Is Organic Cotton Sustainable? Pros & Cons

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Sustainable fashion is buzzing. Everyone is talking about it. And when you hear sustainable fashion, you also hear organic cotton. As a rule, organic materials, including organic cotton are more sustainable and better for the environment. But that doesn’t make them perfect. Nothing is.

To make your shopping more eco-friendly, you must become aware of the impact of different fabrics. There are still many people out there who still don’t know much about cotton even though it makes a large portion of their wardrobe.

Some of the questions I often hear regarding this material are: “Why is cotton bad?”, “Is sustainable cotton sustainable?”, “Is there a better alternative?” and “Does organic cotton have any disadvantages”. These are all great questions and all of which I answer below.

Why is conventional cotton bad for the environment?

Cotton is renowned for being one of the dirtiest industries in the world. And it’s true. It causes extreme harm to the environment, to the workers, and the consumers. Some of the negative impacts of cotton include:

  • Overuse of water (According to some sources, it can take around 10,000 to 20,000 liters of water just to make a kilogram of cotton )
  • Pesticides and other synthetic chemicals
  • It is genetically modified (GMO)
  • Puts farmers’ health at risk
  • Toxic to workers, environment, and consumers

Despite knowing the harmful effects of conventional cotton, the majority of the fashion industry still chooses it over organic cotton. It’s all about making and saving money. Doing all of the above, ensure the highest yield possible and the most profit.

But we must stop putting profits over the planet. From now on, fashion brands should focus on making cotton in an organic and sustainable way.

What is Organic Cotton?

Organic cotton, on the other hand, is quite different. While it has some disadvantages, they don’t overweigh the benefits it has. Here are the reasons you should start buying organic cotton:

Non-GMO

Normal cotton is genetically modified to make it more resistant. More resistant to pests and diseases, for instance, to increase yield.

While it might sound good, genetically modified crops could have an unprecedented impact on the planet in the future. As GMOs are relatively new and haven’t been around for long, we yet to find out the impact they will have on both our health and the planet.

One thing is for certain. Continuing this, will reduce the genetic diversity of fauna and making them more susceptible to disease and other environmental changes in the long term.

Because of these reasons, organic cotton doesn’t use GMO. Everything is natural.

Fewer chemicals

Pesticides, Insecticides, and herbicides are all absent in organic cotton crops. Synthetic chemicals of any kind are not present in organic cotton, unlike conventional cotton.

In fact, the cotton industry is the most pesticide intense industry in the world. And the use of chemicals doesn’t end when the crops are harvested. Chemicals are used throughout the manufacturing process to treat the fabric and give it the desired effects.

Remember that organic cotton doesn’t always equal organic treatment. A good way to know if the dyes are organic is to check for the GOTS certification.

Non-toxic

During the production of normal cotton, farmers are exposed to toxic chemicals. This might go without saying, but these toxic chemicals are not good for our health. And since farmers are exposed to them daily, it could hugely affect their future and quality of life.

Similarly, the chemicals also affect consumers. The toxic chemicals used during manufacturing or directly on the crops, do not magically disappear. They remain on the fabric meaning your skin can absorb them when wearing the garment. On the contrary, organic cotton will not cause any kind of skin irritation due to the fact that it doesn’t contain any chemicals. So if you have sensitive skin, always choose organic. It’s the best option.

Finally, after the disposal of the clothes, the toxic chemicals, once again leach into the surroundings and affecting ecosystems and wildlife.

Organic cotton doesn’t have any of these issues tied with it so it’s safe for both us and the environment.

Better for wildlife and habitats

Synthetic chemicals such as the ones used to grow crops are also harmful to wildlife. If animals ingest them it could cause health problems just as it would with humans. Insects like bees and butterflies will be especially affected by GMOs.

Another issue is cross-pollination. We don’t fully know the consequences of GMO crops pollinating organic crops or wild fauna. This area of research is still largely unknown as it’s a new problem that we haven’t encountered before. However, there are some problems that are becoming more obvious. For one, it is reducing biodiversity in the wild. But there’s an even bigger problem. The pollination of regular crops or wild plants with GMO seeds is irreversible. And it’s not something that can be controlled. The only way to stop the spread is by stopping the use of GMO crops altogether.

Farmers’ health

Using organic cotton is not solely about the environment. It’s also about our health. Pesticides are poisonous. Now, consider how the farmers are working every day in these toxic conditions. People should not be exposed to dangerous conditions like these. It is shown that exposure to pesticides can cause irritation and prolonged exposure can even lead to long-term health issues such as asthma and even cancer.

Soil health

It’s easy to forget about the soil’s health but without healthy soils, nothing would grow. A common problem with crops is nutrient depletion. This is the case with most crops that don’t have sustainable methods in place. For instance, if the same crop is grown in the same area, year after year, certain nutrients will deplete and the soil will become exhausted and infertile.

Crop rotation and permaculture farming methods are the best practices to keep soils healthy. Refraining from using chemicals also improves the soil’s health.

Less water pollution

When chemicals are used either on the crops directly or in the factory, they eventually find themselves in nature. More often than not, in rivers and the ocean.

After the spraying of chemicals on the cotton crops, they leach through the soil and end up in natural waterways causing water pollution. In addition, during the manufacturing process, wastewater, which also has chemicals in it, is dumped into the ocean due to a lack of regulations.

