Is Organic Cotton Really Better Than Regular Cotton?
Cotton is one of the most used materials for clothes, and it is the most common natural clothing fabric. If we want to be more eco-conscious it’s very important that we make the right decision when purchasing cotton.
There’s a tendency in the sustainable fashion movement to glorify everything that’s organic and to just trust our instincts that something that’s organic and natural must be better for the environment.
And that’s exactly the case with cotton as well. But sadly, organic cotton is not perfect, and it doesn’t solve all our problems. Here’s everything you need to know to make an informed decision the next time you shop.
Both organic and conventional cotton have their own pros and cons, and it is very hard to measure which is the absolute best. Growing organic cotton is a more sustainable process while regular cotton is more effective in terms of the use of land and water.
So sadly, I won’t be able to tell you THE ANSWER. I sat down to write a post about why organic cotton is way superior to conventional cotton, then I realized it’s not all black and white.
But I think it’s important to get the whole picture and not just the parts that fit my “sustainable agenda”. So I tell you what I learned so you could become a well-informed planeteer. Then I let you make your own decisions. Deal?
The Pros of Organic Cotton
First of all, what is organic cotton? Organic cotton is grown without toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Also, organic cotton crops can’t be genetically modified.
They use natural pesticides and insecticides to protect the plant from insects, fungi, and weeds. And they also use natural ways to nurture the soil when growing organic cotton. So they basically keep the crop away from any man-made evil and let it grow as naturally as possible.
This is very cool, and it is a lot more respectful way of doing things than the current “let all the junk destroy the environment while we get rich” attitude. And it has tons of positive impacts not only on the planet but on your precious skin as well.
Obviously, a smaller amount of toxic chemicals dumped into nature is already a huge pro of organic cotton.
Regular cotton farming uses huge amounts of pesticides and insecticides globally. More than 10% of all the world’s pesticides and insecticides to be more concrete. And these are some pretty damn harsh chemicals we’re talking about. They destroy the environment and leave a big mark on biodiversity.
Additionally, they can be harmful to our health as well. Some of the compounds found in these pesticides are likely, some are probable, and some are known carcinogens, according to the World Health Organization.
And they are not only affecting cotton workers on the other side of the world you can just block out of your consciousness, but also you, your family, your friends, and basically everyone who wears clothes.
People who live close to conventional cotton farms are even less fortunate because their drinking water might be contaminated too, and they may also experience some respiratory problems.
More Sustainable Production
The Textile Exchange has studied the life cycle of organic cotton compared to regular cotton. This study showed that organic cotton production from planting the seed to baling cotton is way more sustainable than producing regular cotton.
Growing cotton organically reduces cotton’s negative impact on the environment. Organic cotton production doesn’t mess up water quality and biodiversity as much as conventional cotton. Furthermore, it contributes less to acidification and global warming.
This is why we love organic cotton. And honestly, if it was only about less global warming or more, we would have a much easier time deciding between the two types of cotton.
But sadly, this question is not as black and white as we think. There might be other factors that make organic cotton less sustainable that I’m going to talk about in the “cons” section.
Dying (only GOTS!)
The Textile Exchange study only compared the production of organic and conventional cotton, but it didn’t look into the processing of raw cotton and the production of the textile.
But it’s important to look into that as well because dying is the process that uses the most and harshest chemicals. Dying cotton with toxic chemicals can be very dangerous and harmful for the workers, and it also produces tons of wastewater and muddy the waters of aquatic life.
The organic dying method is, again, more eco-friendly than the non-organic. But we have to make attention because not every organic cotton garment is dyed organically! A brand that says it sells organic cotton, might only refer to the organic growing method, but the post-production might not be organic at all.
So that’s why you should always buy organic cotton that’s GOTS certified because it guarantees that the item has only been processed organically from seed to finished product.
All the toxic dyes, pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers we just talked about, don’t disappear by the time the clothes arrive at the store. They only get dirtier for that matter. And this stuff can be absorbed by your skin if you don’t wash them off before the first wear.
So obviously, GOTS certified organic cotton that uses a smaller amount of chemicals is better for your skin and for your health.
In fact, organic cotton is so safe, it’s one of the best materials for your skin. It’s hypoallergenic, so it won’t cause irritation for people with skin issues and sensitiveness, and people with asthma are safe to wear it too. Organic cotton is also the safest and comfiest choice for babies as well as people who have awfully sensitive skin.
This is one of the main reasons the organic clothing movement has become so popular among people who eat mostly organic food. If you don’t want to eat fruits and vegetables that have been treated with pesticides, you should probably avoid wearing them, and absorbing them through your biggest organ.
Organic cotton also seems to be more durable than regular cotton. Regular cotton fibers might be damaged by the chemicals which results in a lower quality textile. Organic cotton fibers are longer and they have a stronger connection with each other.
This makes organic cotton clothes more durable and better quality in general.
Due to these long fibers, organic cotton clothes feel better on your skin. They appear to be smoother and comfier.
But honestly, I’m not sure if it’s true or not. I have organic cotton T-shirts that are definitely smoother than a regular cotton T-shirt. But again, I have seen cotton shirts too that are smooth.
There’s a slight possibility that it’s only a placebo effect. You probably pay more for an organic T-shirt than for a regular one so you might end up thinking it’s very smooth and comfy to rationalize those extra bucks spent.
