Did you think I was done with our journey through sustainable fabrics? You bet I’m not! I've already talked about the versatile vegan leather, the long-lasting jute fiber, and even fabrics suitable for a Marvel comic book like Qmonos. However, today I’m going back to basics: organic cotton vs cotton, the never-ending rivalry.
Who doesn’t love a soft, breathable cotton shirt? You might even be wearing one right now! But the truth is that although shirts, sheets, towels, and anything made from conventional cotton dominate the textile industry, this fabric has a dark side when it comes to sustainability.
This is where organic cotton arrives at the rescue... it's perhaps the most famous sustainable fibre ever. But, is it really as sustainable as it claims to be? Let's find out.
Organic Cotton vs Regular Cotton: What's the Difference Exactly?
What's the difference between organic cotton and regular cotton? Our eco-research started with that common question and honestly, I can answer it with one simple word: production.
Picture this: You're strolling through a store and suddenly, you spot a bed sheet that would look perfect on your bed. Then, you walk over to check the label: "100% natural cotton." If it says “natural,” it must be eco-friendly, right? Well… not exactly.
Yes, cotton comes from a plant and is therefore natural, but that word has been used for decades to greenwash products in all sorts of ways. Although something may grow from the Earth's soil, the way they are grown and produced is highly questionable.
How is Conventional Cotton Produced?
When we compare conventional cotton and organic cotton, we quickly realize that conventional cotton is produced in a very, very dirty way. No wonder why it has earned the infamous nickname of "the world's dirtiest crop."
To understand how bad its production is, I'll consider three key factors: water usage, sustainable practices, and ethical practices. Then I'll compare them with those of organic cotton. Let's get started.
Conventionally grown cotton is THIRSTY — so much so that according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt. A kilogram of cotton (brace yourself for the shock) takes a whopping 10,000 litres of water to produce it. That’s insane!
One of the main reasons this happens is that cotton is grown on the same soil repeatedly (more on that later), which degrades its quality and removes nutrients, leading to the growth of unhealthy sprouts. These unhealthy cotton sprouts need more water in order to be properly harvested, and therefore, they have to be massively irrigated.
In a world of increased water scarcity, it seems that it's more important to grow cotton by hook or by crook than to take care of our precious natural resources. And the worst part is that conventional cotton not only drinks water left and right, but it also pollutes it.
True to its nickname, cotton farming has one of the most unsustainable practices ever: water pollution. The use of toxic pesticides (16% of all the world’s pesticides) directly affects groundwater. The chemicals used to manufacture the cotton products that go into the homes of millions of people also flow into rivers, lakes, and other waterways.
It turns out that with the long-term use of pesticides, the pests that prowl the crop fields become resistant to the chemicals, therefore genetically modified seeds (GMO) are used to build resistance towards them. If you’re against GMOs, you probably don’t want anything to do with conventional cotton right now (and I feel you).
And as if the cotton-growing industry wasn't enough to be thirsty, it's also energy-hungry. It causes about 220 billion kilograms of greenhouse gas to escape into our atmosphere per year. Let’s just say that the term “sustainable” doesn’t get along with conventional cotton.
Ethics? Human rights? Have you seen them? Because traditional cotton hasn’t.
Cotton is often referred to as White Gold because of how lucrative it is in developing countries like Uzbekistan, but when it comes to ethics, the White Gold isn’t so golden. Manufacturers often endorse child labour and farmers often aren’t paid a fair wage. They work for long hours and are exposed to nasty chemicals almost all day long. This can cause severe health conditions like skin irritation, nausea, seizures, and even cancer.
But the consequences aren't just physical. They are also psychological.
Conventional cotton is not involved in crop rotation, which means farmers have to rely on cotton farming alone in order to survive — they can't grow anything else. Because the cotton market is volatile, some even go into debt to buy more chemicals and new seeds. And when they can't get out of this debt cycle, the worst happens. They decide to commit suicide. How? By swallowing the pesticides they're unable to pay off. Between 1995 and 2014, there were more than 300,000 farmer suicides in Telangana, India. This number is a real concern.
If you see that a cotton product is unbelievably cheap, the chances are that someone else has already paid the price.
How is Organic Cotton Produced?
After reviewing how conventional cotton is produced, I can now examine how organic cotton is produced. Spoiler alert: it's grown in a way that minimizes harmful environmental impacts.
If unhealthy crops were one of the main reasons why cotton was so thirsty, we no longer have to worry about that with organic cotton. Organic cotton is grown on different soils as their location is gradually rotated, and this is what keeps them healthy and free of wild water cravings.
In fact, when we compare water usage between organic and non-organic cotton, we see that organic cotton uses up to 91% less water than its non-organic counterpart because 80% of its crops are rainfed, not irrigated. Although some skeptics claim that organic cotton consumes more water than the traditional one, this is entirely false and has been debunked several times before. Organic cotton cultivation even helps to create healthy soil, which allows it to grow without needing as much water.
Organic cotton and the term "sustainable" do go hand in hand, especially when it comes to water pollution and pesticide use.
No genetically modified seeds are used to control pests (in fact, GMOs are banned in organic cotton farming), but various beneficial insects are used to combat them. Nature helping nature, how lovely!
Not using pesticides also conserves our planet's water, reducing water pollution by up to 98%.
