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What is Organic Cotton? A Quick Guide Why it Matters.

With the world turning to more sustainable practices and chemical-free processes, organic cotton is a name that we often hear. Be it in our clothing, our cotton wipes, or our kid’s bedding; organic cotton is everywhere. And it is here to stay. Here are the most asked questions about organic cotton:

What is organic cotton?

Organic cotton is cotton obtained from only natural seeds and not transgenic or genetically modified (GM) seeds. Conventional cotton uses GM seeds to make them pest-resistant. On the other hand, organic cotton is naturally more resistant to pests. Organic cotton plants are cultivated without pesticides or fertilizers as they harm our health and the environment. Due to the absence of these chemicals, the soil is healthier, and the water required to grow the plant is lesser. This chemical-free practice also keeps nearby water bodies toxins-free. Overall, organic cotton is more respectful towards the planet.

How is organic cotton different from conventional cotton?

Organic cotton uses rainwater (green water) instead of irrigated water sourced from water bodies (blue water), consuming 88% less water than conventional cotton. The weeding process of conventional cotton uses herbicides compared to killing the weeds by hand for organic cotton.

The demand for conventional cotton is more, and hence the cotton is machine picked to cope with this demand. The machines can damage the cotton fibres. On the other hand, organic cotton is handpicked, ensuring that the threads don’t get broken or damaged, providing longer yarns and softer garments.

The processing of regular cotton uses a large number of chemicals, heavy metals, and chlorine. Instead, organic cotton uses safer alternatives like natural or water-based dyes, peroxide for whitening, etc.

Overall, organic cotton is softer, long-lasting, and beneficial to you and the environment.

What are the certifications required for organic cotton?

To be termed ‘organic,’ cotton must undergo some certification stages. Different institutions have different standards and specifications for testing cotton. The Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) are the most prominent and widely recognized. Some of the criteria for GOTS certification mention that no heavy metals and GMOs are allowed, no carcinogenic azo dyes are allowed, and no printing or packaging using PVC is permitted. Producers must treat all wastewater before discharging it into waterways. There are two types of GOTS certifications. GOTS ‘organic’ certification allows 95% of the fibre to be organic and the rest 5% to be non-organic. GOTS’ made with organic’ certification enables a minimum of 70% of the fibre to be organic, a maximum of 10% to be synthetic, and the remaining can be other natural fibres.

There are many other certifications like the Organic Content Standard (OCS) which certifies only the content and not the entire supply chain. OCS has two tiers: ‘OCS 100’, which requires 95% organic fibres, and ‘OCS blended,’ which only needs 5% of the fibre to be organic. Under Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), farmers can use GMO seeds and chemicals only up to an extent. This certification gives farmers some leeway, but it isn’t perfect. This certification is often preferred as it makes it easier for some farmers to transition to organic cotton. Under Oeko-Tex certification, organic cotton is tested for harmful chemicals upon completion of the manufacturing process.

In the United States, cotton needs to meet the National Organic Programme (NOP) requirements of, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), to be considered organic cotton.

How is the fashion industry involved with organic cotton?

Cotton is the most widely used natural fibre. It touches many lives from its production to its retail stage. Organic cotton fibres make many everyday items like sanitary products, cotton puffs, ear swabs, make-up removal pads, fabrics, home furnishings, kids’ products, and different types of apparel.

Several Indian and foreign brands are opting for organic cotton due to its rising awareness. Brands want to adopt a greener apparel production process, while consumers want to buy organic cotton for a greener lifestyle. Many Indian brands that have already taken this step and use organic cotton are No Nasties, Saltpetre, Anokhi, Mikololo, whitewater kids, and Doodlage. International brands incorporating organic cotton products include Base Range, Kowtow, Nico, Skin, PACT, Nino Bambino, Earth positive, C&A, H&M, Nike, Decathlon, Stella Mc Cartney, Continental, and Organic Initiative. Retail spaces like Walmart, Harrods, and Marks & Spencer have also introduced organic cotton apparel lines.

The number of brands opting for organic cotton is on the rise. Thus, it is a positive sign that the fashion and textile industries want to reduce their adverse environmental impact by adopting more sustainable ways to reshape global fashion.

What are the cons of organic cotton clothing?

Organic cotton may have more pros than cons, but we cannot ignore these cons. Organic cotton is labour-intensive due to its manual production process. It is strenuous for the producers compared to conventional cotton, which heavily depends on machinery. The criteria to be labelled as organic cotton also includes treatment of the water before discharging and specific dyes; this can also be expensive for the producer. Most importantly, organic cotton crops give less yield than conventional cotton, which means more area, water and effort are required to extract the same amount of cotton, making it expensive. The field with these crops needs to be planted on rotation, which makes the constant yield of organic cotton hard. The conversion process to certified organic can also be slow as many factors need testing before certification.

How sustainable is organic cotton?

Organic cotton farmers have a longer commodity lifespan as their land stays fertile longer because of abstaining from chemical usage. Using fewer pesticides, etc., also means the farmers are relatively healthier as they have access to a clean food supply and clean water. On the consumer end, organic cotton is safer on the skin as it lacks the harmful chemicals of conventional cotton.

Organic cotton depends on rainwater; hence, dependency on nearby water bodies is reduced, giving them a longer lifespan. Organic cotton also has one of the lowest CO2 emissions compared to other popular fibres.

GOTS certification also ensures fair wages, provisions for basic human needs, access to clean drinking water and toilets, freedom from unfair disciplinary practices, child labour bans, and freedom from discrimination. This makes the community overall healthy and happy, thus, making them willing to continue in this field for longer.

GOTS certification also requires mandatory crop rotation, so different crops can grow in a field area each season, helping it replenish soil nutrients. Organic cotton may grow for one year on a piece of land, but the following year farmers can choose to grow edible crops to support their families and communities. This arrangement makes it easier and more affordable for farmers to grow money-making crops like organic cotton and life-sustaining crops in tandem.

What is the future of organic cotton?

In some areas of the world, other crops are more lucrative than cotton, encouraging farmers to opt for those better-paying options. Additionally, in some markets, organic cotton does not fetch a much higher price than conventional cotton. Farmers suffer considerable losses due to the extra effort and expense involved in producing it.

More conscious consumers will lead to more demand for transparent processes and, in turn, more producers converting to organic cotton. As consumers slowly become environmentally aware and regard health as the topmost priority, they will realize the value of organic cotton, its benefits, and its versatility. Then they will be willing to pay the price it is worth, motivating more and more farmers to shift their focus to cultivating organic cotton.