What is the difference between cotton and organic cotton?
We all wear cotton, and that’s not about to change. For thousands of years, humans have dressed to impress in this amazing material, and there are many reasons why cotton has long been seen as special.
Cotton is strong but breathable, lightweight but warm. It can be easily made on an industrial scale, used to clothe millions of people whilst still being affordable. For years we’ve treated cotton as an inexhaustible resource, giving little time or attention to the origins of this fibre or how it is produced. This has led to corners being cut, with serious consequences for the environment and people who make our clothes.
Before we compare the difference between cotton and organic cotton, it’s useful to recap the definition of what organic cotton means.
We’ve all heard of organic cotton, but what does organic cotton actually mean?
Organic cotton is defined as cotton that is grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. It is a sustainable and more environmentally friendly alternative to conventional cotton because it promotes healthier soils, diverse ecosystems, and by using natural processes it is also safer for the people who grow it.
Organic cotton does not use any toxic chemicals that are harmful to human health, and prohibits the use of GMO (genetically modified) seeds. It promotes fair pay to farmers, encourages better working conditions and a better quality of life for all involved in the production of organic clothing.
Despite the advantages of organic cotton, it is less than 1% of all cotton grown today.
There are a lot of benefits of organic cotton, the main one being that it uses no chemical pesticides or fertilizers to grow. Normal cotton uses a whopping 5.7% of all global pesticides and 16.1% of insecticides, despite occupying only 2.4% of total agricultural land. This is the key difference between cotton and organic cotton.
The chemicals which are sprayed onto fields devastate local ecosystems, killing not only weeds but also wild plants and animals as well. Many of the synthetic pesticides accumulate in the food chain in toxic concentrations and can take years to break down. Chemical fertilizers also reduce soil quality over time, lowering crop output and ultimately accelerating soil erosion.
In comparison, organic cotton farming promotes biodiversity, encourages wildlife and helps support a diverse ecosystem. By working with rather than against nature, organic farming techniques also naturally improves soil quality which not only helps grow stronger healthier crops but absorbs more CO2.
If this wasn’t enough, there is evidence which states organic farming uses up to 91% less water than non organic farming, although this figure may vary depending on the source.
Chemical pesticides have serious implications for local villagers and farmers, who end up drinking from polluted local water and unavoidably consuming these chemicals. An estimated 1,000 people die every day from pesticide poisoning around the globe, with countless others suffering long term health consequences such as infertility, neurological diseases, cancers, and birth defects. Expensive pesticides and GMO (genetically modified) crops can also trap farmers into debt, which has been linked to an increasing suicide rate in poorer regions where cotton is grown.
Organic cotton ensures farmers receive fair wages and better living conditions whilst eradicating forced or child labour that are sadly typical in some conventional cotton regions such as India, Egypt, China and Uzbekistan.
A key benefit of organic cotton that’s worth noting is the difference in characteristics of the finished garment. Organic cotton clothes are more comfortable and often made to a higher quality than normal cotton clothing. Organic cotton feels thicker, slightly softer, and lasts longer. This is important because the longer you wear your clothes, the more sustainable your wardrobe. Here are some easy tips to make your clothes last longer.
In the interest of fairness, we ought to make note of the disadvantages of organic cotton as well as its advantages. It cannot be denied that organic cotton is better for the environment and people who make it, but as with every sustainable fabric there are still downsides.
Organic cotton doesn’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers, but it is sometimes treated with natural pesticides that are harmful to some species. Similarly manures which can be added in place of chemical fertilizers still run into rivers if left unmanaged, and although they won’t cause chemical poisoning they can still make waters unsafe to drink. In the US, organic farmers who can prove natural pesticides have failed to control pests are even allowed to use synthetic products to bring issues under control.
Not using chemicals also has its downsides as well. Crop yields on organic farms are typically lower, and the natural ways to control pests and improve the soil are more labour intensive. This is the main reason why organic cotton is more expensive. In fact, since the 1980s conventional cotton has become much more efficient thanks to modern farming practices, increasing crop yields by 42% while acreage decreased by 2%. Switching to organic cotton would require more land to meet the same amount of output, which would mean more water, energy and labour to manage.
We have to also remember that organic cotton, like regular cotton, has to travel great distances from field to manufacturing facility before being shipped to the shops where we buy it. Most organic cotton is grown in India, Turkey, China and America, but one of the biggest organic cotton buyers H&M has its manufacturing facilities in Asia.
One of the main disadvantages of organic cotton is that it might still be processed with similar toxic chemicals as conventional cotton clothing. Production and dying can be chemically intensive, so make sure to be on the lookout for the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Oeko-Tex Standard 100 labels which certify no harmful chemicals have been added at any point in the lifecycle of your clothing.
We’ve listed the benefits of organic cotton as well as the disadvantages, you might now be wondering is organic cotton really better?
In short, yes. Organic cotton is really much better for both the environment and the people that grow it. In fact, it has been rated B grade on the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres, the second highest rank for sustainable fibres. In comparison, regular cotton was classed as E grade, the lowest in this ranking meaning it is not sustainable.
Organic cotton is less water intensive, promotes diversity, provides a stable income for farmers and even increases natural resistance to crops.
Perhaps the most important point to remember that makes organic cotton better is that by not adding toxic chemicals to the plant you are protecting the environment, the lives of those who grow it and it’s also healthier for you to wear. This is of course provided you buy 100% organic which hasn't had chemicals added during production.
Despite all the pros that makes organic cotton better than normal cotton, it's still sadly rare to find on the high street. Instead, conventional cotton continues to fuel our addiction to the latest trends, making us demand new seasons in a wasteful habit of always wanting more.
Now we are well and truly into the 21st century, sustainable fashion brands selling affordable organic cotton are easy to find, check our range out here. We can avoid the worst environmental impacts of cotton by making a simple switch to organic cotton, a material upgrade that doesn’t have to be expensive.
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