Did you know that cotton is the most commonly used fibre on the planet? This fluffy, white plant is used in most textiles all over the world! Because of its malleability and strength, it is no wonder cotton is such a popular fibre.
But just because it isn’t synthetic, doesn’t mean cotton is all sunshine and daisies; as with most materials and products produced on a mass scale, cotton also carries with it a dark history and shocking present reality - which organic cotton, amongst some awesome alternatives are trying to remedy.
But it's important to tread carefully - as with terms like 'sustainable' or 'eco-friendly', the phrase ‘organic cotton’ can actually be thrown around without any legal certification (unlike the food business), so it is wise to know your fibres.
You might be wondering what are the reasons that a material is considered organic? What’s the difference between regular cotton and organic cotton? Why do I think is organic better? And what’s the deal with recycled cotton? How about some cool innovative alternatives that might even be environmentally friendlier than any sort of cotton?
The sources that were used to write this article can be found at the bottom of this page.
Unlike the food you buy, your clothing doesn’t need an ingredients label - if they did, the label would probably be longer than the garment itself! Did you know that there are 8,000 different types of synthetic chemicals used in the fashion industry that manufacturers don’t have to disclose?1 Something as seemingly simple as a white cotton T-shirt could be hiding an incredibly long chemical ingredient list.
In cotton production, chemicals are used in every step of the process. In the growing of cotton, that in today’s world has cash-crop status as the most widely farmed crop, pesticides are used in vast quantities to ensure the harvest of cotton retains a high yield.
This amount is so high that regular cotton accounts for roughly ¼ of all insecticides used worldwide.2, 3
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© Coralie Boon @thula_art V1
Not only do these pesticides make their way through the plant and into the fibres to later be extracted, they also permeate the soil, water and even air around where cotton is grown - not to mention the people.
Uzbekistan is one of the largest cotton producers in the world. Since chemicals were first introduced to cotton farming 50 years ago, these same pesticides have been found in the country’s land, air and drinking water. Many of the chemicals that are still sanctioned in the country are so toxic that they were banned under the previous Soviet government.
© David Beatty/ AP in Slavery News Weekly, 2017
Those that farm industrial cotton are consequently exposed to harsh chemicals on a regular basis - with effects such as headaches, vomiting, breathing problems and seizures, eventually often leading to death 4. What’s worse, the cotton industry is a large employer of children who are on the front line of health issues from this toxicity.5
This doesn’t just stop in the growing of regular cotton. As with other textile industries like leather production, further chemical softeners are used to soften, clean and separate the fibres for commercial use. Disconcerting thought: these chemicals stay on the fibers and the end product.6 With sweat and body heat absorption of these chemicals (often including ammonia and formaldehyde) into your skin is accelerated - just because you aren’t the one spraying the cotton with pesticides in the fields doesn’t mean you are out of harm's way as a consumer.
In comparison to this, the farming of organic cotton forgoes prioritizing yield above all else and does not use harmful chemicals to keep insects and weeds away. For thousands of years, the way cotton was grown depended on natural agricultural processes and weeds extracted by the farmer's hand and nothing but water (often just from rainfall) fed to them.
This is what organic cotton emulates. No toxic chemicals seep into the soil, other plants (think of the bees!), air and water systems - instead farmers farm cotton if the land is appropriate for cotton, creating the ideal natural environment for the crop to flourish itself.7
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Shop organic cotton jeans from Kings of Indigo »
Lack of toxic run-off in these areas also consequently encourages biodiversity and a natural environment instead of chemically blocking off the land for the sole purpose of cotton growth.
Chemicals are also not used later on in the manufacturing process. The end result is material that consists of purely spun fibers; breathable and safe for your skin - no fears of chemical absorption here! 8
Again, because the farming of regular cotton is such a massive industry, it has fallen prey to mass mechanisation to allow for farming to take place as efficiently as possible.
From planting seeds to harvesting, it is machines instead of people that undertake these activities. Once ready to harvest, the fluffy cotton clumps at the top of the plant are ripped out mechanically for processing. Because this particular part of the process is not undertaken by people, the quality of cotton harvested cannot be examined, resulting in different grades of quality all being mixed together.
