Humans have been using cotton for thousands of years for a reason. It’s soft, breathable, low maintenance, and comfortable. Yet, the unfortunate truth is that cotton is very harmful to the environment. It uses a significant amount of natural resources like water while simultaneously being responsible for a great deal of pollution.
Luckily, there’s an alternative. A fabric with cotton’s favorable properties but without its harmful downside. Let us introduce you to organic cotton! This alternative to regular cotton has all the same upsides and isn’t as harmful to the environment.
But could it be too good to be true? Let’s find out!
We’re crazy about organic cotton. Check out our recommendations for the best organic cotton sweatpants to lounge in.
What is Organic Cotton Fabric?
Cotton is undeniably the most popular fabric in the world and has been for decades. Organic cotton, on the other hand, is the new kid on the block. So if you’re wondering what is organic cotton, you’re not alone.
Organic cotton is similar to regular cotton except that its production uses natural components. Cotton plantations use fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides, and irrigation. Organic cotton is grown without synthetic chemicals or harmful farming techniques like intensive farming. Instead, farmers use eco-friendly methods like natural compost, growing cover crops, using less water, supporting beneficial insects, and more. The production is designed to have a low impact on the environment.
How Is Organic Cotton Made?
Regular cotton is harvested, cleaned until you only have pure cotton fibers, and then taken to a textile production facility. The cotton is then carded to form long strands, then spun to create yarn. Organic cotton is made similarly, except that the cotton plants can only be grown from non-GMO seeds without synthetic chemicals, like fertilizers on the plants and dyes on the fibers.
Organic cotton products require third-party certifications like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), National Organic Program (NOP), Soil Association Certification (SAC), and OEKO-TEX Standard 100. These certifications prove that the crop was produced sustainably and the company treats the workers humanely.
Pros and Cons Of Organic Cotton
Just like regular cotton, organic cotton has its pros and cons. Let’s address a few of these.
Benefits of organic cotton
No harmful chemicals
Organically grown cotton uses natural pesticides and fertilizers to produce the plants and non-toxic chemicals during the treatment and bleaching of the cotton fibers.
Good for biodiversity
Organic cotton positively impacts biodiversity by removing hazardous chemicals from the production process. Such chemicals kill insects and plants that can benefit the land, lead to deforestation and habitat loss, and pollute waterways that plant and animal life rely on. Further, organic cotton uses fewer resources like water and is grown on sustainable farms. This is why organic cotton has been shown to encourage biodiversity in various species like rodents, earthworms, pollinators, and more.
Organic cotton clothing is made without synthetic pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers. Those chemicals don’t just do their job and then disappear. They often seep into the soil, waterways, and air. Regular cotton is responsible for 220 million tons of CO2 emitted every year. Organic cotton, in comparison, emits 50% less CO2, has 62% less energy demand, a 97% reduction in aquatic eutrophication, and a 98% reduction in water pollution.
Organic cotton isn’t just biodegradable. It’s also compostable. Thanks to removing artificial chemicals from the production process, organic cotton products can break down entirely. You can even use them as compost material. Neat!
Organic cotton is biodegradable and compostable.
Reduces water usage
Have you ever heard of the Aral Sea? It was once the 4th largest lake in the world before drying up in the 2010s thanks to cotton production. This isn’t an isolated case. Cotton uses over 250 billion tons of water annually. It takes 10,000 liters of water to produce just 1 kilogram of cotton. To produce just one T-shirt takes about 2,700 liters. It takes 2,457 fewer liters to make one organic cotton t-shirt. It has a 91% lower water consumption.
Sustainable cotton isn’t just better for the environment. It’s better for farmers as well. Unfortunately, 44% of farmers yearly suffer from illnesses caused by pesticide poisoning. Chemicals like glyphosate, which causes burns, vomiting, and diarrhea, are commonplace in conventional cotton farming. Over 740,000 cases of unintentional pesticides are reported every year. Organic cotton not only supports safer working conditions thanks to the lack of chemicals but also removes the use of GMOs, a significant issue for farmers.
For farmers, sustainable agriculture provides financial support, like ethical lending. Traditional farming techniques improve soil health, allowing small farmers to benefit from their land for longer.
