What Is Organic Cotton? Why Is It a Sustainable Fabric?

Natural organic cotton t-shirts and cotton plant flowers on white table. Eco clothes, fashion, sustainable lifestyle concept
photoguns / Getty Images

Organic cotton is cotton that is grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. While polyester has dominated the fiber for nearly 20 years, organic cotton continues on an upward trend. Here, we analyze this rise and uncover where organic cotton falls on the sustainability scale.

Traditional vs. Organic Cotton

A soft, breathable fabric we know and love, cotton has some unfortunate environmental downsides.

Common cotton production uses agricultural chemicals to ward off pests, with one study reporting that 16% of the world's pesticides are used on cotton. The widespread use impacts water, soil health, and biodiversity in the many areas of the world in which cotton is grown.

Organic cotton, on the other hand, produces a significantly lower environmental impact. Growers report improved soil conditions and fewer pests as a result of developing organic farming practices. Organic cotton also uses less water. While traditional cotton requires, on average, 2210 l/kg of water to produce, organic cotton only uses 182 l/kg of total irrigated water.

While organic cotton still has an impact, it is a much more eco-friendly choice than traditional cotton.

Organizations for Eco-Friendly Cotton

While organic cotton is favored as the most environmentally friendly variety, organizations are also reducing the impact of cotton in other ways.

Better Cotton Initiative

Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is helping cotton farmers and workers use better agricultural practices to mitigate environmental damage, as well as ensure that cotton farmers receive living wages and good working conditions.

BCI cotton is not grown without the use of pesticides; however, it is grown in a manner that minimizes soil damage and pollution. It also promotes the efficient use of water, reducing wasteful watering practices.

Cotton grown under the BCI principles can still be labeled as genetically modified organisms (GMO), as well. Nevertheless, the environmental impact is still less than that of traditional cotton.

Fairtrade Cotton

Fairtrade cotton is labeled by Fairtrade International, a product-focused organization that supports cotton growers by promoting sustainable practices. They work with growers to stop or reduce the use of damaging pesticides and fertilizers.

In some regions, Fairtrade gives farmers the resources needed to adapt to climate changes. As part of the program, the Fairtrade-certified fields in Western Africa and India are rain-fed instead of being irrigated, so farmers use less of their water supply. Fairtrade standards also prohibit the use of GMO seeds.

How to Choose the Best Organic Cotton

In order to choose the highest quality organic cotton, look for a certification. Keep in mind that not all fabric certifications are the same. BCI and Fairtrade certifications, for example, only indicate that more sustainable farming practices were used—not that the cotton is organic.

Here are some certifications you may find on the tags or packaging of organic cotton fabrics.

USDA Organic Certification

Within the United States, any commodity certified as organic had to be grown on land that hadn't used any prohibited substance (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) for at least three years. However, this only certifies the agricultural processes and does not guarantee that the cotton hasn't been processed or dyed with harmful chemicals.

Global Organic Textile Standard Certification

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certifying organization certifies from the first point of processing all the way through the dyeing and manufacturing stages of a garment. GOTS essentially picks up where agricultural certifiers leave off.

GOTS has a specific list of requirements to certify facilities processing cotton. A "made with organic" label from GOTS requires that 70% of the garment contains organic fibers. An "organic" label must have a minimum of 95% certified organic fibers.

Oeko Tex Certification

While any stage of the textile process can be certified with an Oeko Tex certification, they are mostly concerned with the finished product. This certification does not mean organic. An Oeko Tex certification means that the item has been tested for harmful substances and is considered safe for human use.

Future of Organic Cotton

The new wave of conscious shoppers is driving up demand for more organic products. Organic cotton is the fastest-growing portion of the non-food organic industry. It is expected to continue this upward trend as more farms, companies, and facilities receive certification in response to shoppers seeking more transparently sustainable products.

View Article Sources