© Knitting Views Bangladesh / 2019.
This results in the overall end product mixing plants that have grown well and those that haven’t leading to a lower end quality mark. Additionally, often due to the brute strength of the harvesting machinery ripping the cotton out of the soil, many of the cotton fibres break, resulting in a harsher texture.
This harshness from rough harvest is then remedied through the use of chemical softeners in a dismal cause-and-effect. Cotton harvested by a machine simply cannot properly assess the quality of the cotton and more often than not, tears out every crop and mixes them in harvest.
This results in even more machinery needed to clean and sort the fibres, tearing them even further. For an assured assessment of how ‘ready’ each plant is for harvest and a more gentle plucking from its stem, human hands and eyes are still the superior solution for less broken fibres and thus a softer and less processed end result.9
On the other hand, organic farming processes are far less machine oriented. This both means that farming practices are more financially viable to those in poorer areas (where most cotton is produced) as large-scale machinery doesn’t need to be purchased, and that the act of harvesting can instead provide jobs to the local population.
As the cotton is assessed by human hands and eyes, a differentiated grade of quality is far easier to achieve; with different qualities of fibre being sorted into different areas. This means that you can be more certain of the quality of what you are wearing and also how long it will last.
Additionally, because they are being pulled out my hand, a lot less dirt and accompanying vegetal matter ends up in the material and later needs to be sifted through. As well as this, human hands are far gentler than those of a machine, so the cotton fibres are far less prone to breakage and scratchy texture - meaning softer fabrics that will last longer in your closet.
© Efrem Lukatsky/ AP. Uzbek students picking cotton in 2001
However, despite the cotton being picked by hand and thus of a higher quality, this quality at times does not extend to those harvesting. In fact, according to the Cotton Campaign (a non-profit human rights & labour organisation), cotton picking in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is often a case of forced low-skilled labour, often employing children pulled out of schools.
When buying organic cotton, it's important to be aware of the use of organic certifications that take fair labour into account, not just the quality of the plant.
Genetically modified crops have long been touted as the future of farming. On the surface, who doesn’t want a crop that has a gene to repel pests itself and grow to be twice the size? But the reality of GMO’s has been far from positive.
The main selling point of GM cotton was that farmers who would typically have to buy pesticides would no longer have to and at the same time, consistently have a high yield due to the crop being built to resist anything that would naturally get in its way.
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Shop organic cotton tops from Armedangels »
But what has actually happened is large-scale crop failure. Despite these crops having a gene inserted to repel pests, it was only one targeted group of pests. Nature doesn’t work as mechanically as the scientists who were developing GM crops assumed, and the void created by the absence of this one group led to it being filled by another - at the end of the day the crops were destroyed either way.10
On top of this, the targeted pests have also grown accustomed to the crops and have been able to overcome the repulsion. Because pests arrived when they were told they weren’t, farmers had to spend money on expensive pesticides on top of the expensive GM seeds that they had purchased.11
This has developed a perfect storm of consequences with some of the most severe being massive farmer debt. This has led to a humanitarian crisis throughout places in rural India with farmers suffering immense financial instability as a direct result of GM crop failure.
And yes, most non-organic cotton is GMO or ‘bt’ cotton. In the US, up to 96% of cotton crop is GM, and in India, the largest cotton producing nation in the world, the number is still staggering at 90%.12 Despite being a so-called ‘failed experiment’, the GM lobby is incredibly strong because of the income generated in the repeat purchasing of GM seeds as well as connected purchasing of necessary pesticides and insecticides - because of this, it's still going dominating the cotton market.
Organically grown cotton and its associated values does not support GM crops. The very concept of scientifically manipulating nature’s symbiosis and potentially disrupting it runs against the core principles of organic farming and the priority of working together with nature to produce a high quality product.
With increased public interest in consuming organically however, combined with the widespread failure of GM crops, organic cotton is taking up an ever wider position in the global market. In India alone, government mandated ‘chemical free’ zones and projects supporting the availability of organic seed are helping organic, non-gmo cotton become more and more popular.
