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How Eco Is Organic Cotton? The Facts on 7 Questions
Before bamboo, soy and coconut fibers, there was organic cotton. Arguably the most popular sustainable fabric available, organic cotton is grown without pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, all of which are used on conventional cotton crops. Organic cotton is used in T-shirts, diapers, sheets and more. But is it truly the better choice?
Critics of organic cotton rant about water resources needed to grow it, chemical dyes and the significant carbon footprint created to ship it. Proponents of organic cotton remind us of its reduced or nonexistent chemical usage and the smaller farms where it’s typically grown, and of the GMO (genetically modified organisms) seeds used to grow conventional cotton. We delve into the fact and fiction about organic cotton to give you an honest look at how sustainable this fiber really is.
Considered one of the most chemically dependent crops in the world, conventional cotton uses 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of the world’s insecticides — in the U.S., one-third of a pound of chemicals is needed just to grow enough conventional cotton for a regular T-shirt. “Organic cotton is a solution to the problem of chemical use in conventional cotton,” says Lynda Grose of the Sustainable Cotton Project. Additionally, Grose says growing organic cotton is a great transition crop to convert chemical-intensive fields to a future organic farm, whether it’s for growing food or fabrics. “The ecological goal is to convert fields from chemical controls to biological controls.”
Organic cotton crops are kept healthy with a number of natural methods that help control weeds and pests. According to the Organic Consumers Association’s Clothes for a Change program, these methods include mechanical or hand-weeding, crop rotation, planting several crops together (intercropping), use of mulches, adjusting planting dates and densities of crops, and introducing beneficial predator insects.
By using the sustainable methods farmers have embraced for centuries, modern-day organic cotton farmers are saving money on production and reducing the high health care costs associated with chemical exposure, because those involved in the production of organic cotton, from the farmer and weaver to the seller and consumer, are not exposed to the chemicals used in conventional cotton farming.
2. Water Resources
Many believe that conventional cotton uses much less water than organic cotton, but in fact the opposite may be true. By beginning with healthy soil, organic cotton farmers need not supply intense irrigation for their crops — the plants themselves use water much more efficiently due to the inherent health of their surrounding environment. No matter the crop, water usage varies from field to field and country to country. While organic cotton crops in California may use the same amount of water as conventional cotton, crops in Turkey and India may be an entirely different story. During the transitional phase from a conventional to an organic cotton field, it is commonly reported that organic cotton will require more water, but once the land is certified organic (after two or three years of growing transitional crops), water usage often returns to previously normal levels — sometimes even less!
Pesticides used on conventional cotton crops are well known for seeping into local streams, rivers and even public water supplies. “In 1995, pesticide-contaminated runoff from cotton fields in Alabama killed 240,000 fish,” according to the Organic Consumers Association. “[Fourteen] million people in the U.S. are routinely drinking water contaminated with carcinogenic herbicides and 90 percent of municipal water treatment facilities lack equipment to remove these chemicals.” With these dangerous agricultural by-products in our water, it will take cotton plants more time and effort to absorb the tainted water, in turn requiring more water to speed up the growing process.
Genetically modified cotton crops are more common than most people realize. USDA organic certification prohibits the use of GMO seeds, but conventional cotton grown in the United States, Australia and other countries is often planted with GMO seeds that are scientifically designed to yield more fiber and resist pests. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?
There’s a reason that the Department of Agriculture does not allow the use of GMO seeds for organic cotton — they aren’t as successful as they sound on paper. Monsanto, a manufacturer of GMO seeds and pesticides, claims that a study showed its Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium) cotton yields 30 percent more fiber than non-GMO seeds. A little digging quickly proved that Monsanto was a sponsor of this “scientific” study.
“In a recent [independent] study of 100 cotton farms in India, yields of the non-Bt cotton outproduced the genetically modified Bt cotton crop by around 16 percent,” says Michael Lackman, co-founder of Lotus Organics.
“Organic and biological farmers and proponents predict that insects will also become resistant to Bt cotton over time. The best methods work with nature rather than against it, understanding the natural systems and predators that keep problem pests and pathogens in balance,” says Grose. This is just one of the many truly scientific examples of the weakness of GMOs, along with pest and weed adaptations, plus the tainting of organic seeds.
Organic cotton has undoubtedly sounded like the overwhelming choice thus far, but nothing is perfect. India, Turkey, Peru, China and Africa currently grow more organic cotton than the United States does. What does this mean? It means that the next organic cotton T-shirt you buy was likely grown hundreds of thousands of miles away, shipped around the world to be processed, then shipped to a retailer and finally to you. That’s a big carbon footprint for one T-shirt!
All hope is not lost for organic-cotton fans who appreciate local production. Texas, California and New Mexico are continually expanding their organic cotton production. Still, the United States is one of the world’s top conventional cotton producers, making it a vital force in the cotton market and one we should continually influence to embrace organic growth and production. In the meantime, make sure to offset the carbon emissions produced from shipping your organic cotton purchases.
5. Chemical Dyes
Even if the cotton fibers were grown organically, they can still be unsustainably influenced during production, most notably by chemical dyes. These dyes are often made from “iron, tin, potassium, VOCs [volatile organic compounds] and solvent-based inks containing heavy metals, benzene and organochlorides that require large quantities of water to wash out the dye residues,” according to Lackman.
Certified organic manufacturing facilities will often use low-impact dyes that use clays, vegetables or minerals to create varying shades. Gaiam is one of the many organic cotton brands that are openly committed to using low-impact dyes. Unfortunately, not all organic cotton is dyed using sustainable means—and it is hard to track. There is currently no labeling system for products that are made with low-impact dyes; you simply have to ask each company and retailer individually about their production practices.
There is no way to get around the fact that organic cotton items are anywhere from 10 to 45 percent more expensive than conventional cotton products. But before you put back those stylish organic cotton jeans or absorbent organic cotton bath towels, remember what you are paying for: clean water, fresh air, healthy farmers, fair wages, global economic progression, sweatshop-free production and more.
Conventional cotton prices don’t take into account the impact that its production has on the planet and the many people involved in its manufacture, including sweatshops and global poverty. With organic cotton, you are paying more initially, but that cost is passed not only to the retailer, but to the weavers, seamstresses, pickers and growers who made that item’s production possible. In turn, you are also investing in your own health with a garment that will not off-gas (yup, just like toxic paints) chemicals or dyes that can impact all of your body’s basic systems.
7. Organic Cotton vs. Conventional Cotton: The Bottom Line
The gloves are off, no holds barred. Who is the winner? Neither conventional nor organic cotton is perfect. However, the world of sustainable production is growing more each day, and we are finding newer and simpler ways to create quality goods. The next time you have the choice between conventional or organic cotton, you can choose wisely.