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Is organic cotton actually more sustainable than conventional cotton?

March 2nd, 2023
Is organic cotton actually more sustainable than conventional cotton?

Is organic cotton actually more sustainable than conventional cotton?

Cotton is the world's most commonly used natural fibre. The production of cotton can bring economic gains to developing regions in the world but it is also known to cause serious environmental and social problems. To grow cotton, large amounts of pesticides, water and land are needed. As a response to these environmental impacts, standards have been developed, including organic cotton standards. But is organic cotton actually more sustainable?

Cotton is the world's most popular and most commonly grown natural fibre and accounts for almost a quarter (22%) of global fibre production. Historically, cotton used to be the most popular fibre for textiles worldwide. However, by the 1990s, the uptake of synthetic fibres such as polyester, led to cotton losing its position.

Cotton is sourced from the natural fibres of the cotton plant, from the so-called 'bolls' that surround the seeds. These fibres are then de-seeded, cleaned, aligned and spun into yarn and woven into fabric. Cotton crops are grown in more than 80 countries and is the world's most planted non-food crop. The main producers of cotton are India, China, the US, Brazil and Pakistan, together producing 75% of the world's cotton. The production of cotton is the main source of income for up to 1 billion people worldwide, of which 100 million are cotton farmers. Most of these cotton farmers, (90%), are located in low-income countries where they have plots that are less than 2 hectares.

While cotton production can bring economic benefits to these developing regions, it is also known to cause serious environmental and social problems. To grow cotton, excessive amounts of water and pesticides are needed. To produce enough cotton for one t-shirt, an average of 17 teaspoons of chemical fertilizers are used and nearly a teaspoon of active ingredients, such as pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. While cotton crops cover 2.4% of the world's cultivated land, cotton uses 4.7% of the world's pesticides, as well as over 10% of the world's insecticides. This makes cotton one of the most pesticide-intensive crops available. Many of the pesticides used in cotton production have been deemed hazardous by WHO. Pesticides do not only have negative effects on the environment but can also have serious impacts on the people working with them. Two in five cotton farmers are said to have had pesticide poisoning in the past year, with 12% of farmers having severe symptoms.

Cotton is also one of the thirstiest crops available, as it takes approximately 10,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of cotton. To produce enough cotton for one t-shirt, 2,700 litres of water is used, enough for a person to drink from for 900 days. Globally, cotton production requires more than 250 billion tonnes of water per year. A large part of cotton production takes place in countries where there are already problems with water scarcity and insecurity. Unsustainable cotton production has already led to declined freshwater availability in several Asian countries. For example, unsustainable cotton production and poor water management in the area surrounding the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, once the world's fourth-largest inland sea, has led to a 90% reduction of the sea's volume in less than one generation. This has led to major losses in biodiversity, ecological crisis and water stress due to declined freshwater availability and increased soil salinity. The production of cotton is known to have depleted and degraded the soil in many areas of the world and has polluted both water and soil with its heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers.

As a response to these environmental impacts, 'preferred cotton' and organic cotton programmes have been developed. Cotton produced under a 'preferred cotton' standard has improved environmental and/or social sustainability outcomes and impacts compared to conventional cotton. There are several of these 'preferred cotton' programmes, including Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), ISCC, ABR, ICPSS, myBMP, REEL and Fair Trade. Approximately a quarter of all cotton is produced under these preferred cotton programmes.

Organic cotton is produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and with non-genetically modified seeds. The use of fewer synthetic pesticides leads to better working conditions and health for cotton farmers, as well as continued access to clean water and food supplies in neighbouring communities. Organic cotton, which also includes CmiA organic and Fair Trade organic, accounts for approximately 1.4% of total cotton production.

There are two independent organic cotton certification systems, the Organic Content Standard (OCS) and the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS). The OCS can be applied to any non-food product that contains 95 to 100% of organic material and gives the textiles industry a means to verify the organically grown content of products. The Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) has a strong focus on cotton production and also includes the environmental and social aspects of the whole organic cotton supply chain.

While organic cotton seems to be preferable to conventional cotton, organic cotton has been a subject of controversy and there have been claims of greenwashing. This is partly due to the fact that organic cotton farming can require more resources, as it can take up more time, labour and land than conventional cotton farming. Organic cotton production is not always as efficient as conventional cotton farming, and often provides lower yields. It should be noted that conventional cotton crops are often genetically engineered in order to give higher yields. In the last 35 years, cotton yields have increased by 42% due to genetic modifications and better irrigation techniques. In order to get the same amount of fibre from organic cotton crops as conventional cotton crops, more organic crops will have to be planted, which requires more land. This extra land will also need to be tended to and possibly irrigated, requiring more labour and water.

However, studies vary on the amount of water that organic cotton requires. Most sources on the water use of organic cotton cite data from Textile Exchange. A comparison of two Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs), commissioned by Textile Exchange, led to the unsubstantiated statement that organic cotton production would require 91% less water than conventional cotton. However, this claim has been contested and Textile Exchange agreed that this claim is only correct in the context of the two specific LCA studies, as it compares organic cotton production that occurs in rainfed fields, whereas the conventional cotton fields are irrigated.

While organic cotton is said to require less water than conventional cotton, the difference is likely not this great. More land is needed for organic cotton production in order to acquire the same amount of cotton fibres. However, the majority of organic cotton is grown on small farms, which are often rainfed. It is estimated that 80% of organic cotton production takes place in predominantly rainfed areas, while most conventional cotton is grown using irrigation. As no synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are used, less water is needed to grow the crops as pesticide-free soil is more water-efficient. Additionally, GMO crops often require more water than organic crops.

Another criticism of organic cotton standards is that they only focus on the material's environmental sustainability. In order for cotton to be 'organic', a set of strict rules regarding soil health, and the prohibition of artificial fertilizers, hazardous synthetic pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) needs to be followed. As the term organic does not necessarily include the various social impacts of cotton production, this has led to discussions about the integrity of organic standards on cotton products.

On the other hand, most organic cotton standards cover both the environmental and social impacts of the cotton supply chain. The GOTS standard covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of textiles. GOTS ensures environmental and social standards, including proper working conditions and fair wages. OCS also confirms that the cotton meets approved standards across the entire supply chain. Fair Trade certifications also ensure that workers are treated well across the entire supply chain.

While there are many benefits to organic cotton over conventional cotton, it does not necessarily mean that it is produced in a socially responsible way. In order to be sure that your cotton clothes are produced in a more environmentally and socially sustainable way, check for the GOTS, OCS and Fair Trade labels shown below!


A FEW FACTS

· Cotton is the world's most commonly used natural fibre. Almost a quarter of all fibres produced are cotton.

· Cotton is a pesticide- and water-intensive crop, which can cause health and ecological problems.

· Organic cotton is grown without genetic modifications, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

· 80% of organic cotton is often grown in rainfed areas, and thereby does not require much irrigation.

· Organic cotton standards don't necessarily include social aspects, but several standards cover both environmental and social sustainability.

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