Plus, organic cotton doesn't like to hog so much energy, either. It uses 62% less energy than traditional cotton and also produces 46% less greenhouse gas. But why? Simple: as I stated above, it doesn’t need fertilizers or pesticides (which release nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere). By not using highly toxic fertilizers and pesticides, the soil also acts as a "carbon sink,” absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. And last but not least, farmers don't use as much machinery to harvest it. Do I really need to say more when it comes to organic cotton’s sustainability?
As organic cotton is a rotation crop, farmers can also grow other food crops besides it, which gives them another source of income, ensures biodiversity, and creates greater food security.
On the topic of ethics, the non-use of toxic pesticides is also a major plus. Farmers don't have to deal with chemicals that can cause them all sorts of negative health concerns, nor do they go into massive debt to buy them.
Now, while some countries have eliminated and almost completely banned child labour and forced labour in conventional cotton fields, there's still a long way to go. However, unethical labour practices have no place in organic cotton fields.
We all love a little retail therapy right? But that therapy should not come at the expense of people and the planet. Brands can have a huge impact by choosing what kind of cotton they use, and one brand, in particular, is doing just that with their new Essentials Collection! Meet OBAKKI.
How Brands Are Using Organic Cotton
A simple t-shirt can say a lot about you. Obakki's Essentials Collection of t-shirts and tanks are a responsible choice. They're made from recycled, 100% organic cotton, recycled plastic, and hemp. They’re also landfill-free, have a low-carbon footprint, and are produced using holistic manufacturing.
“This tumultuous year has led us all to re-think the things that are truly essential to us,” says Treana Peake, Founder of Obakki. “We wanted to create basic wardrobe staples that are comfortable and versatile, and that you can feel good about wearing every day. All of our basics are created consciously with a low carbon footprint, and made using 100% organic ingredients.”
Not only are the pieces from this collection made responsibly and sustainably, but for every shirt purchased, a Basic Needs Kit will be donated through the Obakki Foundation. The Foundation has partnered with a co-op of refugee women in Bidi Bidi, Uganda (the largest refugee settlement in the world) to create and distribute these kits, which include basic items like toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, reusable menstrual pads, and laundry detergent.
What Are the Main Differences Between Cotton & Organic Cotton
In a nutshell, the main differences between conventional cotton vs. organic cotton are:
- Organic cotton requires 91% less water than conventional cotton.
- Organic cotton pollutes 98% less of the planet's water because it doesn't use highly toxic pesticides.
- Non-organic cotton uses GMOs. Its organic counterpart doesn't.
- Organic cotton uses 62% less energy than traditional cotton and also produces 46% less greenhouse gas.
- Traditional cotton is typically grown and harvested under unsafe and unfair working conditions, while organic cotton usually provides a safe working environment and fair wages.
In addition to the striking differences in sustainability, another of the main differences between organic cotton vs. cotton is their price range.
Like many things in life, the higher the quality and the more work a product has, the more it tends to cost. I’ll talk about the quality of organic cotton in more detail later on, but basically, organic cotton is more expensive because it isn't as easy to produce as conventional cotton and the end product is more durable. But does organic cotton feel different?
Does Organic Cotton Feel Different?
Organic cotton is harvested almost entirely by hand. This preserves the purity of each fiber and ensures that none is damaged in the process. On the other hand, conventional cotton is harvested by machines in order to meet its high demand and save time. This makes garments less durable and less soft than their eco-friendly counterparts. Conventional cotton is soft, but organic cotton can be even softer.
The Benefits of Choosing Organic Cotton:
Organic cotton certified by third parties guarantees the transparency of its production process, a great benefit that conventional cotton lacks. The most common certification to look for is the Global Organic Textile Standard (a.k.a. GOTS).
GOTS covers cotton harvesting, processing, product manufacturing, packaging, labelling, and distribution in order to ensure that environmental and ethical standards are respected. It's a rigorous certification, so if you see a garment with its logo, you can be entirely sure that it contains a minimum of 95% certified organic fibers, was processed without highly toxic chemicals and was produced with respect for human labour.
Using Less Synthetic Fabrics
I should also mention that using organic cotton not only protects the environment from toxic chemicals, GMOs, and greenhouse gases, but also decreases our use of synthetic fibers. We already know how polluting they are and how bad they can be for our skin!
Considering that organic cotton is mainly harvested by hand and uses completely healthy sprouts, it's evident that its quality and durability will be higher than that of conventional cotton.
Moreover, companies that use organic cotton often don't use toxic dyes, which can prevent the fabric from causing allergic reactions. The hypoallergenic nature of most organic cotton clothing makes it perfect for babies, people with sensitive skin, and even asthmatics.
And it's not just consumers who realize this, brands do too. More and more fashion brands are switching to organic cotton, increasing the quality of their products while protecting the environment.
Your skin is your largest organ, so be careful with what you put on it!
So…. Is Organic Cotton Better As a Whole?
Is organic cotton better as a whole than traditional cotton? After this exhaustive eco-research, I can assure you that, yes, organic cotton is better than traditional cotton. Although it's neither an absolute nor a perfect solution to the disasters that the textile industry produces in our environment, it's a much more eco-friendly and sustainable alternative to the traditional cotton industry.
Nowadays, organic cotton only accounts for 1% of the world's total cotton production, but I hope that in the near future, this percentage will increase and we will be able to see how our Mother Earth breaks free of the world's dirtiest crop. Next time you go shopping, make sure the label on that amazing t-shirt or set of bed sheets reads "100% organic cotton." And who knows? Maybe organic cotton stops being an alternative and becomes a norm. Fingers crossed!
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