In the 1980s, organic cotton was planted to develop sustainable agriculture that works in line with nature and local farming communities. Fast forward forty years, and it’s become the biggest buzzword in sustainable fashion. You’ve probably seen them - the same facts jumping around the internet, making impressive claims about organic cotton's impact compared to conventional cotton. But, which ones are true? Is organic cotton really the saviour it’s made out to be? What makes organic cotton, organic?
Our in-depth guide will give you a better understanding of organic cotton, with a focus on three main areas: chemicals, water and people. Let’s dive in.
Chemicals - keep it clean
For cotton to be deemed organic, it cannot be grown using hazardous chemicals. Instead, organic cotton farming uses natural fertilizers and pest management strategies to aid crop growth. Weeds are managed through manual labour or farming techniques like intercropping, leaving the soil, ecosystems and farmers a lot happier. In fact, cutting out chemicals drops levels of toxicity in organic farming by up to 98%.
Did you know, there are more organisms in a healthy handful of soil than the number of humans that have walked the earth? Just let that sink in. Billions. Where organic farming focuses on supporting a healthy soil, conventional farming uses synthetic fertilizers, often a combination of just three nutrients - nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These macronutrients keep the crop going, but they’re a poor substitute for healthy soil. Over time, a destructive cycle of chemical dependency develops that reduces the soil to ‘dirt’. This is what Dr Elaine Ingram, an American soil biologist, describes as a sterile medium in which plants struggle to grow without the help of chemicals.
This might explain why cotton now contributes $2 billion a year to the pesticide industry. Pesticides help increase crop yields, but it comes at a cost. As soil health deteriorates, soil erosion takes hold, nutrients leech away, and biodiversity decreases.
There is no substitute for a healthy hand of soil, which is why we must look to reduce our reliance on chemicals, or risk further loss of biodiversity. It might seem like just a bit of soil but, as with bees and oxygen, our very survival depends on it.
But hang on, don’t farmers need pesticides to meet the demands we place on them? Can they be used more safely?
It is true that pesticides are a serious threat to soil, sea, animal and human health. But, it is also true that many farmers still rely on conventional practices to match the demands we place on them. So, who can blame them for using pesticides?
Many of the worst practices harming human health and the environment are being addressed. Some toxic pesticides have been replaced by newer, selective ones, and sustainable strategies are being used in conventional as well as organic farming. With the help of initiatives like REEL, Better Cotton Initiative and Cotton Made in Africa, progress is being made to lower chemical use whilst increasing yields and improving livelihoods through training and education. A case study with Primark, one of the great villains of the fashion industry, showed REEL farmers benefited from +211% higher profits and +12.6% higher yields despite lowering pesticide usage by more than half.
Without a full Life Cycle Assessment available, it’s hard to fully compare REEL with organic cotton. Ideally, chemicals wouldn’t be needed. But, REEL is an example of where conventional farming, which still produces 80% of all our cotton, can be improved upon to benefit soils, ecosystems and humans.
Water - don’t be so intense
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard how thirsty cotton can be. Depending on where it is grown, it takes between 10,000-20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of conventional cotton. That’s up to 8 times more than what’s needed to produce 1kg of rice.
So, does organic cotton really use less water, or is that just a marketing stunt?
The truth is, cotton’s water footprint is more complicated than that. Beyond the quantity of water used, the water’s origin, and how it is used, is also crucial to understanding organic cotton’s water usage. To break this down, we need to understand the three different kinds of water footprint:
Green water is rain, so we don’t mind using that, but a high blue or grey water footprint can have devastating effects on local ecosystems and communities.
Take the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. Forty years of intensive cotton farming has reduced it to a tenth of its former size. 24 native species of fish have died out, local wildlife has been decimated, water supplies are polluted and 70% of the locals ended up unemployed. In a world where 2.7 billion people live in areas with severe water scarcity, it is a warning of what will happen if we continue to abuse blue water supplies.
Once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world, intense farming in Uzbekistan has reduced the Aral Sea to a tenth of its former size.
Grey water footprint is where we see the biggest difference between organic and conventional cotton farming. Toxic runoff from pesticide use significantly increases the quantity of water required to return nearby water to healthy levels and, even then, the chemicals stay put. Contact with pesticides can adjust hormone levels and even cause genetic mutations in aquatic life, and around 14 million people in the USA drink water containing the dangerous chemicals. Adopting organic farming eliminates these risks, and significantly lowers grey water footprints.
