Is there really a difference between Organic Cotton and Regular cotton?
Words by Gabi Goddard.
Image by ethical fashion label, MANE Project.
‘I started naming states, but then I got tired of it. So I started naming types of celery. So far I only got one: regular celery’ – Phoebe Buffay
What is cotton? What is the difference between organic cotton and normal cotton? Is organic cotton really necessary? Sounds excessive. Are there other ways of sourcing sustainable cotton? Is this how you spell cotton? It looks weird. Let’s explore [some of] these questions together!
What is cotton?
Take a look at the whimsical picture of cotton plants we’ve used for this article. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but the fluffy white fibre is the raw material from which cotton fabric is made. The cotton ‘boll’ (no we did not spell that wrong and yes we are aware of its close proximity in sound to ‘ball’), is the leafy part at the top of the stem that contains the seeds, and these seeds are surrounded by white fibre casings.
In better-developed countries like Australia, the US and brazil, these fluffy, cottony capsules are picked or stripped by machines, and then the cotton is baled (think of hay bales). The cotton then goes to the ‘gin’, a machine which will separate the cotton from the seeds and fluff them. That fluffed cotton goes through a process called ‘carding’. Picture giant metal rollers with little teeth rotating next to each other in opposing directions. You pack in the tangled cotton fibre, and the machines help align the fibres so that they can be easily spun into yarn and woven into fabric. As with any fibre, the longer the fibre, the softer the cotton. Pima and Egyptian cottons are softer and silkier because of their long fibres.
Although cotton is grown in over 80 countries worldwide, 80% of cotton is produced in India, China, the USA, Pakistan, Brazil and Australia. Naturally, the country where the cotton is grown will significantly impact the human and environmental damage done.
In Australia, for example, all the parts of the cotton plant are useful. The seeds are used for oil (it’s common for your fish and chips to be cooked in cottonseed oil), leftover fibre that can’t be used for cotton fabric manufacturing is used for products like cotton balls, and the rest of the plant is usually mulched and put back into the earth to nourish the next crop.
Of those six major producers, the three with (arguably) the best human rights records – the USA, Australia and Brazil- largely mechanise their cotton processing. In India, by contrast, cotton farming is far more labour-intensive, with people preparing the cotton by hand.
Okay, cotton is starting to seem a bit iffy. Does it get worse?
Look honestly, yes. But you knew that, because you’ve very likely heard that cotton is a thirsty crop. In fact, it’s the thirstiest non-consumable crop in the world, on average requiring 6-7 megalitres of water per hectare. To give you perspective, rice (which basically drowns in water, have you seen rice paddies?) requires 11.5 ML/ha, and veggies about 4 ML/ha [Cotton Australia].
While Australia is one of the most water-efficient cotton growing nations, many countries rely solely on flood irrigation; a process whereby trenches are dug by each row of crop, and those trenches are flooded with water. This, understandably, is a highly wasteful process.
Standard cotton crops pollute eco-systems and can be highly harmful to human health because of the fertilisers, chemicals and pesticides involved in the growing process. Four percent of all world pesticides and ten percent of insecticides are used on cotton crops [pesticide action network].
Have you heard of Monsanto? They’re the ones killing the bees. They produced Agent Orange, and just FYI almost all your wheat has been prematurely ‘ripened’ (defoliated) by their product, glyphosate, and it’s probably why you feel sick when you eat bread. Monsanto created a GMO seed called ‘bt cotton’. 95% of cotton crops in India are bt cotton- where workers are paid well below the living wage. Although there is debate, up to 300,000 cotton farmer suicides in India have been attributed to debt cycles caused by the high price of Monsanto seeds. A 2014 Guardian article said;
Most cotton farmers are barely able to cover their output costs, let alone make any profit to support their families. India – which competes with the likes of the US, where cotton is heavily subsidised – is grappling with the rising costs of genetically modified seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, as well as the impact of unpredictable weather patterns. GM seeds account for 95% of cotton farming in India.
But cotton sucks. Sucks hard. Not only does it cost four times the amount of non-GMO cotton, but traditionally, cotton farms in India were rainfed. Bt cotton requires irrigation, as well as greater quantities of pesticide and fertiliser.
Here comes the really sickening part. Farmer suicides are not the only deaths caused by the cotton industry. Children as young as five in India, Egypt, and Kazakhstan labour in cotton fields and ginning factories [ILO (2016) Child Labour in Cotton: A Briefing]. They work long hours and can suffer from exhaustion, heat stroke, and malnutrition. The chemicals they are exposed to can lead to paralysis and death.
So what can we do?
There are several initiatives set up to ensure we can source cotton that is better for the planet and people! It’s actually referred to in the industry as ‘better cotton’. You can buy organic cotton, which we’ll explore in more detail below, and there are other non-organic schemes such as Fairtrade, Cotton Made in Africa, the Better Cotton Initiative, and in Australia, myBMP. We’ll look at these in brief. Cotton from these schemes and others like them (there are also Content Claim Standard, Cotton Connect, Organic Cotton Standard) account for about 19% of the world’s global cotton [Cotton Australia].
