Have you ever wondered about organic cotton and what the difference is? After all, why would you pay extra for a t-shirt that looks exactly the same as a cheaper alternative?

Organic cotton might look the same as regular cotton, but they couldn’t be more different. What you don’t see is the life that t-shirt has had from the cotton fields to the shop floor.

So, if you want to know more about organic cotton and why you should be buying it, we’ve got you covered.

What is organic cotton? Organic cotton is a more sustainable alternative to conventionally grown cotton. What do we mean by that? Whilst no material can be said to be 100% sustainable, organic cotton is significantly better for our environment and workers when compared to conventional cotton.  Organic cotton is grown and processed without use of harmful chemicals, including fertilizers and pesticides.

By contrast, conventional cotton is grown from modified seeds supplied by multinational chemical companies (GMO-seeds) which use also fertilizers and pesticides. Conventional cotton can also be processed with a number of harmful and depleting chemicals and processes, further contributing to its environmental footprint.

How is organic cotton made?

To start with, organic cotton uses untreated GMO-free seeds. These are then grown in healthy soil that retains all of the good nutrients that plants love. Absolutely no hazardous chemicals are used to treat the plants – it’s au naturel.

When the crops are ready, they are harvested using natural defoliation by freezing temperatures. Organic cotton can also sometimes be harvested using water management. Since natural cotton isn’t perfectly white, organic cotton is treated and whitened using safe peroxides. This is then finished with a soft scour in warm water.

Is cotton renewable? Yes, cotton is renewable. Since it is grown from a plant, it is considered a renewable material.  Growing cotton does use a significant amount of resources though, so it is still important to manage our reliance on this crop. For example, studies show that cotton covers around 2.5% of the planet’s total agricultural land, yet uses 7% of all pesticides and 16% of all insecticides – making it one of the dirtiest crops in existence. The many steps that go into processing the raw material also have a significant environmental impact, not least of all because of the emissions related to transporting cotton bales from location to location.

Advantages of organic cotton

There are so many advantages to choosing organic cotton over regular cotton. We’ve gone over a few of those advantages already but here are some you might not have thought about yet:

Hypoallergenic for sensitive skin

Conventional cotton is often treated and dyed with a variety of chemicals that are known to cause allergic reactions.

Certified organic cotton uses less harsh chemicals in its process, which result in a hypoallergenic end material – which is part of the reason why it is so very popular for baby and enfant clothing.

Even if you’ve never had an allergic reaction to conventional cotton items, it just makes sense to minimise use and exposure to nasty chemicals as this ultimately minimises pollution.

Better living conditions for cotton farmers. The cotton industry in unfortunately rife with human rights violations as there’s very little transparency into where raw material is coming from, and therefore a lack of accountability. As much as the industry is progressing, creating change in cotton farming remains a challenge.

Cotton is a water intensive crop and the unavailability of water and healthy soil has led many farmers to opt for GMO seeds that have the potential to grow in poorer soil and dryer conditions. Unfortunately that leaves them at the mercy of companies who at any point can increase prices, which reduces their margins and leaves them struggling to make ends meet.

GMO seeds also require more pesticides as they can be more easily targeted by pests, which is an added expense for farmers. In addition, the chemicals in these pesticides cause further harm to the soil, surrounding animals and the farmers and pickers. Many of the pesticides still in use in major cotton growing markets (such as India and China) have been banned in Europe and the United States due to their negative health impacts.

Contributes to the slow fashion movement

The fashion industry is moving towards more sustainable practices and this includes being more responsible in how materials are sourced.

Organic cotton requires a little more effort and time, from how it is grown and processed to the dyes it uses. Due to that and its higher price, it can often be found in more conscious collections. Supporting Organic Cotton sends a message to all of the fashion industry that consumers are moving away from fast fashion and willing to support a more responsible way of making clothes.

Organic cotton vs cotton. There are so many differences between organic cotton and regular cotton. So far, we’ve covered quite a few of them. But let’s get down to a couple of the nitty-gritty things:

Organic cotton uses less water

Organic cotton uses up to 86% less water than conventional cotton, according to Higg Material Sustainability Index.

Whilst organic cotton seeds require more water to grow, organic cotton plants are more resilient to draught and flooding. Growing organic cotton is also less depleting and can be done in biodynamic ways, which encourage the healthy maintenance of supporting ecosystems. Overall, it is better for people and planet, circling natural resources in a healthy cycle.

The largest difference in water use though is in how bales are processed, as the way in which organic cotton fibres are processed and dyed requires less water than conventional cotton.

Organic cotton has lower CO2 emissions

Organic cotton is responsible for 16% lower carbon emissions (according to Higg Material Sustainability Index), not withstanding the carbon the plants can store in the ground if the soil isn’t tilled.

Organic cotton grown with regenerative practices can help sequester carbon and contribute to healthy, carbon-storing ecosystems.

Smaller chemical footprint. While there aren’t any hazardous chemicals in the growing of organic cotton, chemicals are used when it comes to treatment. That’s because, as a natural material, cotton needs to be cleaned before it can be spun into a fabric.   The cleaning process removes any plant debris and soil from the cotton. Later on, cotton is also dyed in different colours for different garments. While chemicals are used in this part of the manufacturing, to be certified organic, the products must meet strict toxicity and biodegradability rules. Plus, all wastewaters must be treated before entering back into our rivers and oceans.

Is organic cotton worth it?

Yes, organic cotton is worth it. Naturally, organic cotton is more expensive upfront as more effort is needed to grow it and processing it is more costly. However, don’t let that put you off. By purchasing organic cotton clothing you’ll be supporting healthier farming practices, more resilient ecosystems, cleaner water and fashion with an overall smaller footprint!

And there you have it, everything you need to know about organic cotton. So, will you be making the switch?

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