Is Organic Cotton Really Sustainable? Separating Fact from Fiction
Updated: Nov 9
Cotton crops cover 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but use 6% of the world’s pesticides, more than any other single major crop. And almost all of the cotton produced worldwide is regular cotton. Only 1% of all cotton produced is organic while the remaining 99% is poisoning water supplies, wasting resources, and harming farmers and their employees.
What is organic cotton?
For a fabric to be certified as organic, there are a lot of steps involved which start even before a cotton seed is planted. As you might have guessed, organic cotton is grown from organic cotton seed. This seed also has been organically produced meaning that all the strict regulations that are in place for cotton production, are also valid for organic cotton seed production.
There are very strict regulations to be organically certified and just growing produce without harmful chemicals is not enough.
For a farmer to make the switch to organic, they are not allowed to use the soil for organic produce for at least 2 years (sometimes longer but this depends on the crop) before organic produce can be grown on that soil. During this time, the farmer can use the soil to grow crops from organic seeds and raise them organically while not being allowed to sell their produce as organic as the soil is still transitioning. Or the farmer simply does not use the land at all.
Fields converted from conventional use to organic use must be tested to assure no residual harmful pesticides are left in the soil before production of the organic crop may start. This is one of the reasons framers are hesitant to switch to organic.
So a lot is going on for a crop the be certified as organic but there are even more steps involved if you want to turn this organic cotton into a garment. All the steps involved from spinning to dyeing to knitting to trading have to meet certain criteria regarding social and environmental issues like:
Organic cotton and regular cotton needs to be kept completely separate during the entire process to avoid contamination. This means that for the processing of organic cotton different machines need to be used for spinning, dyeing, etc.
They can only use additives and colorants that are approved to be used on organic garments.
They need to manage their waste to avoid pollution of water and soil.
Hazardous substances are prohibited.
Employment is freely chosen
No child labor
So, being certified as organic cotton and turning that into a garment involves a lot of steps, regulation requirements and certifications. Obviously, all these regulations and certifications are very costly for the producers which is one of the reasons, organic clothing is so expensive.
So, let's discuss the first issue regarding organic cotton.
The production of cotton requires an incredible amount of water. The production of 1 pair of jeans requires over 8000 Liters of water, a sweater 4500 liter and a t-shirt 2700 liters. The amount of water required for the production of organic cotton is still being researched and contradictory data can be found. One says that organic cotton consumes 91% less water compared to regular cotton while other researchers say that organic cotton requires more water for production.
Why would organic cotton require more water?
Organic cotton is not genetically modified for high yield. Organic cotton is bred through traditional plant breeding practices by crossing plants' properties of interest aka high yield, pest resistance, etc. Because organic cotton doesn’t have such a high yield (a single organic cotton plant produces fewer cotton fibers compared to a conventional cotton one), more production area is needed for the same amount of cotton needed for jeans or sweaters. All these organic cotton plants require water for growth and this might even be more compared to regular cotton.
Why is this difference in research data so big?
Organic cotton is often grown in areas that have a high rainfall so they don’t need lots of irrigation. While conventional cotton is grown almost everywhere and is heavily irrigated. Comparing irrigation with rainfall is difficult so research data varies significantly. So, regarding the water usage of organic cotton plants, more research is needed to make a fair conclusion.
Water usage after cotton harvest differs a lot between convention cotton and organic cotton. This is because water usage for organic cotton is strictly regulated and needs to be documented by the manufacturer. All the wastewater from the wet processing units needs to be treated by the manufacturer in a functional wastewater treatment plant before the water can be discharged into the environment. This ensures that the wastewater from organic cotton manufactures is much less contaminated.
The difference between organic and non-organic produce is not as big as it is for cotton as cotton is not produced for consumption. The regulations for pesticides on produce for consumption is very strict and limited (at least in Europe). While for cotton production this is less the case as cotton is not consumed.
The legislation for the use of pesticides around the world is not the same everywhere and the US is the country where the most pesticides are allowed. Of all the pesticides used in the US, only 25% of these pesticides are also approved in the EU (and China, although China allows slightly more than the EU). Although the amount of cotton produced in the EU is much lower than in the US, it makes a lot of difference in where the cotton is produced to determine how much pesticide is used on the crop.