Fortunately, organic cotton doesn’t use harmful chemicals and it was actually shown that organic cotton crops reduce water pollution by 98%.

Biodegradable

Unlike synthetic materials, cotton is biodegradable. As a result, if disposed of correctly, it won’t add to the current waste problem we have. It won’t stay on the planet for hundreds of years. It will safely biodegradable into the natural ecosystems.

Non-organic cotton will also biodegrade but will releases toxins, polluting nature, and potentially posing a danger to wildlife.

Durable

Another bonus of organic cotton is the fact that it’s more durable. Without all the strong and toxic chemicals, it produces good quality clothing that lasts longer too. That’s why fashion brands using organic cotton tends to be a bit more expensive. Buying sustainable organic cotton will ensure your garments will last for many years.

is organic cotton sustainable

How do I know if it is Organic? Greenwashing Alert

Greenwashing is dangerous and worst of all, it’s becoming harder to spot. Third-party certification is the best way to know if the cotton is organic.

Look at the label before buying anything. It will give you an indication of whether it is environmentally friendly or not.

A few examples of certifications to look out for when shopping:


Often, different types of yarns are blended together. Make sure, all of the materials are organic and eco-friendly. Don’t buy clothes blended with synthetic fibers because if that’s the case, at the end of their life, it will end up in landfill. A company might claim they use organic cotton but check what other materials are in their clothes as well!

Organic Cotton Vs Recycled Cotton

Now that you know all about organic cotton and conventional cotton, there’s another type of cotton which you need to become aware of. Especially if you are attempting to become a more conscious consumer. Recycled cotton.

If you’re wondering which is better, the answer is easy. Recycled cotton is better because it reuses existing materials and diverts fabric from going to waste. Again, not the perfect answer as it too has some disadvantages including high prices and low elasticity. Additionally, it not very available on the market compared to other fabrics.

Recycled cotton can be either pre-consumer or post-consumer. Pre-consumer includes discarded yarn are fabric from the manufacturing process. Post consumers include clothes that people don’t want anymore. It’s easier to recycle pre-consumer cotton since it hasn’t been dyed yet or treated in a different way.

The technology of textile recycling still requires further improvement. There are two many problems when recycling cotton. The first problem is that every time clothes are recycled, the fibers become shorter and weaker. The second problem is as follows. Cotton is often blended with other materials to give it durability and other desirable characteristics. Hence, it makes recycling more difficult.

Recycled cotton looks promising and should become more widespread in the future in order to reduce water use and carbon emissions.

Disadvanatges of organic cotton

Lower yield

As explained above, organic cotton doesn’t use these toxic chemicals like pesticides and for this reason, it has a lower yield. Therefore, to produce the same amount of cotton, more land will be used. The low yield is perhaps the biggest downside of organic cotton and many argue that using non-organic methods is more environmentally friendly because it’s more efficient.

Even though organic cotton isn’t as efficient, it’s important to remember that it’s more sustainable because the benefits simply outweigh the disadvantages by a long way. The (normal) cotton industry is causing irreversible damage to nature and people alike.

Natural and organic is the way to go.

Water intensive (maybe)

Likewise to conventional cotton, organic cotton is also water-intensive but this one is a complicated matter. Some sources claim that the water footprint of organic cotton is at least 90% lower since only a small percentage of water is irrigated. The majority of it is natural i.e. from rainfall.

However, that’s not the whole story. Due to organic cotton having a lower yield, more land is used. Consequently, we are using more water to produce less cotton. Undoubtedly, it’s a difficult metric to measure because too many factors vary.

The best we can do to reduce this problem is recycle as much of the water to reuse later on in the manufacturing stages and rely as little as possible on irrigation and focus on green ways to water the crops.

Is Organic Cotton ethical?

Organic does not mean the same thing as ethical. Although most companies who choose organic are more likely to follow ethical standards.

To be sure that the cotton is ethical, check for the fairtrade certification as well which will ensure that farmers and workers work in safe and fair conditions.

Never assume. Dig deeper and find the truth behind what the company is doing. Generally speaking, if you can’t find much information, it means they are trying to hide something. The more transparent they are, the better.

Is Organic Cotton Better? The bottom line

The quick answer is yes. Organic cotton is more sustainable and clearly the better option. But this is only the start. In addition to making fabric production more environmentally-friendly, companies must strive to do more in order to make the fashion industry more sustainable.

In the meantime, consumers need to their part:

  • Educate yourself and others
  • Don’t buy clothes you don’t need
  • Reuse and Upcycle
  • Don’t throw away unwanted clothes in the bin
  • Buy from conscious brands

Reducing demand is the single best way to stop or at least reduce the destruction of the planet. We are buying too many things most of which we don’t even need. Granted, switching to sustainable farming and manufacturing is the beginning. Reducing demand all together will create the biggest positive change.

Conclusion

As you can see, organic cotton is clearly the better option and without a doubt, the more sustainable option. So always be on the lookout. If it’s not organic, avoid it. Conventional organic causes too much harm.

If consumers start shopping more responsibly, the companies will also change to satisfy the needs and wants of their customers. Did you know that less than 1% of cotton is organic? If we increase demand, perhaps more fashion brands will start switching. Shop in a way that aligns with your ethics. Don’t blindly follow everyone else’s habits.

All images from Unsplash

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