The Cons of Organic Cotton
So far, organic cotton sounds awesome, and you don’t understand why would anyone buy regular cotton ever again. It is less toxic, better for your skin, and seems to be better for the environment. But as I’ve said before, and I say it again, sustainability is not always black or white.
Organic cotton doesn’t solve all our problems yet, we should know that. Organic cotton has some disadvantages, and you need to know about those too before you can make an informed decision.
Those pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers are being used for a reason. They protect and nourish the plant. And since the pesticides and insecticides are more toxic, they kill off more pests and are able to protect the plant more.
Cotton fertilizers are manufactured and perfected for decades to give the plant the exact nutrients it needs. As a result, conventional cotton is more effective.
Smaller Yield – Requires More Land
Conventional cotton is more effective in terms of quantities. The amount of non-organic cotton you can produce on the same land is going to be higher than the amount of organic cotton.
This is the consequence of the more effective (or too effective) pesticides but it’s also because non-organic crops are genetically modified to produce more cotton per plant.
According to WWF, in the biggest cotton producer countries (India, US, Pakistan, China) 2.4% of the farmable land is already used for growing cotton. Opting for a less effective method such as organic cotton would require 25% more land. That’s something we don’t have much space for.
So if we want to compare the sustainability of organic cotton and regular cotton, we might add the environmental cost of deforestation it can cause. And with deforestation, there comes global warming, biodiversity loss, acidification, and all the other stuff we once thought is going to lessen with organic cotton farming.
If we consider the big picture, it becomes really hard to tell which one is more sustainable after all.
Requires More Water
If our organic cotton crops are less effective, it also means we’re watering the same amount of plants for less cotton. So organic cotton drinks more water than regular cotton.
I’m sure you already knew this, but cotton is a super thirsty crop. That’s probably cotton’s biggest weakness.
For only 1 kilogram of cotton, we have to use around 20,000 liters of water. Just so you can get a picture of how much is that actually, that’s enough water to fill a standard-size swimming pool! And what is 1 kilogram of cotton is enough for? One pair of jeans and a T-shirt.
And this is only the regular cotton we’re talking about. Organic cotton uses two swimming pools of water for the same outfit!
Natural Pesticides Can Be Harmful Too
Organic cotton farmers use natural pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers. Even though they are organic, they can be harmful too. Some of these might be even more toxic than synthetic ones. Just because something’s natural (comes from nature) doesn’t mean it’s entirely harmless.
Take manure, for example. It’s a natural fertilizer used by humans for thousands of years. But it’s still animal poop which can certainly be harmful to the workers’ health.
There are some other factors too that are not necessarily pros, nor cons of organic cotton. But these are some interesting things to know if we want to decide which is better: organic or non-organic cotton.
Greenwashing in and of itself is a huge problem.
There’s a big buzz around organic cotton, and fashion brands, especially fast fashion brands try to take a slice of the organic clothing market too. Which is not the problem, it can be a good thing too.
The problem is when they try to pass something as organic and sustainable which actually isn’t. And if you regularly shop fast fashion you might feel a little better about yourself when you notice that little “organic” sign on the label, but you might have zero ideas what organic actually means.
Organic cotton doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and it isn’t genetically modified. What I realized from this post so far, is all of the advantages of organic cotton come from the fewer amount of toxic chemicals it uses. But all of its disadvantages come from it not being genetically modified.
Genetically modifying crops is not as terrible as you might think. This is something we’ve been doing for thousands of years.
If you look at how an original banana or watermelon looked like, it has almost nothing to do with how it looks like today. Because we kept all the properties we liked and tried to eliminate the properties we didn’t like and evolved plants to our taste. It was just a far slower and less precise process.
GMO became such a negative word, you instantly think of a villain trying to suck out all the taste of strawberries. But if you call it biotechnology it sounds much cooler and more futuristic, isn’t it?
We could use genetic modification as a tool to make cotton (and any other) crops more effective, to make it grow a higher yield on the same size of land, and with a smaller amount of water. And we could even lower the need for pesticides and fertilizers (whether synthetic or organic).
Just because we had some issues with GM in the past (especially with one company: Monsanto), it doesn’t mean we should rule it out as a whole.
In the end, I think it’s really hard to tell if organic cotton is the most sustainable choice. Especially with all the conflicting info that I’ve found online, it looks like the different sides are all pushing their agenda and it’s very difficult to find out what the real numbers are.
I’m going to continue to prioritize buying organic cotton because I think the whole organic movement is coming from more of a “doing things better” attitude as opposed to the conventional “how do I make the most money of this” attitude. However, from now on, I’ll only buy GOTS-certified organic cotton so I can be sure it was dyed organically.
But I also want to look more into the sustainability of GM cotton. Is it going to save the planet from all the damage the fashion industry causes? Probably not. But it might help a little.
You know I prefer innovation over tradition, and being “natural”. Actually, there is a fabric I prefer over cotton (organic or not) which is semi-synthetic! Click to learn more about Why We Love Lyocell (and You Should Too!)
And finally, the most important thing I want you to remember is that your skin is your biggest organ so you better pay attention to what you put on it! It doesn’t matter if organic or not (but especially if thrifted!) always wash your clothes before wearing them the first time because they might be full of nasty stuff!