The main focus for cotton producers is high yield as fast as possible. On average, the crop loss for cotton is between 19 and 61% if insect suppressants are not used for regular cotton. Killing all pests and weeds around the crop might affect yield while not caring as much for contamination for soil and water.
Who is to blame for this? We are as consumers as we want so much clothing for a very low price. This means that clothing manufactures are demanding high-yield cotton for a low price to meet the consumer's demand.
How is organic cotton different?
Organic cotton is required to grow without the use of synthetic pesticides. However, organic growers can use several organically approved pesticides like copper sulfate but also plant-derived pesticides and fungicides. I told you in another video how soap nuts can be used as an insecticide. That is an example of this.
So, organic cotton can still be sprayed with pesticides. These pesticides are however approved by the USDA or SKAL or similar organizations in your country so they can be used on organic cotton.
Application rates of organic pesticides can often exceed those in conventional cultivation systems due to the lower yield of organic cotton. Moreover, because conventional cotton is often genetically modified for not only high yield but also for pest resistance, so the use of insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers has reduced.
Why do they have to use so many pesticides on organic crops?
Over time, weeds, insects, bacteria, and viruses can become resistant to the pesticides used. This decreases the effectiveness of the pesticide and to save the crop, the farmer needs to use more pesticides, or all the farmers' organic cotton might be lost.
How about soil and water contamination?
One of the requirements to be certified as organic, to protect biodiversity. Meaning a farmer needs to protect their soils and avoid using pollutants on their crop that might affect the water. Therefore a farmer can only use pesticides and herbicides that have been certified as safe for soil and water.
Research has found that organic farmers often have more beneficial organisms in their soil compared to non-organic farmer which is probably due to the use of less toxic pesticides.
One of the farming practices for organic crops is crop rotations. Meaning changing the crop grown on the field yearly. This helps maintain soil fertility, increase soil quality and assist with insect pest mitigation on their land. While regular cotton has a monocropping practice that may lead to a build-up of disease in the soil and depletes soil fertility which, in turn, can lead to greater use of pesticides and fertilizers to compensate.
Soil with organic crops is less affected by erosion, salinization and has higher biodiversity compared to the soil of regular grown crops.
Overall organic practices have higher levels of soil health compared to conventional soils. For example, organic soils tend to be more stable, have a higher water holding capacity and have better drainage than conventionally managed soils. Organic soil can hold on to carbon better which is great to help with climate change.
As a lot of herbicides are not allowed in organic farming, weeding is often done by hand as this is often more cost-effective compared to the use of organic herbicides. This is the main reason why organic crops are so much more expensive, there is much more labor involved.
Just like yield differ for cotton in different climates, the emission of greenhouse gasses also differs in different climates. The main reason for the lower emission of greenhouse gasses for organic cotton is due to the fact that organic cotton production requires more manual labor instead of machines but also because the process for manufacturing fertilizers and pesticides is much higher for conventional produce.
The difference becomes even bigger after harvest as the spinning and dyeing process of organic cotton is very strictly regulated as GOTS requires manufactures to document all their data about energy and water usage. Their aim should be to reduce their energy and water usage as much as possible and they need to show their data accordingly.
Over 91% of all cotton worldwide is genetically modified. This is a problem for organic producers as contamination with gm crops is a possibility due to cross-pollination. The risk for cotton is not very high as it is a self-pollinator (but it can also cross pollinate) that does not need insects for pollination but for wind, pollinators are this is a big problem as pollen from GM plants could pollinate flowers from organic plant contamination the organic crop. If a GM contamination is found in a crop the farmer needs to invest time and money to identify the cause of contamination, conduct additional tests and engage insurance companies and certifiers to remain certified.
The biggest difference between conventional and organic cotton production is how people are treated. Here are again strict guidelines provided by GOTS to ensure people working on the lands and factories are treated fairly.
It should be the employee's choice to work (no slavery) and there is no child labor. The working conditions of the employees should be safe and hygienic and their wages should meet at least the national legal standard.
So, is organic cotton more sustainable than conventional cotton? I am not sure yet as the data I found is contradictory. I would like to say yes but more research needs to be done to make a hard conclusion. The only thing I am sure of is that the people working in organic cotton fields and in factories with organic cotton are treated more fairly which for me is a good reason to go for organic cotton.