacloprid, methoxyfenozide, dicofol, pyriproxyfen, methomyl, chlorpyrifos, malathion, hexythiazox, flupyradifurone, aldicarb, phorate, dinotefuran, and the list goes on…
- Pesticides: fluometuron, pendimethalin, prometryn, aldicarb (super hazardous), acephate, phorate (super hazardous), cyfluthrin, glyphosate, MSMA, ethephon, endosulfan (super hazardous) tribufos, paraquat, and the list goes on…
- For scouring and washing: hydrogen peroxide, ethylenediamine tetra-acetate (EDTA), alkylphenol ethoxylate (APEO), chlorine
Fortunately, you can enjoy all of the positives of a cotton dress, without being weighed down by the pollution and exploitation it’s associated with. And for this, we have organic cotton to thank.
Still wondering why you should buy organic cotton? Look no further than the heavily reduced list of “chemicals” used in organic cotton production:
- Insecticides: copper sulfate, insecticidal soap
- Pesticides: crop rotation, natural predators, mixed cultivation, natural pesticides like neem spray, pyrethrum, and castor oil
- For scouring and washing: natural oils, potato starch
Essentially, it uses organic-approved pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides (which are significantly better from a health and environmental perspective). This means it supports better working conditions for cotton farmers (there’s actually even a question around the link between GMO cotton cultivation and farmer suicides in India).
At the processing level, there are none of the toxic chemicals (think: formaldehyde, heavy metals, flame retardants, softeners, ammonia) commonly found in conventional cotton.
Because organic cotton hasn’t been processed with harsh chemicals, it’s more durable than conventional cotton. It’s also better for those with sensitive skin, and really anyone who doesn’t want to absorb trace amounts of chemicals each and every wear.
Hemp is one of the highest (pun intended) rated fabrics around in terms of sustainability and it’s very similar to organic cotton in that it requires around 300 and 500 liters per 1 kg and doesn’t require pesticides and fertilizers to grow well.
It’s also another summery, breathable fabric, though one that’s a little less soft than cotton. That’s okay, though, because in turn, it’s faster drying and provides more UV protection.
Hemp lasts much longer than cotton (20-30 years compared to just 10 years). It’s actually more sustainable than organic cotton from a plant perspective. It grows faster, has an even smaller land-to-product-yield ratio, is naturally soil regenerative, and is a carbon negative raw material as it absorbs more CO2 than forests.
On the downside, no certification for organic hemp yet exists, meaning there is a lot more greenwashing when it comes to the practices used to grow and process it.
Linen is derived from the flax plant, and like hemp and organic cotton, it’s not water intensive and is grown without chemicals.
Linen fibers are shorter than both hemp and cotton, making it light and even more breathable, but less durable. For a summery ethical dress it’s great, but otherwise organic cotton will withstand everyday wear and tear better.
Semi-synthetic refers to cellulosic fibers, or those made by dissolving plant cellulose and plasticizing it into a soft fabric. This includes fabrics like bamboo, modal, and lyocell.
Softer (in a silky way, as opposed to cotton’s plush tactile quality) and stretchier than cotton, these trending “green” fabrics certainly have their merit (if processed correctly), but organic cotton reins superior.
First, it requires minimal water to grow and process. While requiring little water to grow is true of the bamboo and eucalyptus plant (which makes lyocell), they require a certain amount of water to process. Even the best semi-synthetic fabrics which are made using a closed-loop water recycling system only waste a reduced amount of water.
Second, these fabrics require some chemicals to break down the plant pulp. While these can be eco friendly solvents, they’re still less eco friendly than organic cotton, which requires none.
Polyester is an attractive alternative—depending on how you look at it.
First of all, polyester is durable and can withstand a lot of wear and tear (like that ‘90s windbreaker you just got from the thrift store). However, this durability is also an indication of how awful it is for the planet. It doesn’t break down in soil, is made of petroleum (usually virgin) and instead releases dangerous microplastics into the environment…
Then there’s the cost to consider. Polyester is cheaper, but the costs are picked up by the planet and the people who are involved with the chemicals required to process the fabric.
Sure, it’s moisture wicking and a better activewear alternative than cotton, but its cost is too high. The best bet here is to look for mostly cotton activewear with a little bit of polyester (ideally recycled) to give it that stretchy, moisture wicking quality necessary in workout clothing.
When you picture fields of the so-called “white gold,” you may be quick to think of them as inherently good for growers and the planet. But consider that the world produces around 25 million tons of cotton each year.
Suddenly all the following negative inputs start to add up.
Cotton is a Thirsty Crop:
This insane amount of water isn’t just from irrigation—it’s also from pesticides and inefficient water usage.
Organic Cotton Plays a Role in Regenerative Agriculture:
Traditional cotton yields a lot of earth-damaging chemical runoff. All those pesticides and fertilizers are contributing to global biodiversity loss, which is one of the most concerning planetary boundaries we just can’t afford to cross.
Insects are seeing the brunt of this, like butterflies and moths 58% decade-long decline in areas of mass agriculture.
Going beyond do-no-harm, organic cotton has a place in the growing field of regenerative agriculture because of its potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and actually improve biodiversity.
Regenerative agriculture can be used in agricultural systems that increase the amount of organic matter found in soil and create resilient ecosystems and farming communities.
The energy demands of organic cotton are also much lower (remember, fertilizers come from fossil fuels). A life cycle analysis found that the energy demand of organic cotton was 62% lower than conventional cotton.
We mentioned the potential association between GMO cotton and farmer suicides earlier, but here’s another shocking fact: when farmers do commit suicide, they commonly do so by swallowing the very pesticides they’re unable to pay off.
