Cotton is a natural fibre that has been used in clothing for centuries. It is popular because it is light, breathable, soft, strong, easy to work with, and easily absorbs dyes. It is the largest non-food agricultural commodity, and is said to account for 21% of global fibre use, employing 350 million people in production. In the past, cotton has also been referred to as ‘white gold’ because of how lucrative the industry is in countries such as Uzbekistan.
While better than its synthetic counterparts in some ways (namely, that it’s not fossil fuel derived, doesn’t shed plastic into waterways and has the ability to break down properly) conventional farming and production of cotton unfortunately comes with many downsides. Conventional cotton production relies heavily on the use of chemicals including pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and synthetic fertilisers, alongside genetically modified seeds and huge amounts of water.
But this isn’t our only option.
In 2008 organic cotton made up 0.6% of the world’s cotton production, but global production has increased since then. Once harvested a crop grown organically can still be blended with synthetic fibres or treated with toxic chemicals however. This makes it easy for brands to greenwash their sustainability claims, and trying to find something that isn’t harmful can feel like a minefield.
This is why, when and if we can, looking for external certifications is our best option. These certifications tend to work holistically to ensure good treatment of people and planet, eliminating toxic substances from production and maintaining worker’s rights.
So here’s what you need to know.
The problems with conventional cotton
Cotton has a particularly long supply chain that includes growing, spinning fibres into yarn, dyeing and printing. At various stages in the growing process chemicals such as pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides can be used for faster crop growth.
Conventional cotton production is a very chemical-intensive process, and these chemicals can impact air, water, soil, biodiversity, and human health. It has been estimated that this single crop accounts for 5% of global pesticide use and 14% of global insecticide use, with 1-3% of agricultural workers suffering from acute pesticide poisoning and at least 1 million requiring hospitalisation each year.
These chemicals don’t just affect workers. They can leach into the environment as they penetrate soil, run off and infect local waterways and, if sprayed, can travel onto neighbouring farms or into local communities through the air. They then contaminate food and water supplies, causing increased disease, illness and even birth defects. This runoff also destroys soil microbes and bacteria (making growing conditions worse as land loses its ability to take in carbon from the air or water from rainfall) while pests build resistance to these chemicals. This leads to new pesticides being constantly developed, resulting in greater pesticide use and spiralling costs for farmers.
There is an overwhelming body of research showing higher incidents of serious diseases and development problems from exposure to agricultural chemicals or physical proximity to chemical-based farming communities. The Agricultural Health Study, funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, is one of the largest ongoing health studies with over 89,000 participants from farming communities and reveals higher incidents of cancer (including prostate cancer), Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, thyroid disease and asthma.
Conventional cotton also has a huge impact on water. It has been estimated that 2,700 litres of water are needed to produce a single cotton t-shirt, and that 70% of the rivers and lakes in China are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry. When we consider the fact that so much cotton is grown in water-scarce areas, including India which has faced major water crises in recent years, using this amount of water for clothing is a huge waste of such a vital resource.
In India alone, a country where 100 million people have no access to safe drinking water, the water used in cotton production would be sufficient to provide 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year.
When it comes to issues with genetically modified (GMO) crops, 89% of the cotton planted in India is now from GMO seeds. These seeds contain Bt toxins which are supposed to be resistant to various pests, however they have also been modified so that they can’t reproduce, so farmers need to buy new seeds every year. Plus, to manage these crops farmers need to purchase pesticides, many of which are banned in the West. Both the seeds and the pesticides are sold by Monsanto, who hold a stranglehold monopoly over the industry. When they push prices up, farmers have no choice but to comply. Many farmers are forced into spiralling debt which they cannot manage. By 2015, more than 12,500 Indian cotton farmers had died by suicide.
There are also multiple problems with workers rights in the cotton supply chain. Cotton is picked by hand in multiple countries. Areas such as Uzbekistan and India often have issues with child labour, bonded labour and slavery in their supply chains.
The alternative: certified organic
According to the USDA’s National Organic Program, organic farming is defined as: “the application of a set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. These include maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality; conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering.”
Organic cotton is most widely recognised as a method of growing without the use of toxic chemicals. The multiple stages of the supply chain must remain chemical-free in order to be organic, including land preparation, using non-GM seeds, soil, and weed and pest management. Once it is harvested the crop’s manufacturing process from raw fibre to fabric must also remain free of toxins.
But, when externally certified by GOTS, organic cotton also addresses the multiple human rights issues found in conventional production too. The GOTS approach is a holistic one, ensuring that from seed to final product producers protect and care for their farms, their crops, and their workers.
T-shirts by The Natural Edition, both made with 100% GOTS certified organic cotton
The benefits of organic cotton
The notion that chemical cotton uses less water than organic cotton is false. Textile Exchange initiated a peer-reviewed Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) on organically grown cotton that uses the same methodology and the same LCA consultancy as was used for chemically grown cotton to ensure the most reliable information to base comparisons. Based on the LCA findings, organic production of cotton for an average sized t-shirt resulted in a savings of 1,982 gallons of water compared to the results of chemically grown cotton.
The World Economic Forum has identified water scarcity as a large global risk to society over the next decade, and conventional cotton production is not helping. Organic cotton has a much smaller impact on water for a few reasons:
- Organic farmers usually have healthier soil, both due to lack of pesticides and herbicides and through using other soil building techniques. Healthy soil can hold more water, like a sponge, leading to less flooding and more resilient soil during droughts.
- Hazardous chemicals also can’t run off into waterways, so rivers, lakes and drinking water are kept cleaner.
- Most organic cotton is grown in rain-fed areas. Farmers rely on rain to water their crops, rather than extracting water from the ground which can negatively impact local water supplies for communities.
