Why Choose Organic Cotton?
Cotton is the most commonly used non-synthetic fabric in the world. It’s a natural fiber which means it’s breathable and soft on the skin. It’s also easy to work with, making it a favorite amongst sewists.
The problem with cotton is the process involved in getting it from a seed to your new favorite garment. Conventionally grown cotton has a highly intensive growing and manufacturing process which is both damaging to the environment and the people involved in producing it.
Cotton is a thirsty plant. In fact, it’s the thirstiest crop in the world. It’s been estimated that 713 gallons (2700 liters) of water are required to make one cotton shirt.
If you’re having trouble getting your head around what that figure means – it’s enough drinking water to last a person almost three years.
This water is delivered via irrigation from local waterways, making that water unavailable to wildlife, native plants, and the local community.
Cotton uses the highest amount of pesticides of any crop in the world. Even though cotton makes up only 2.5% of total worldwide agriculture, it uses a staggering 16% of all pesticides.
The pesticides used in the cotton industry are some of the most hazardous on the market. They’re poisonous to the growers, the soil, and the surrounding environment.
These pesticides contaminate the groundwater causing run-off into local waterways and then find their way into the local community’s drinking water.
The developing nations that typically grow cotton are often already facing hardship and poverty. The hazardous pesticides they’re forced to work with to earn a living create additional serious health issues and even birth defects. They affect the community’s drinking water and the local waterways on which they rely.
Most of the cotton pickers are children who are not only exposed to poisonous chemicals but are usually not paid a fair wage. They sacrifice their education for a few cents at the end of the day to help their families.
Adult cotton producers also tend to be paid well below the minimum wage for their country (and the minimum wage is often not enough to live on). Many are also forced to work extremely long hours in poor or dangerous working conditions.
How is organic cotton different?
Organic farming practices place enormous emphasis on soil health and the health of the farmers and local communities.
Organic cotton isn’t grown as a monoculture but allows interplanting with different crops.
This has a number of benefits:
- Better soil health as the nutrients aren’t depleted so quickly by one single crop
- It encourages beneficial insects which aid pollination and keep unwanted pests at bay
- The additional crops allow farmers to have more than one income as they’re able to sell (or eat) the other crops they’re growing.
The soil is further built up by the addition of organic fertilizers such as compost and animal manure. This replenishes the nutrients in the soil and encourages a strong ecosystem of beneficial microorganisms.
Crop rotation is practiced to ensure the soil is allowed to rest and regenerate instead of needing to pump it full of synthetic fertilizers.
Organic cotton farmers are paid a fair wage, work shorter hours, and have safer working conditions. The organic cotton industry does not rely on forced or child labor, neither does it require pregnant women to be exposed to toxic chemicals.
Organic cotton also uses less water. Whereas conventionally grown cotton relies on irrigation, taking water from the local waterways, organic cotton uses rainwater. Proper soil management also ensures better water retention.
Are there any downsides to using organic cotton?
Because organic cotton has lower yields, it requires more space (more land clearing) to produce the same amount of cotton as conventionally grown.
This might not be a problem, though, if our consumer habits change. Do you or your child really need twenty t-shirts or is five enough?
The other thing to look out for when buying clothing made from organic cotton is the manufacturing process. Just because the cotton was grown organically doesn’t mean the manufacturing process was ethical or ecologically sound.
Unfortunately, some organic cotton is still dyed using chemically intensive processes and made into clothing in factories with unsavory working conditions. Companies are still able to label their products as made with organic cotton, because it’s only the cotton fibers themselves that need to be organic.
When you’re looking to buy an organic cotton item, ask what certified organic fabric the company uses. “Global Organic Textile Standard” (GOTs) is my favorite, a non-profit organization that ensures the growing conditions of the original cotton fiber and the manufacturing process.
Delving into the ethics of the companies you buy from will also tell you whether the product they’re trying to sell you is really sustainable, or if they’re just greenwashing.
Although organic cotton isn’t perfect, the differences to the environment and the growers are vast. It’s certainly a step in the right direction when choosing new clothing or sewing fabric.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to us as consumers to make conscious decisions when we buy. By shopping more thoughtfully and less impulsively, we can reduce our impact on both the environment and our wallet.