In the Indian province of Gujarat, the quantity of water used hardly differs between organic, hybrid and conventional farming. But, in the region’s organic cotton farms, eliminating chemicals means the grey footprint drops by over 95%. So, even when organic farming doesn’t lower the quantity of water used, it still drastically improves the quality of wastewater - the water is reusable, and local ecosystems and communities are safe from water pollution.
So, what about the 250 million+ people that work in the cotton industry? What difference does organic make to them?
People - priority, not property
The cotton industry has always relied on slavery. By 1860, over half of the 3.2 million slaves in America produced almost 900,000 tons of cotton every year. Today, over 380 detainment camps have been found in Xinjiang, China, where more than 20% of the world’s cotton is produced, hidden by poor transparency in the fashion industry. A report in 2015 showed that 75% of 219 brands didn’t know the source of all their fabrics and inputs, leaving workers unaccounted for and unprotected.
Even when labour isn’t forced, the reliance on chemicals in conventional farming has severe consequences on farmers' health and financial security. PAN UK reported that “nearly 1,000 people die every day from acute pesticide poisoning and many more suffer from chronic ill health.” Those same pesticides cost up to 60% of a cotton farmers’ annual income, cancelling out any profits made from the higher yields that conventional farming aims for. One bad harvest can push them into debt and too often suicide. All because we want a bit more cotton.
Harmangod Singh (6) sits next to a portrait of his mother, Charnajeet Kaur, who died in 2010 of brain cancer, aged only 31. It is believed that excessive pesticide use in the region over the past 30-40 years has led to the accumulation of dangerous levels of toxins such as uranium, lead and mercury which are contributing to increased health problems including cancers, birth defects and mental disabilities in children. It's a hidden epidemic which is gripping the Punjab region in northeast India which for decades has been the country's 'bread basket'. As local farmers and their families continue to get ill they are paying the price for the country's 'Green Revolution'. (Copyright, Sean Gallagher. Used with permission)
So, how does organic farming change any of that?
By putting people before profits. The focus on sustainable agriculture means organic cotton farmers escape the health risks and financial burden of chemicals. They access premium prices for organic cotton, and benefit from education and training in sustainable agriculture. Through certifications like the Global Organic Textile Standard, social standards are ensured alongside environmental requirements, matching the standards of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
More and more cotton farmers are converting to organic, and Francisco’s story shows us why:
When I used to apply chemicals, I often felt dizzy and nauseous, now I never feel like that. Working with a company like Bergman Rivera/Ecotton has given me the opportunity to receive training in organic practices, but also in agricultural techniques that I didn't know. The compost and humus storehouse that they funded has helped my community get an additional income, by selling what we don´t use.
Francisco Almeida, Peru, Bergman Rivera/Ecotton (El Carmen, Chincha, Ica, Peru)
Organic farmers are often supported by companies like Bergman Rivera, or organisations like Organic Cotton Accelerator, which helps farmers convert from conventional to organic farming. Converting can be costly in time and money but, as a 2021 study showed, organic systems generally out-perform conventional systems economically, developing long-term health rather than short-term gain.
Members of the Pratima Organic Grower Group grow organic cotton, alongside ginger, turmeric, pulses and cashew nuts. Pratima believes in 'unshackling farmers through ownership and training'. They practise crop rotation, border cropping and composting techniques. This naturally fertilises the soil and keeps away diseases and pests; allowing farmers to escape dependence on expensive and toxic fertilisers. Pratima has supported and improved the lives of 3.5k farmers in this way, and continue to supply organic cotton for Project Pico's Fairtrade Trunks.
So, is organic cotton the saviour of sustainable fashion?
Organic cotton is a more ethical and sustainable alternative to conventional cotton. So we would always recommend prioritising it as much as you can. But, it is not the sole solution to all our climate and consumption problems. Organic farming practices support the health of soils, ecosystems and humans all over the world. And yet, ultimately, until our demand for new clothes drops to a more sustainable level, mass-production will continue to drive the intensive use of pesticides, abuse of water supplies and exploitation of human labour.
Choose organic but, even better, compare your needs to the needs of our planet before you buy.
Thirsty for fashion? How organic cotton delivers in a water-stressed world - An excellent overview of cotton production’s impact on water supplies
White Gold - The True Cost of Cotton - An in-depth report into the impact of cotton production on Uzbekistan
Wilding by Isabella Tree - Isabella’s account of her re-wilding project in West Sussex shows the power of nature to heal itself when given the freedom to do so. An inspiring story of hope and possibility in a time of environmental crisis.
Header image credit: Dibella India who supply BWS brand Knowledge Cotton Apparel with organic cotton.