Beyond water, organic methods don’t result in toxic chemicals contaminating land, air and food supplies, instead supporting biodiversity that these chemicals destroy, and they don’t use fossil-fuel-based fertilisers. Organic farmers are also less likely to use monoculture practices, by growing other crops alongside cotton. This keeps soil healthier and protect crops, but also provides farming families and their communities with more stable and diverse food supplies and extra sources of income.
Organic farming is also GMO-free, so small scale farmers don’t need to rely on the whims of Monsanto and their monopoly on seeds and pesticides. Plus, if farmers are also utilising regenerative practices to build healthier soils, they also store more carbon in the ground. Overall, organic cotton emits up to 46% fewer greenhouse gases than conventional cotton.
The GOTS certification
Textile products have several certifications to claim they are organic, but many of these certifications do not ensure the product is fully organic from farm to finish, or guarantee worker rights. This is where GOTS comes in. The GOTS certification is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, and requires producers to go through rigorous checking processes at every point of the supply chain before receiving certification.
Firstly, a certification from governmental organic farming standards is needed to prove the cotton fibre is grown and farmed without GMO seeds and without the use of any toxic chemicals or pesticides. Farmers also must be certified according to international organic farming standards, which helps with the traceability of the cotton. For cotton to be certified organic, it must also be grown in soil that has been free of prohibited substances for at least three years prior to harvest.
Key environmental criteria for GOTS certification include:
- all chemicals used (dyes, processing) have to meet requirements on toxicity and biodegradability
- no hazardous inputs such as heavy metals, formaldehyde, aromatic solvents, or genetically modified organisms (GMO) are allowed
- bleaches must be oxygen based with no chlorine bleaching allowed
- carcinogenic azo dyes are not allowed
- no PVC, nickel, or chrome accessories are allowed
- printing methods that use aromatic solvents, phthalates or PVC aren’t allowed
- operators must have policies and procedures to minimise waste and discharges
- all wastewater must be treated in functional treatment plants (not just released into waterways)
- Packaging can’t contain PVC, and all paper or cardboard used must be recycled or certified by FSC or PEFC
When it comes to human rights, GOTS also have social criteria that are set in alignment with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which must be met by all processors and manufacturers. These include:
- Employment is freely chosen
- Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining (aka unionising) are respected
- Working conditions are safe and hygienic
- Child labour is not allowed
- Workers must be paid a living wage
- Working hours aren’t excessive
- No discrimination is practised
- Regular employment is provided
- Harsh or inhumane treatment is not allowed
Once the whole process from farm to final product is monitored, and meet GOTS criteria and requirements, manufacturers are then allowed to be issued with a GOTS certification and can use the GOTS label in the final product.
There are two different GOTS certifications: GOTS ‘Organic’ certification which stipulate that 95% of the fibre must be organic, allowing 5% to be ‘non-organic natural or synthetic fibres’. This remaining 5% is because 100% organic may not be feasible, or because some items need to be blended with a small amount of another material for specific reasons, for example adding spandex for stretch.
The second-tier certification is called ‘made with organic’ which requires at least 70% of the product to be made with organic fibres and a maximum of 10% made from synthetic fibres, the remaining can be other natural (but not organic) fibres, but blending conventional and organic fibres of the same type in the same product is not permitted, so you can’t blend organic and conventional cotton together. Materials such as virgin polyester are also not allowed in the blend.
Tank top by The Natural Edition, made from 100% GOTS certified organic cotton
Other certifications that you may see on the market include OCS (Organic Content Standards) or BCI (better cotton initiative).
OCS doesn’t certify the entire supply chain, instead only certifying the content. This means that the organic fibre percentage is tested and traced, but the process of turning fibre into a dyed and finished fabric isn’t covered. The use of chemicals through production, or social environmental impact, is not considered. OCS also has two tiers: ‘OCS 100’ which requires 95% organic fibres and ‘OCS blended’ which only requires 5% of the fibre must be organic.
BCI is a global non-profit organisation and the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world, which educates farmers on sustainable farming practices. Education focuses on reducing water and chemical use, responsible land management and biodiversity preservation, caring for soil, and good working conditions. BCI cotton now accounts for around 19% of global production and is used by several large brands.
While BCI is a good stepping stone, both for farmers moving away from conventional cotton production and for brands trying to improve complex supply chains, BCI sustainability standards are lower than their organic counterparts. Under BCI farmers can still use GMO seeds and some chemicals are still allowed, but this may make it easier for some farmers to make the transition. The certification isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful in some circumstances.
So what should we do?
Ultimately, as consumers, the choice is up to us. If you want to buy something that’s cotton and you have the means, seek out GOTS certified organic products, such as the sustainable basics from The Natural Edition, as your number one choice.
If you don’t have access to GOTS, then seek out alternatives such as shopping from brands that are BCI members.
And ultimately, remember that organic cotton production isn’t perfect either. Something may be organic, but it still requires resources to grow. Some even like to argue that organic is inefficient because organic cotton yields are lower and can require more land to produce. What these people miss, however, is that our response to this should be to consume less and consume better. We should prioritise organic and natural materials that are also made well, built to last, and transcend seasons. This is exactly the reason why, if I do decide to buy something firsthand, I choose to support brands that prioritise organic and ethical production, because this is where I’d rather pay more, less often, for it to go towards better practices. Only then can we turn the tide of overconsumption and create more balanced, healthy systems around the world.
Learn more about how to shop for sustainable fashion here
Learn more about organic cotton here
(Disclaimer: I am a brand ambassador for The Natural Edition, however this blog post isn’t specifically sponsored. I decide when/where/how I would like to feature TNE, when I feel like it already fits what I’m writing about)