Cotton has long been the most widely used fibre in the textile industry, and it’s something we encounter every day. As the world and consumers make the move towards more sustainable practices, it’s easy to see why organic cotton is experiencing the surge in popularity it is. But is organic cotton as good as it seems?
Organic cotton certainly has benefits over traditional cotton, such as being more sustainable and not using any harsh chemicals or pesticides, but it does take more space and water to grow than traditional cotton does.
Which type of cotton is best is a nuanced subject that can’t be decided on a single factor. So, let’s look a little deeper into organic cotton, what it does right, and what its shortcomings are.
Why and How Is It Better for the Environment?
We know that organic cotton is better for the environment than cotton produced in the conventional why, but why exactly is that?
On the outside, it’s hard to tell the difference between the finished product, but there are distinct differences between organic and conventional cotton that show why exactly organic cotton is the better choice for the environment.
The four biggest benefits organic cotton has for environmental sustainability are:
- Fewer chemicals and pesticides
- Worker health
Chemicals and Pesticides
Pesticides and other chemicals used in conventional farming have so many downsides that it’s incredible that they are still used so often. While pesticides keep insects from destroying crops and affecting the bottom line for farmers, they just aren’t worth the trouble they cause.
Pesticides can leach into the soil and groundwater, and affect the health of field workers - pesticide tolerance has become a real problem.
Because organic cotton doesn’t use these harsh pesticides or chemicals, it has a 46% reduction in global warming potential and a 70% reduction in acidification potential. Acidification is the leading cause of acid rain.
Organic cotton is more sustainable for quite a few reasons, but the biggest is that it doesn’t damage the land, so that land can be grown on again and again.
Harsh farming practices and the use of fertilisers and pesticides can decimate farmland, making it all but useless after a few growing cycles. With organic cotton, this isn’t the case, and that land can be used be repeatedly.
We’ve mentioned the use of harsh chemicals quite a bit, but the truth is that the use of these chemicals has more downsides than you might realise. Many dyes and other treatments used in traditional cotton can degrade the fibres of the fabric, which means it won’t last as long as organic cotton.
Organic cotton is more durable than conventional cotton because it hasn’t been treated with anything to weaken the fibres of the fabric.
Many fertilisers and pesticides are harmful not just to the cotton itself, but to the health of those working in the cotton fields. Organic cotton is much safer for workers to farm than traditionally grown cotton.
It isn’t even just the workers, who are in close contact with the pesticides and fertilisers, that are affected. Once these chemicals seep into the groundwater, they can be accidentally ingested by those living near the cotton fields. Since organic cotton skips these chemicals, it’s safer for everyone involved.
Is All Organic Cotton the Same?
Although organic cotton is better for the environment, it isn’t all created equally.
Sustainable growing practices are significant steps to reduce global warming and other negative effects on the Earth. Still, it’s also important that those sustainable practices carry over to the treatment of the cotton after it’s grown.
Products made from organic cotton are usually marked with something on the label designating them as organic, but this just means that they were grown organically. The manufacturing process, including dyeing, could be done in a non-sustainable fashion and the seller would still be able to call the product organic because of the way it was grown.
This is why, when you’re looking at organic cotton products to buy, it’s important to choose a product that is GOTS (Global organic textile standard) certified.
Products that are GOTS certified are produced sustainably from growth, through manufacturing, all the way up to when they are sold. GOTS certified products, like Mey, are made in such a way that they are better for the environment every step of the way, not just the growing process.
What Is the Difference Between Organic and Normal Cotton?
Normal cotton and organic cotton seem very similar, but the differences lie in how they are grown and manufactured.
The biggest differences between organic and normal cotton are:
- Pesticides/fertilisers: Organic cotton has not been treated with any pesticides or fertilisers during the growing process.
- Genetic modification: Normal cotton can be genetically modified, making it a GMO. Organic cotton is never genetically modified.
We’ve discussed how organic cotton isn’t grown with the use of any pesticides or fertilisers, but unlike conventional cotton, organic cotton is also not genetically modified. GMOs have a terrible wrap in the public eye, and it’s important for many consumers to only purchase products that aren’t GMO.
If you want completely natural cotton, then go with organic cotton. That isn’t to say that GMO cotton is completely terrible, though. GMO crops have the potential to be easier to grow, use less water, and have higher yields, which help offset some of the negative environmental impacts of conventional cotton.
One of the biggest benefits of GMO cotton has over organic cotton is that GMO cotton takes less land to grow than organic cotton. This helps to outweigh how destructive conventional cotton growing can be on farmland.
- Organic cotton is more environmentally sustainable, safer for workers, and doesn’t have as much of an effect on global warming as conventional cotton.
- Not all organic cotton is the same. For the most environmentally friendly organic cotton, make sure to get cotton that is GOTS certified. This means it is not only grown in a natural way, but the manufacturing and dyeing processes are also organic.
- Organic cotton is never genetically modified. GMO products do have some upsides over organic products, but if you’re looking for natural cotton, go organic.