Organic cotton, what’s up with that?

In the What’s Up With That series we dig deep into common fashion industry concepts. This time we look at organic cotton – organic in this sense meaning “production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals”. This crop has stirred up a lot of dust, because some research shows that in order to grow it needs more resources than ‘conventional’ cotton. So are you making a better choice by buying an organic cotton t-shirt? Emma found out it can be, depending on where the cotton is produced, and also on your own assessment criteria.

Organic. As soon as I see this word, I am inclined to trust whatever it is that it’s written on. It gives me the feeling of something clean, green, harmless and perhaps a little tree-hugging… At least, I assume it’s always better than the conventional alternative. But then again, a little research often shows that it isn’t that simple. Is organic cotton a good alternative to conventional cotton, or should we search for different types of fabric? Time to take a closer look.

Why do we need an alternative?
Well, mainly because we people love cotton! It has always been the most popular fabric and the demand for cotton it still growing. And when people can make money, human beings tend to get endlessly creative. In this case, that creativity translates into chemical pesticides, fertilisers, genetic manipulation and mono-crop culture. To illustrate, cotton production is accountable for 24 percent of worldwide use of pesticides. All to produce even more (and therefore cheaper) cotton. Oh, if only we would use our creativity to create world peace…

Cotton, a thirsty crop
Chemicals are not the only environmental hazard in cotton production. Cotton plants are thirsty little bastards. They can grow just about everywhere, but in wet areas the harvest is most productive. Therefore, in dry areas, water from irrigation complements rainwater. The use of water in the production processes therefore varies from ‘only’ 4.000 litres per kilo in China to 22.000 litres in India. In many dry areas, clean drinking water is not easily available. On top of that, processing and cleaning that water requires a lot of energy, and ironically sometimes this is done with chemicals.

So that’s the conventional stuff. What about organic cotton?
Organic or not, cotton needs water to grow. And while organic farming tells us something about the use of chemicals, it says nothing about the used amount of water or land. In fact, research has shown that for the production of organic cotton requires even more water than conventional cotton. Because organic cotton plants are not genetically modified, they yield a lower amount of fibres than conventional cotton. Additionally, crop rotation requirements cause growers to harvest even less. Which means: more plants, more land, and more water. Three times more, according to some sources.

Ouch. So much for clean and green, right?!
Of course, my blog would not be the same without contradicting information. Other sources tell us that organic cotton actually needs less water than conventional cotton. Because of crop rotation, the soil maintains its nutrients and is better able to hold water. Initially, organic cotton may need more water, but after two cycles, that need has lessened. On top of that, most organic cotton is rain-fed and not irrigated.

Concluding, is organic cotton a good alternative?
Many sources say many different things, but in terms of water use, organic cotton does not always seem to be better. As said, the region where it’s grown is a more important indicator for water use than whether it is organic or not. And unfortunately, as I wrote in my last blog, the fashion industry is hardly ever transparent about the origin of raw materials.

On the bright side, in terms of chemicals there is no doubt that organic cotton is a safe choice. The chemical-free production process is not only healthier for the soil it’s growing on, but also for the people growing it.

Our conclusion: organic cotton can certainly be a good choice for a brand and for you as a consumer. That is, if a brand is transparent about where it’s from and how it’s processed. And ensures that water use is reduced in any way possible.

So now we have raw organic cotton…
…but before it ends up as the cotton in a t-shirt, there’s still many steps ahead. Steps that might be harmful to the environment all over again. For example, the cotton may very well be treated with chemical dye, which also uses a lot of water. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) does pay attention to this and certifies brands that do the same. So wherever possible, look for this certification.

Own it, lease it
Besides organic cotton, looking into other materials is definitely worth a try. Hemp for example is said to be a weed that requires way less water and energy. Even better would be getting as most as possible out of existing fabrics, instead of producing new ones. Denim brand Mud Jeans lets you lease a pair of jeans for a monthly fee and they recycle your old jeans into new ones. The jeans are made with 60% organic cotton and 40% recycled fabrics. I mean, who owns their clothes these days?