The pros and cons of organic cotton
Behind the seams: Organic cotton is great for the environment. Not so fast!
Words— Frank And Oak staff
We’re continuing to expand our use of organic cotton in many of the styles we offer. “Organic” is likely a term you’ve heard bandied about a lot in recent years, but in the spirit of transparency, we first want to outline exactly what “organic” means to us, to you, to the world.
The use of the word organic in clothing (as well as in food) generally means that the product or materials were grown without synthetic additives or pesticides and wasn’t genetically modified. Conventional cotton production has resulted in reduced soil fertility, loss of biodiversity, and life-threatening health problems to those who have been exposed repeatedly to toxic chemicals used in pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides.
As reported by The Guardian, white cotton covers just 2.5% of the planet’s total agricultural area, it uses 7% of all pesticides and 16% of all insecticides with entire chemical companies making neurotoxic formulas just to support cotton. Conventional cotton relies on these chemicals for production.
These strong chemicals are subsequently released into the environment and pollute and distort ecosystems. These chemicals are also said to have harmful effects on farmers' health.
Environmentally speaking, organic cotton is said to be the better cotton–replenishing and maintaining soil fertility and promoting biologically diverse agriculture.
The Textile Exchange (a global non-profit that works to drive industry change towards responsible fibres and production) published a life cycle assessment (LSA) for organic cotton to find the total environmental inputs and outputs linked to organic cotton farming from seed planting to cotton baling. The study found that organic farming (before actual production) was “significantly more environmentally friendly”. It also found that organic cotton farming is less likely to contribute to global warming, acidification, and eutrophication than conventional cotton farming.
That’s something we can all feel good about right? Organic cotton is definitely a step in the right direction.
Ah, but the switch to organic cotton isn’t as cut and dry as it appears. It’s far more nuanced.
Is organic cotton really more environmentally friendly?
The flip side from other reports suggests that organic cotton can’t keep up with the demand for it. Organic cotton can actually use up more resources than conventionally grown cotton and it could have a greater impact on the environment.
Conventional cotton has a higher yield than organic cotton (i.e. a single conventional cotton plant produces more fibre than an organic one as it has been genetically engineered this way). Organic cotton comes from plants which have not been genetically modified so to harvest as much fibre as conventional cotton plants, a farmer will have to plant more organic cotton.
This means using more land, which means using more water and resources.
Cotton Inc. reports that it takes 1,098 litres of water to grow enough cotton to make a t-shirt from a conventional cotton plant. To make the same t-shirt from organic cotton you would need over double that – 2,500 litres of water1. One study found that the average organic yield of cotton was 25% lower than conventional.
Conventional cotton, as well as organic, requires an enormous amount of water. One kilogram from cotton fibre (the amount you need to make a pair of jeans) needs between 7,000 and 29,000 litres of water. An alarming number in a world of increased water scarcity.
So what are we all to do? Wear paper bags? The important thing is to have the information in front of you and make an informed decision about the kinds of materials you choose to purchase. Maybe wear your t-shirts a little bit longer, wash them less (Do your jeans smell? No? You don't need to wash them.), and hang them to dry. Just being a little more mindful and aware of what you support is the key.
1.“Sustainable Fashion: Past, Present and Future” by Jennifer Farley Gordon & Colleen Hill