Cotton is one of the most widely grown crops in the world – in fact it represents nearly half of all the fibre used in the textile industry – however it comes with many undesirable and quite frankly, terrifying, side effects. As one of the most chemical intensive fibres, it’s not only incredibly damaging to the health of people growing cotton and their surrounding communities, but it also has detrimental impacts on our soil, water and air.
Cotton is widely known to be a crop that requires a huge amount of water, you’ve probably heard the ‘it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce a cotton t-shirt’, and while there are many factors to this and it’s not an exact science, we can conclude that cotton (both conventional and organic) are very water intensive crops. To make matters worse, cotton is also often grown in water-stressed regions and can lead to precious drinking water being used to water crops instead of being available to local communities. The top cotton producing countries include China, India and the United States which in 2020/2021 produced 6.42 million metric tonnes, 6.16 million metric tonnes, and 3.18 million metric tonnes of cotton respectively. Having supply chain transparency around where and how cotton is grown is essential in ensuring that cotton (organic or conventional) isn’t contributing to water scarcity in already water-stressed regions.
The most important distinction between conventional and organic cotton is the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides used to grow conventional cotton. The large quantity of pesticides required have detrimental impacts both socially and environmentally. Exposure to these toxic chemicals can lead to severe health consequences for farmers. While not specific to cotton farmers, it’s estimated that at least one million agricultural workers are hospitalised annually with acute pesticide poisoning. Chemical runoff into waterways can also have detrimental health effects on local communities who rely on this water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing.
In addition to their impact on people, these synthetic fertilisers (alongside conventional cotton growing methods such as mono-cropping), are causing extensive soil degradation, making it harder to continue growing crops year on year, which in turn leads to the use of more chemicals, further soil degradation, and further decreases in crop yields (requiring even more land) – and the cycle continues. These chemical fertilisers also lead to the loss of essential soil nutrients and microorganisms that are vital to soil health; as well as impacting soils natural carbon capture function, all leading to the loss of crucial topsoil.
In contrast, organic cotton is grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers and focuses on the creation of healthy soil (meaning organic cotton farmers generally have a longer cotton commodity lifespan) and mitigating health risks to farmers and local communities. Organic cotton also means that the end clothing product produced is significantly safer to wear as it is free from the many chemicals used to grow conventional cotton.
When it comes to organic cotton certifications, the most widely used and reliable within the fashion industry is Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). GOTS is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres and includes both ecological and social criteria in its certification, and is backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. GOTS ensures the organic status of textiles, from the harvesting of the raw fibre, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling in order to provide credible assurance to the end consumer. When it comes to buying organic cotton, ensure the product is certified organic and where possible, it’s also good to look out for Fair Trade certified cotton which gives an even more robust assurance that workers were treated fairly throughout the supply chain.
The other key cotton certification we should discuss is the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). BCI is a global not-for-profit organisation that seeks to make the cotton industry more sustainable. It’s a certification you have likely seen, as it has been adopted by many fast fashion businesses globally such as H&M, Zara and Urban Outfitters (which may already give you a hint as to how sustainable it truly is), however, it can very often be misconstrued as an organic certification. While the seven BCI principles include commendable initiatives such as ‘farmers should minimise the harmful impact of crop protection practices’, ‘should promote water stewardship’, ‘should care for the health of the soil’, and ‘should promote decent work’, the commitments are all non-binding. Therefore, there is no way of knowing the extent to which BCI certified cotton has indeed employed any of these principles.
We also feel it’s worth highlighting the work that Cotton Australia is doing around managing on-farm sustainability. With a vision for Australia to be a global leader in sustainable cotton production, they are focussed on helping Australian cotton growers produce more cotton on less land, with more efficient water use and with less impact on the environment. They have committed to undertaking sustainability reporting every five years against agreed targets, stakeholder engagement on their sustainability and opportunities for improvement, and independent assessments of sustainability and environmental performance every 10 years.
So, circling back to organic cotton, while still not a perfect solution, choosing to purchase certified organic cotton is a far sight better than its non-organic counterpart – both for people and the planet. However, even better than organic cotton is second hand cotton or cotton you already own!