Organic cotton is an efficient alternative to regular cotton. Not only does it save money by removing or reducing the cost of chemicals, water, and seeds, but it also allows farmers to use their land for other crops, giving them multiple sources of income.
Many of the top brands and manufacturers in the sustainable fashion sector have made transparency in the supply chain a core part of their business. This is why there are more certifications for sustainable fabrics than conventional and synthetic fabrics. Organic cotton is no exception.
Good for your skin
We’ve been hammering home how organic cotton is chemical free and how that impacts the environment and workers, but there’s another benefit. There are thousands of chemicals used to make regular cotton, meaning a great deal of them will remain on cotton clothing. Organic cotton doesn’t have that issue. There’s a significantly reduced chance of your skin reacting to the clothes. This is why organic cotton is great for kids, intimate clothing, and sensitive skin.
Organic cotton goes through a less intensive production process and uses no chemicals. This ends up making the fibers stronger and more durable. It’s more durable than natural fibers like linen.
Organic cotton isn’t harvested by machines. You’d think this doesn’t impact the feel of the resulting fabric, but it does. Machine harvesters tend to break or damage cotton, and chemicals can cause the fibers to fray or break. Organic cotton is typically handpicked and is processed free of toxins. As such, its fibers are long, which increases softness, gentleness, and smoothness.
Disadvantages of Organic Cotton
Sustainable products are typically more costly than conventional products. Much more time and care is put into the production of organic cotton, and that translates to higher costs. Organic cotton can be anywhere between 20-30% more expensive than regular cotton. For some people, that’s more than they can afford. Sustainable fashion has a big problem of seeming more like a luxury than a necessity.
Organic cotton uses significantly less water than conventional cotton. That’s great, except that cotton is an incredibly thirsty crop. So even though organic cotton uses considerably less water than traditional cotton, it still uses more water than other crops.
A significant disadvantage of organic cotton is that it yields 25% less than conventional cotton. Organic farmers would need to plant more to produce the same amount of fabric as traditional cotton. This means using more land, water, and energy. Increasing the production of organic cotton could lead to deforestation.
The best aspects of eco-friendly cotton can also kneecap it. Growing the plant, hand harvesting it, and then turning it into yarn without the help of machines, GMO seeds, and chemicals leads to long production. It’s great for ensuring that your product is safe for everyone. Still, it can add up the cost of the entire process and, ultimately, the final product. Even if the price is kept down, the turnover will be lower than conventional cotton. Smaller manufacturers and brands might choose another fabric to work with.
Fewer organic cotton farms
Sustainable fashion aims to replace traditional and harmful materials with eco-friendly fabrics. Well, the organic cotton sector is far from reaching that goal. Out of all the cotton production in the world, organic cotton is responsible for just 1%. The industry’s expansion is very slow, giving brands and customers an easier time buying regular cotton.
Chances are you don’t know any sustainable fabric certifications. It’s not just you—most people don’t. Certifications are the best way to ensure that the product is truly sustainable. This is a big reason people are willing to shell out money for eco-friendly clothes. Without knowing the certificates, you might be spending money on clothing that’s no different from unsustainable garments.
Organic Cotton Vs. Cotton
From the surface, traditional and organic cotton seem similar, but the differences start from the ground up. Conventional cotton is grown in single-crop farms using artificial chemicals and a lot of water. It’s one of the most water-intensive crops in the world, which is a big deal on a planet dealing with water stress. This type of cotton uses a lot of chemicals which end up polluting the environment and poisoning farmers. Cotton uses 16% of the world’s insecticides and 25% of its pesticides despite only covering 2.5% of agricultural land.
Those chemicals stay on the fabrics throughout production and are absorbed when worn. Single-crop farms cause soil depletion—when the soil’s fertility has been removed—and erosion due to the lack of plant cover. This means that farmers have to move on from depleted to fertile lands leading to deforestation.
Organic cotton production is done differently. Firstly, the farms use crop rotation, allowing the soil to retain and recover its fertility. Organic cotton farmers can theoretically plant on the same plot of land for an extended period. The healthier the soil, the more carbon dioxide is captured and stored. This is partly why organic cotton produces 46% fewer carbon emissions. Secondly, organic cotton significantly reduces water usage when contrasted with traditional cotton.