Shop this GOTS certified organic cotton t-shirt from PHYNE »
We all know the sad reality that water shortages are rampant all over the world and that a significant amount of people do not have daily access to clean drinking water. What if I told you that an estimated 3% of all drinking water on the planet (that’s a LOT), doesn’t go to people who need it as life-sustaining drinking water but instead to the multi-million dollar industry of farmed cotton.13 Did you know that 1 regular cotton T-shirt takes 2,700 litres of water to make - that’s enough water for you to drink enough for nearly 3 years! 14
© Coralie Boon @thula_art V2
Not only this, but because of a lack of soil rotation, industrially farmed soil is often incredibly arid and lacking in minerals leading to water run-off instead of acting like a sponge. This leads to even more chemical fertilizers to try and remedy the exhausted soil that is constantly kept active.
Organic cotton on the other hand is grown using principles of crop rotation - very literally rotating which crop is grown in each field so that the soil does not get too exhausted growing one plant, with interchanging crops using up and placing different minerals in the soil. Variety and working with the cycles and systems of nature is the focus to maintain biodiversity.
Non-organic cotton uses vast irrigation systems to make up for lack of soil quality, whereas organic cotton uses natural rain irrigation and the better quality soil acts more as a sponge for water instead of a surface; this results in the water staying in the soil and therefore plants for longer instead of running off. 91% less water is used in farming organic cotton!15
Of course, as with most fabrics, recycling threads of existing materials is also a solution. In the case of cotton, these recycled threads can either be obtained pre-consumer or post-consumer.
Shop recycled cotton items like this sweater from Thinking Mu »
Most people understand recycling more in the sense of post-consumer (for example in the recycling of plastic bottles), but for cotton, it’s recycling is easier to undertake in the pre-consumer stage. This means that off-cuts of yarn and pieces of fabric discarded in the process of cutting and manufacturing clothing is what can easily be shredded into a malleable fibre.
In the case of post-consumer fabric, the process of shredding into a spun fibre is far more difficult as there has already been a lot of tension on the fibres in their lifetime. On the whole however, because of the re-spinning process, recycled cotton often needs to be mixed with other fibres in order to be useful and improve its strength and uniformity.
Continue reading the article below this video.
© Mud Jeans 2018
Overall, recycling cotton can greatly reduce water and energy consumption as it naturally doesn’t require the same amounts to grow virgin cotton. It also diverts textile waste from landfills and inevitable burning.
However, the end composition of the recycled fibre and material is of a lower quality and the product will simply not last as long as the fibre has become short and broken. Most of the time - if a clothing item is labelled as recycled cotton, there is no more than 30% of recycled cotton fibre in it. Despite it not being of immense value in the clothing industry, recycled cotton is often used in non-clothing items such as housing insulation or cleaning mops which is still fantastic as it diverts the material from just ending up in a landfill with one use! 16
As you can see, there is substantial difference in the creation of an organic cotton t-shirt as opposed to one made from regular cotton; organic and recycled cotton do have less of an impact on the planet and people surrounding the product.
In lieu of this however, unlike organic food, organic clothing is not legally monitored. In other words, there is nothing stopping anyone from stating that their clothing uses organic cotton even though it doesn’t.
As a result of this, it is important to be very mindful of your purchases as well as what certifications you discover. Although there is no worldwide protection of the simple term ‘organic cotton’, there are several certified organisations that can issue a trustworthy certification of organic fabrics.
© Coralie Boon @thula_art V3
As you can see from this image, organic cotton - despite its positives in comparison to regular cotton, still occupies a middle ground in terms of impact on the planet.
Alongside keeping your eyes peeled for organic certifications, there are also some alternatives to cotton that have a much lower footprint and are so akin to cotton fabric, you can hardly tell the difference! I'll let you know all about these beautiful options below.
Of course, nothing is perfect, and it’s always better to really inform yourself about the product’s origins before committing to a purchase. After all, it's important to shop compassionately, as little as possible. But always vegan, fair and as sustainable as you can when you do - which is where we are trying to help you.
If you are curious about these certifications and you'd like to learn more about their criteria and where they fall short, we have a helpful and critical guide on the 20+ most seen labels and certifications.