Fairtrade cotton is actually 70% organic. This tends to be incidental, as so many of their ecological and social requirements intersect with the values of organic cotton. Sadly, there isn’t a huge demand for fairtrade cotton and so half of fairtrade cotton is sold as conventional cotton. What Fairtrade cotton does really well is have a high set rate established at which to sell the cotton; farmers are well paid, and the cost of production is taken into consideration. They’re also paid a premium for community development- this may go into digging wells, or building schools. Fairtrade cotton is traced and verified independently throughout the supply chain via auditing.
Better Cotton Initiative:
This is the largest scheme within the wider ‘better cotton’ movement. Lots of fast fashion brands are involved with better cotton (think H&M), and it’s a middle ground between conventional cotton and meticulously thoughtful organic growing methods. BCI advocates for careful water and pesticide use, and educates farmers around soil and biodiversity management. GMO seeds and pesticides are allowed. BCI sets minimum standards for workers all along the supply chain. Traceability is not non-existent, but it’s not meticulous.
Cotton Made in Africa:
You’ll notice that there were no African countries listed among the major producers of cotton worldwide, but in fact 20 million people in Africa make their ‘living’ within the cotton industry. African cotton farms tend to be small, and CMiA supports these smallholder farmers by helping them improve their cultivation methods and therefore their yields. They implement sustainable farming methods along the way. CMiA is a cheaper way of affording sustainable, ethical cotton. CMiA is also often certified by BCI.
My Best Management Practises is a cool Australian initiative that helps improve outcomes for, and the environmental practises of our farmers. It began in 1997 and is probably the reason that Australian cotton has one of the lowest water consumption rates worldwide. Cotton farmers are audited against five core modules, as well as a module chosen at random. The core modules are biosecurity, fibre quality, integrated pest management, energy and input efficiency, work health and safety, and sustainable natural landscape.
While we appreciate every initiative to better the cotton industry, by far our favourite solution to the terrible ethical and environmental dilemmas created by the industry is….
We know we’ve taken our time getting here, but we saved best ‘til last for you. There’s a reason so many of your favourite ethical labels love designing with organic cotton; the seeds are never GMO, and they don’t use pesticides, insecticides or fungicides. No agricultural synthetic chemicals are used at all. Organic requires restorative farming methods. For example, instead of monocrops, organic cotton benefits from crop rotation. This way of farming improves literally every part of the ecosystem around the cotton; the soil and water quality is healthy, and there’s strong biodiversity. The human impact is equally as positive; not only do farmers (and ginners, spinners, fabric dyers) retain their health, but they can sell organic cotton at a higher rate. On the Higg Index, organic cotton has half the environmental footprint of standard cotton.
Organic cotton needs to be certified by a third party, and every country has different assessment processes for this. If you want to be completely certain the cotton fabric you are buying is organic, then buy GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified organic cotton; our personal favourite for it’s traceability all along the supply chain.
GOTS remains traceable through a Transaction Certificate system. Transaction Certificates are a document that verifies the origin and the organic status of a product. It will list the products, shipment and buyers details and declares the GOTS certification status. Each ‘producer’ along the supply chain has an independent certifier verify the transaction certificate for the next producer along the supply chain. In this way, the seed preparation, the farming, and each stage of production until the fabric is ready for clothing or textile manufacture is certified organic. You can look at the Transaction Certificates and learn the entire supply chain from seed to fabric. It’s very cool.
GOTS not only has ecological requirements that need to be met, but social requirements. On the GOTS website, their social criteria requires that; regular employment be provided, harsh or inhumane treatment is prohibited, no discrimination is practised, working hours not be excessive, living wages are paid, child labour is never used, working conditions be safe and hygeinic, freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining must be respected, and that employment be freely chosen. GOTS carries out regular and thorough auditing.
Something to bear in mind when you’re buying a clothing item or fabric is the legal difference between ‘made with organic cotton’ and ‘organic cotton’. In the case of GOTS, the former label wording requires 70% of the garment/fabric to be organic, whereas for the latter, 95% of the garment must be organic.
The final option for more sustainable cotton (that avoids any water usage at all!) is recycled cotton. Almost all recycled cotton is mechanically recycled rather than chemically recycled (the exception is Refibra- a technology patented by the creators of Tencel). The difference is mechanical recycling physically separates cotton fibres from old pieces of clothing and organises them by colour- so no dyeing is necessary either! This does create a lower quality cotton, but it can be blended with other sustainable cotton to maintain a workable quality.
So, although it sounds excessive to pay extra for organic when it’s not going into your stomach (we hope), it isn’t at all! In an industry where standard cotton doesn’t have to meet any standards at all– for people or the planet- we should be looking for systems that expect high standards. And while there are some awesome schemes out there, organic cotton has our vote and our heart.