There’s a lot to unpack here. It’s both devastating and telling that the tool that supposedly supports these farmers’ livelihoods is in fact what ends their lives.
This also leads us to worry about all of the farmers who are exposed to these life-ending pesticides on a daily basis, even if they aren’t consuming them.
Organic Cotton is Farmer Friendly:
In addition to endangering flora and fauna, the pesticides and herbicides used for conventional cotton aren’t great for human health either.
Some of these pesticides have been associated with health conditions like chronic coughing, skin irritation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, loss of consciousness, and seizures. Long term exposure can cause depression and anxiety and has been associated with health-effects-of-pesticides/” target=”_blank”>several cancers.
Fortunately, organic cotton supports healthier working conditions by keeping GMOs, pesticides, and chemicals out of more than 350,033 hectares of land.
Many Farmers Receive Support for Organic Cotton:
It comes down to not just a farmer’s health, but their livelihoods, too.
Sustainable agriculture has been associated with ethical lending and microfinance opportunities that allows organic cotton farmers to escape the debt cycle brought on by needing to buy new seeds and chemicals every year.
Additionally, traditional techniques are more likely to be supported with organic cotton, as are locally-sourced biological inputs and seed varieties. This keeps the skills and knowledge transfer local, which allows farming families to pass down indigenous knowledge that is essential for resilience against climate change.
As with most things of higher quality and ethical merit, you’ll likely see a higher price tag when comparing organic cotton undies to those made with conventional cotton (or a polyester-cotton blend).
Organic cotton is more expensive because it takes more time and more hands-on labor. Instead of spraying chemicals x, y, and z over everything (including waterways, neighboring houses, etc.), it requires careful planning (and perhaps manual weeding).
It’s worth it for you as well, however, since the benefits of wearing organic cotton are greater than those of conventional cotton. While both light and breathable, organic cotton is softer and more durable (so your dollar lasts longer).
It’s also better for sensitive skin (or all skin, really) since there aren’t any toxins embedded in the fibers.
Before you shell out a premium price for some must-have organic cotton thermal pajamas (psst, winter is coming), be sure it’s legitimately organic. How? Third party certifications!
Yes, another acronym with Gs and Os. This one’s a good one though.
While not alone in doing so, this third-body certification is recognized as the toughest organic textile standard because, in addition to ensuring that the cotton (or other textile) has been grown organically, it must also:
- Contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibers
- Be processed without bleach, dye, formaldehyde, and other toxic chemical inputs
- Be produced in a mill that has strict environmental and social standards (i.e. one that minimizes waste, has full records of energy and water consumption, promotes freely chosen employment, provides living wages,and ensures safe and hygienic working conditions)
- Be free of azo dyes that release carcinogenic compounds
GOTS organic cotton is certainly the OG in the world of organic cotton, but there are some other certifications to look for when shopping sustainably:
The Organic Content Standard is a third-party certification that can be applied to any non-food product that contains at least 95% organic material. Unlike GOTS, it doesn’t include any standards around social or environmental issues, but it is the next most stringent in terms of sustainable farming practices.
BCI works with cotton farmers to provide training on more sustainable practices. The BCI logo means that a producer has met certain criteria in relation to pesticides, fertilizer, water efficiency, soil health, and biodiversity, as well as demonstrated that they are committed to improvement.
However, the logo can be used if just 10% of the cotton is BCI-approved cotton. Additionally, the cotton can be genetically modified, fair prices for farmers aren’t guaranteed, and some pesticides are still allowed.
This relatively new certification scheme is for products that meet some of the highest standards ever set for animal welfare, soil health, and farmworker fairness. Some of our favorite brands have been involved with the Regenerative Organic Alliance and the certification (like Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia).
While they don’t certify the entire process (like GOTS), you may also see cotton that has been grown organically and is certified by organizations like the USDA National Organic Standard, ECOCERT, and the Organic Trade Association (OTA).
If it hasn’t been made clear already, we LOVE organic cotton, and we’re not the only ones.
- Patagonia: Patagonia’s been using organic cotton since 1996. Now, 100% of their cotton is organic. They’re even piloting a Regenerative Organic Certification which you can learn more about in their short documentary Dirt Cheap.
- Pact: Pact reduces their impact on our planet by using mostly GOTS-certified organic cotton, which they call “Earth’s Favorite Fiber”.
- The Classic T Shirt Company: This brand uses only GOTS-certified organic cotton to make their fair trade t-shirts.
- Coyuchi: Coyuchi also only uses GOTS (and mostly Fairtrade) certified organic cotton.
- Organic Basics: In addition to other sustainable fabrics, OB uses GOTS-certified organic cotton that’s been hand-picked on the coast of the Aegean Sea and is considered to be some of the softest on the planet.
- prAna: Another outdoor brand that makes sure all their cotton is organic, prAna is known for their super soft and durable cotton activewear.
- Threads 4 Thought: In addition to other sustainable fabrics, T4T proudly uses GOTS-certified organic cotton.
That’s only a tiny thread in the tapestry of all the brands using organic cotton these days. Just about every single sustainable fashion brand (and even some that are otherwise unsustainable) features organic cotton somewhere in their lineup.
It’s like Mother Earth created one of the most sustainable fabrics for keeping us cool, dry and happily wiggling our toes in comfy socks.
It’s easy to see why organic cotton is important and how it contributes to healthier wearers, farmers, communities, ecosystems, and the planet as a whole.
Next time you find yourself in the market for a new t-shirt, pause for a moment and look at the label. Since, organic cotton is now common and easy to spot there’s no reason not to choose it. So let’s all help make the fashion industry a little cleaner by cutting out the world’s dirtiest crop.
Speaking of help, we need yours. Please consider giving this article a share to help us spread the word about how much of a no-brainer organic cotton is.
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