Some labels carry the GOTS certification icon of a t-shirt in a green sphere which infers that GOTS has acted as a third party certification system for the clothing brand to ensure its high quality standards.
In order to be GOTS certified, the item must contain 95% organic fibres, not be treated with harsh chemicals, have used non-toxic dyes, and have been produced in a factory that enforces strict social and environmental standards. There is an additional certification of pieces made with organic fibres which must contain at least 70% organic material.17
GOTS differs from OCS mainly in that it also covers fibres and processing claims, so any potential chemical inputs would be picked up in their criteria. Additionally, criteria relating to both social and environmental responsibility is included.
Shop GOTS certified for women »
Shop GOTS certified for men »
© Global Organic Textile Standard 2020
Another international certification brands can apply for is the OCS which focuses on the chain production of the item itself, from raw material to final product. Instead of a final certification of a high content like GOTS, OCS differs in that it certifies any presence and percentage of organic material. Any organic claim from 5% can be verified with this certification to improve consumer trust. Products that contain at least 95% of organic material can possess an 'OCS 100' label, whereas products simply containing any amount can be given the 'OCS Blended' certificate.18
© Organic Content Standard - Textile Exchange 2020
Developed through a collaboration of environmental organisations and the business community - when the WWF meets H&M for example, the Better Cotton Initiative focuses on making cotton cultivation practices more sustainable in general terms.
Unlike GOTS for example, the BCI has less specific prescriptions and allows the farmers to choose which ways of sustainable development suit them best with a focus on gradual improvement. They stand for lowering pesticide use, efficient water use, soil health and a fair and safe work environment.
Unlike organic cotton - BCI allows the use of GMO seeds and pesticides, which is a major difference.19
© Better Cotton Initiation 2020
This certification ensures and checks the presence of as well as the amount of recycled material in a garment. In order to claim the certification, the assessment is carried out by independent third parties.
In order for this certification, the piece has to contain between 5-95% recycled fibres. The sister certification Recycled Claim Standard 100, the product has to have at least 95% recycled fibres.
In comparison to other certifications however, this one is solely based on the end product and does not take into account any fair & sustainable requirements in the workplace and journey that the product has taken.20
© Recycled Claim Standard - Textile Exchange 2020
Be aware, be vigilant and always check the label. Alongside organic cotton there are tons of other awesome materials coming onto the market that have even less impact on the environment. Have your eyes peeled for fabrics like organic hemp, Tencel/lyocell, linen and hemp - they all look pretty much identical as a final product but also have a fantastic sustainable story behind each of them!
This is a trademarked brand name for a material made from wood pulp dissolved in a chemical solvent and then strung out to form fibres - these non-trademarked fibres are referred to as lyocell and model. Tencel is similar to rayon as they both use wood pulp as a base. However, certified Tencel uses much less toxic chemical solvents that get reused again and again as well as using wood from sustainably-harvested forests. The end result is a super soft fabric! 21
Shop Tencel »
In English vernacular, the word ‘linen’ is quite confusing. On the one hand it refers to a rather stiff yet durable fabric made from flax, but ‘linens’ can often also be used to refer to bedsheets that are commonly not made from flax but cotton. Linen the fabric dries incredibly fast in comparison to cotton, so it is often the preferred fabric to wear in hot weather! 22
Shop linen »
This plant belonging to the same family as cannabis (without the psychoactive effects) is one of the fastest growing in the world and barely needs any water or added fertilisers throughout its lifetime! It is also really nourishing for the soil, so crops don’t need to be on a farming rotation and soil can exclusively grow hemp for a long time. The fabric made from hemp is also incredibly anti-bacterial, and like linen, is nice and thermo-regulating - perfect for summer. 23
Shop hemp »
Be sure to check out our material filters on our webshop and our 14 criteria for ethical and sustainable production so you can find something that truly ticks every box for you - be it organic cotton or one of these cool alternatives ??
V1. Made with research from The Cotton Campaign.
V2. Made with research from Hoekstra and Chapaguin, 2007
V3. Made with research from Milieu Centraal.