Organic cotton has an all-natural production process which means it uses organic fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, and dyes. It’s, therefore, safer for farmers, factory workers, and customers. That’s not all. Sustainable cotton is not a heavy pollutant like regular cotton, so it’s also safer for the environment. It’s not surprising, then, that organic cotton has a much smaller carbon footprint.
Is Organic Cotton Fabric Sustainable & Eco-Friendly?
Organic cotton fabric’s production is significantly more eco-friendly than its standard counterpart. It extracts less precious resources from the environment, pollutes soil and water sources to a much smaller extent, has a smaller carbon footprint, and regenerates soil.
Certified organic cotton is grown on sustainable farms and sent to eco-friendly factories for manufacturing. Renewable energy, wastewater treatment, and non-toxic materials are essential requirements for certification.
Cotton has a high degradation rate compared to synthetic fibers like polyester, which has the slowest degradation rate of textiles. However, while degrading, cotton releases toxins into the soil. Organic cotton doesn’t have this issue, as toxins are never used. This makes it safer for the soil and the organisms that live in it.
Like with other sustainable fabrics, the answer to the question, ‘Is organic cotton sustainable?’ is ‘Yes, but not completely.’ It’ll be a long time before we get a fabric that is 100% sustainable, but for now, fabrics like organic cotton are how we do our part to help protect the planet.
Organic Cotton Clothing Brands
Now let’s get to the exciting part; shopping! If you’re looking to add organic cotton fashion items, here are a few good brands you can depend on:
- Patagonia: This brand has been in the organic cotton game for over two decades. Its cotton clothing ranges from basic wear to activewear and is 100% organic. Patagonia is very transparent about its process and takes part in charity.
- Threads 4 Thought: It uses multiple certified factories for its GOTS-certified cotton to make basics and activewear for men, women, and children.
- Pact: Its GOTS-certified cotton clothing isn’t just flattering. It’s also manufactured in Fair Trade factories. Versatility is the name of the game, as Pact makes clothing for all genders and ages, as well as bedding.
- prAna: This brand uses all organic cotton for its soft and durable products. prAna has activewear, loungewear, and basic collections.
Organic Cotton Certifications: What To Look For
Not all cotton that claims to be organic is. To make sure that you’re buying genuine organic cotton, look out for these certifications:
GOTS-certified organic cotton fabric is made following standards that protect the environment and workers. To qualify for a GOTS certification means that the entire production was made without harmful chemicals or practices.
This certification was created to prevent manufacturers from labeling their fabric as organic without proper auditing. Essentially, it’s impossible to greenwash with a GOTS certification. Customers are encouraged to look for it while shopping for organic cotton products.
Oeko-Tex organic cotton fabric has been tested for harmful chemicals after manufacture. Organizations like Oeko-Tex ensure that organic materials are free from hundreds of dangerous chemicals used to manufacture fabrics.
As great as GOTS is, it can’t ensure that harmful chemicals are kept away from organic cotton fibers until the end of the manufacturing process. This is where Oeko-Tex comes in. Products with Oeko-Tex certifications have been tested thoroughly to ensure they’re chemical-free.
Organic cotton is hailed as a solution to fashion’s environmental problems, and it’s easy to see why. It’s all-natural, which means a lower environmental impact, biodegradability, safer products, and healthier farmers. In addition to buying fewer clothes, sustainable fabrics like organic cotton play an essential role in reducing fashion’s impact on global warming and climate change.
Want to start off your organic cotton wardrobe? Check out our recommendations for the best organic cotton pajamas.
Organic Cotton FAQs
Is Organic Cotton Really Better?
Yes, organic cotton is better than conventional cotton in almost every category.
Does Organic Cotton Shrink in the Wash?
Organic cotton may shrink in the wash a bit as it hasn’t been treated with chemicals.
Does 100% Organic Cotton Wrinkle?
Yes, 100% organic cotton is prone to wrinkling as it’s not treated with anti-wrinkle chemicals.
Why Is Organic Cotton So Expensive?
Organic cotton is expensive because it takes more time and labor to harvest and manufacture, which drives up the cost.
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Stella - Writer
Stella is a writer and mother from Thika, Kenya.
Her love for nature and the beautiful Kenyan outdoors has inspired Stella to consciously make an effort to lead a more sustainable, eco-friendly lifestyle.