Organic Cotton: The Answer to a Broken Cotton System?

Organic Cotton: The Answer to a Broken Cotton System?

In order to become more environmentally and socially conscious consumers of cotton, we must first journey through the dark past and murky present of this beloved and ubiquitous fiber.


The Dark History of “King Cotton”

Many historians see the beginnings of the modern cotton industry as the origin point of global capitalism. During the 19th century, the cotton manufacturing industry shifted from India and the Ottoman Empire to one of European and North American domination. This was made possible by slavery in the American South, which greatly increased the amount of raw cotton produced, and the Industrial Revolution, which had given Europe the ability to manufacture cotton cloth at a rapid pace. Very quickly, industrial hubs were established around cotton, such as Liverpool, Manchester, Augsburg, and Le Havre. This new cotton industry gave rise to a wealthy class of importers and exporters on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Empire of Cotton, historian Sven Beckert paints a picture of how “cotton and colonial expansion went hand in hand” and how the success of the cotton industry was made possible by the exploitation of people and land. Cotton was being grown in the American South by slaves on land taken from Native Americans, spun and woven in European textile mills with grim working conditions, with finished fabrics sent to Africa to exchange for more slaves to be shipped to the American South.

The Current State of Cotton

Today, cotton is produced on an even more massive scale—approximately 25 million metric tons a year—and is chiefly controlled by multinational corporations. Cotton continues to be one of the most popular fibers, making up 30% of all fibers produced. The top producing countries include India, China, the United States, Pakistan, Brazil, and Uzbekistan. According to CottonUp, 60% of cotton is grown by smallholder farmers, most of whose livelihoods depend on their crops.

Organic Cotton Farming - Machine harvesting cotton in field

Conventional cotton farming has been linked to significant environmental damage, due to a dependence on monoculture farming, agrochemicals (e.g., pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides), and water-intensive irrigation. Though data sources diverge on exact figures, cotton is believed to make up
7% of all pesticide and 16% of all insecticide use globally. This has had a considerable impact on farmers, resulting in 350,000 pesticide-related farmer deaths and a million pesticide-related farmer hospitalizations a year worldwide within the cotton industry.

Conventional Cotton vs. Organic Cotton

With cotton having such a major impact on the environment as well as on vulnerable populations, many sustainable fashion advocates see switching over to organic cotton as a solution for some of these deep and systemic issues.

Organic cotton is defined as cotton grown from non-GMO seeds without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Many companies, brands, and consumers are shifting towards organic due to a number of benefits:

1. Organic cotton is grown from less environmentally and economically destructive seeds than conventional cotton

Conventional cotton is often grown from genetically modified “Bt cotton” seeds, a kind of cotton that has monopolized the market due to its resistance to cotton bollworms. However, widespread use of the seed has resulted in growing pest resistance, requiring farmers to actually use more pesticides and insecticides with each generation of pests. This has been a major issue in India, where Bt seeds have contributed to a cycle of debt and poverty for farmers.

While GMO Bt seeds and the pesticides necessary to farm them are a huge financial burden on farmers, organic seeds are less so. Non-GMO seeds are cheaper and can be stored and replanted each year (GMO seeds cannot be and need to be repurchased annually). Organic farming also means that farmers can grow more than one crop at a time, helping to supplement their income.

2. Organic farming and manufacturing are safer for farmers, factory workers, and consumers

The World Health Organization estimates that 3 million cases of pesticide poisoning occur each year, resulting in over 250,000 annual pesticide-related deaths. Farmers that partake in organic farming are not as exposed to these life-threatening chemicals in the field or in their food and water supply.

Organic fibers are also safer for the factory workers producing them and the consumers wearing them. Those with sensitive skin or allergies may prefer organic cotton products since they aren’t treated with irritating chemical dyes and finishes. Organic cotton is increasingly preferred for items worn directly against the body, such as underwear and basics.

3. Unlike conventional cotton farming, organic farming takes a holistic approach and works with the earth—not against it

Conventional, non-organic cotton is usually grown as a mono-crop, which quickly depletes soil of nutrients and makes the soil vulnerable to pests, pathogens, and water loss. This results in a higher need for pesticides and fertilizers, which leach into the water and soil, contaminating local drinking water and our planet’s larger ecosystems.

Organic cotton farming systems, on the other hand, avoid toxic chemicals and instead utilize natural fertilizers (e.g., composted manure), natural pest control methods (e.g., releasing beneficial insects), as well as techniques like crop rotation, cover crops, and companion planting to enrich the soil. This results in increased biodiversity and cleaner water and air.

Organic cotton is also processed with safer, low-impact treatments in the manufacturing process. This is an important shift due to the fact that dyeing, bleaching, and printing are some of the dirtiest facets of the fashion industry, energy-intensive processes that release chemicals into waterways and the air. This is the most harmful in places without stringent regulations or protections, such as China, where it is estimated that 70% of rivers and lakes are contaminated by textile manufacturing.

4. Organic cotton is more traceable than conventional cotton

One advantage of certified organic cotton is having a better sense of the journey from field to shopping cart. Due to the rigorous protocols that must be met before an item can be considered organic, certified organic cotton is simply more traceable throughout the supply chain, and thus less likely to be the product of unsustainable or unethical practices.

One way to make sure your product has met organic standards is to look for third party certifications such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), the leading consumer-facing supply chain standard for organic fibers.

Investing in Organic Cotton

Despite the fact that we are living in a more eco-conscious market, organic products are not yet mainstream. Consumers still have a big role to play in influencing the cotton system to be more sustainable and ethical.

Since organic cotton is not yet the norm, it currently commands more of a premium due to the fact that it is more labor intensive than conventional cotton. Additionally, farmers must fulfill stringent organic farming standards while maintaining meticulous records of all inputs and management processes. At the end of the supply chain, the price tag of an organic cotton product is often higher to reflect this.

Ultimately, we should see buying organic cotton as an investment in a larger system change, and a vote towards normalizing practices in which long-term soil health and workers’ quality of life are prioritized over short-term productivity and output.