Organic cotton has become a buzzword for sustainability in the past year with more brands making the switch in their collections, but what actually is organic cotton and why is it so important? We aim to answer this question with our concise guide, explaining the key differences between organic and conventional cotton.

Why is conventional cotton bad?

  • It uses vast amounts of synthetic pesticides and herbicides - which can harm the workers, people living in the area and the environment.
    Conventional cotton uses just 2.5% of the planet’s total agricultural area, however it uses 7% of all pesticides and 16% of all insecticides”. (frankandoak)
  • It uses a vast amount of water.
    According to studies, it can take more than 2,700 litres of water to produce enough cotton for just one t-shirt. (goodonyou)
  • There are little to no systems in place in order to protect the health of the soil.
  • Genetically modified seeds are used which are controlled by monopoly companies, often forcing farmers into serious debt.

For cotton to be considered organic it must:

  • Not use pesticides or herbicides containing toxic chemicals
  • Maintain healthy soil through crop rotation
  • Not use genetically modified seeds

What is genetic modification and why is it problematic?

89% of the cotton planted in India is now from GMO seeds. These seeds were first introduced in order to prevent pests without using pesticides, (primarily the bollworm) and this resulted in higher yields as the crops weren't killed. While this sounds beneficial it has evolved into something gigantically problematic. 

Bayer is the World’s largest seeds and pesticides company and they operate a stronghold over the industry. They use this to set prices eye-wateringly high which forces many farmers to spiral into huge debt. The seeds have now been modified to not reproduce each year and to only be treated with pesticides manufactured by Bayer (yes, pesticides are still needed as the pests immune to the Btoxins in GMO seeds have replaced the bollworm) meaning farmers have no choice but to get sucked into the cycle. 

Aside from the ethical issues, many of the chemicals used in the pesticides are banned in the West yet the farmers apply these chemicals with protective clothing, exposing them to significant health risks.

By 2015, more than 12,500 Indian cotton farmers had died by suicide and while GMO cotton cannot be explicitly blamed, the links are evident as farmers get caught in a vicious cycle of debt. Tragically, many of the farmers who die by suicide do so by drinking the pesticides they cannot afford to pay off.

Why use organic cotton?

  • The small scale cotton farmers are not controlled by GMO companies which charge staggeringly high prices for seeds and pesticides. 
  • Using traditional cotton seeds is beneficial for crop diversification and allows for breeding local varieties of plants, meaning the crops will be better suited to local conditions. 
  • Regenerative farming practices are utilised which improve soil health and store more carbon in the ground.
  • Organic cotton emits 46% fewer greenhouse gases than conventional cotton and uses less water (although statistics vary on exactly how much). 
  • Workers and surrounding communities are not exposed to carcinogens through toxic pesticide use.

Ultimately we should always look for organic cotton where possible. There is no doubt that the benefits of organic cotton far outweigh the current reality of cotton production. However, tackling overconsumption is also critical. Cotton yields have increased 42% in the last 35 years due to the introduction of genetically modified seeds. If we switched our entire cotton supply chain to organic we would not be able to keep up with the demand using organic farming methods. We simply consume too much.

Organic cotton should be viewed as part of a wider solution, an interim maybe, but mindful consumption is the ultimate sustainable objective.