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Cotton: the fabric that spans closets, continents, and centuries. Chances are you are wearing cotton right now. Does it matter if it is organically grown? Suston investigates.

First, what exactly is cotton and how is it made?

Cotton is a fiber that grows protectively around the seeds of the cotton plant. To make cotton fabric, the fluffy fiber (called the boll) is separated from the seeds, and then aligned, spun, and woven. The cotton plant also has other uses, producing everything from cottonseed oil, paper, and even sausage casings.

What is the difference between cotton and organic cotton?

The difference between cotton and organic cotton lies in production. The majority of conventionally grown cotton uses genetically modified seed to produce more fiber per crop. Organic cotton, on the other hand, is strictly unmodified, and must be grown without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.

What gives a cotton fabric the label of “organic”?

There is no way to tell if something is organic just by touch or sight, so labels are important – they will indicate whether a product has been certified organic by an independent third-party.

But from here it gets a bit complicated, as not all countries regulate organic textile labeling the same. The U.S., for example, recognizes organic cotton if the crop meets certain federal (USDA/NOP) standards for growing and harvesting plants, while the European Union’s Ecolabel requires a percentage of organic cotton or integrated pest management (IPM) cotton. Many other countries have no legal basis for labeling textiles “organic” whatsoever.

Fortunately, independent accreditors like the Organic Content Standard (OCS) and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) can determine which cottons have been grown and processed in an organic manner, and products containing a certain percentage of certified textile can be affixed with a consumer-facing label.

How do these standards work?

The OCS works at the farm level with approved national certification authorities to verify that a final product contains mostly organically grown and harvested plants. GOTS, on the other hand, ensures production meets environmental and social criteria. Moreover, with GOTS, integrity is maintained throughout the entire post-harvest processing, including among other things spinning, knitting, weaving and the otherwise especially polluting dyeing and finishing stages of production.

A US-made cotton shirt with a GOTS label, for example, is made up of at least 95% cotton* from a certified organic farm and its fibers are cut, woven and treated with nontoxic chemicals. All this is guaranteed to be done under fair, safe and transparent working conditions.

Is organic cotton better for the environment?

Cotton production used about 2.78% of the world’s farmable land in 61 countries in 2017/18 – that’s nearly 32 million hectares (320,000 km2) of land dedicated to growing cotton. Growing conventional cotton requires lots of water, pesticides, and other chemicals to keep the crop productive and costs low.

Organic cotton, on the other hand, uses far less fresh water (91% reduction) and energy overall (62% reduction), and its carbon footprint is nearly half of conventionally grown cotton.*

Is there a downside to organic?

As organic cotton is not genetically modified, organic crops have lower yields per plant and as such require more land than conventional crops. Also, due to the extra costs associated with the added diligence and production costs of organic standards, organic cotton tends to be more expensive. This means both smaller companies and farms may not be able to afford certification.


Source: Textile Exchange

* Clothing must contain 95% (grade 1) or 70% (grade 2) organic certified natural fibres. The certification assures compliance with ecological and social criteria of the GOTS. Key provisions include the ban on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO), highly hazardous chemicals (such as azo dyes and formaldehyde), and child labour based on the ILO norms.

Cristiana Voinov
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