Organic Cotton vs Cotton Breakdown


Cotton, even despite the rise of the use of synthetic fibers, remains one of the most popular fabrics in the world today. This is a lot of demand, which is only increased by fast fashion, for cotton farmers to cater to. This is why the industry producing a material that has great potential to be sustainable has been transformed into a very unsustainable one to satisfy our overconsumption and the large demands.
As a response to the worsening environmental and social impact of the cotton industry, a better alternative was developed – organic cotton. Organic cotton vs cotton is a common debate and one many people wonder about. How exactly do the two differ? How much difference does organic cotton make? And what makes the extra few dollars, pounds, or euros worth it when you choose organic? These are the questions we will answer in this article. Let us find out more about organic cotton vs cotton.

Why choose cotton in general?

Cotton: organic or conventional
Before we go through with the comparison of organic cotton vs cotton. I think it is important to understand why we should choose cotton. There are many benefits with cotton as fiber. Find out the benefits of cotton below before we take a look at which one you should buy, organic cotton vs cotton.

The benefits of cotton

Cotton is a natural fabric – it comes from plants and can be returned to the earth once it can no longer be used. Although this may sound automatic, the ability of a piece of fabric to decompose is becoming harder to come by, because of the rise of synthetic fabrics made from plastic. Such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic are taking over the fast fashion clothing pieces and it is causing more harm to the environment. Thus, making cotton a much more sustainable option.
Cotton also doesn’t release any plastic particles into greywater (unlike synthetics), which adds to its sustainability.
Cotton also has great recycling potential, although the application of this process is still very limited and recycled cotton usually has to be blended with new cotton fabric (Recycled Cotton).

Downsides of non-organic cotton

As we mentioned before, the cotton industry has had to transform substantially to accommodate for the massive rise in demand stimulated by the quick rotation of stock in fast fashion.
Farmers had to learn to lower the cost of the crop to compete with the lowest possible prices in the market. Labor standards were also lowered, and production was increasingly outsourced to developing countries.

Cotton is a thirsty crop

It takes a lot of water to produce cotton. This water consumption is reflecting negatively on the surrounding environment and communities, with the cautionary tale of the Aral Sea, which has now shrunk to 25% of its original area and 10% of its original water volume, as an example of how much negative impact cotton can have on the environment (Dunbar).
It takes over 3,900 liters of water to produce an average t-shirt made from conventional cotton (Erdem). This equals about 5 and ¾ hours of showering, or over 20 bathtubs full of water.

Organic cotton vs cotton: Chemical use

Cotton is also a vulnerable crop, which is why, to maximize the yield, conventional cotton farmers usually rely on heavy amounts of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides (Is cotton conquering its chemical addiction?). These are then inevitably released into the environment, being washed away by watering or rainfall, polluting rivers and subterranean waters.
At the moment, the cotton industry is using 4% of the world’s pesticides as well as 10% of its insecticides. When released into the environment, these can cause irreversible damage to local ecosystems, as well as endangering the health of communities living nearby.
Additionally, the residue of these chemicals can still be found on the finished garments, which can irritate sensitive skin.

Organic cotton vs cotton: The people in production

Aside from environmental problems, cotton production is also socially problematic. At the moment, 65% of the world’s cotton is produced in countries where forced labor still exists (Turner).
In Uzbekistan, for example, forced labor is more organized than anywhere else. After being forced to stop using child labor, the repressive government forcedly mobilizes over 1 million citizens every year (including those in essential positions, such as doctors or teachers) to pick cotton for several weeks (End Uzbek Cotton Crimes – Anti-Slavery International).

Organic Cotton solutions

Organic Cotton vs Cotton comparison image
Organic cotton solves many of the issues conventional cotton production has. It reduces the use of chemicals, finds water-saving solutions and even has a significantly lower carbon footprint.
The one thing organic cotton perhaps does best is water saving. It makes use of water recycling options, as well as collecting rainfall for irrigation. This significantly reduces draught in the area and prevents situations like the Aral Sea from repeating. On average, organic cotton uses 88% less water than conventional cotton (About Organic Cotton)!
The use of chemicals is also eliminated from the process. Instead, organic cotton farming uses non-toxic alternatives. While this does decrease the yield per area, it protects local waters from being contaminated. As an additional benefit, the farming process isn’t as intensive on the earth, leaving more nutrients in the soil.
Several factors contribute to the reduced carbon footprint of organic cotton, including the use of mineral fertilizers and pesticides and smarter energy conservation practices when operating machinery. Thanks to that, the footprint of organic cotton is 46% lower (About Organic Cotton).
Lastly, organic cotton production also makes cotton farms a better place to work, as farmers and their families aren’t exposed to all the toxic chemicals. The overall working conditions are also improved, eliminating forced and child labor completely (About Organic Cotton).

Organic Cotton vs Cotton Conclusion

Organic cotton is the superior choice when it comes to the ethical and environmental footprint of the garment. In many areas, organic farmers are finding ways to make cotton the sustainable material it has the potential to be.
Find out more about organic cotton here!

Dunbar, Brian. “Landsat Top Ten – A Shrinking Sea, Aral Sea.” NASA. NASA. Web. 12 Feb. 2021.
“End Uzbek Cotton Crimes – Anti-Slavery International.” Anti Slavery International. 15 June 2020. Web. 12 Feb. 2021.
Erdem, Suna. “Q: How Much Water Does It Take to Produce a T-Shirt and a Pair of Jeans? A: 20,000 Litres.” The Sunday Times. The Sunday Times, 04 Oct. 2015. Web. 12 Feb. 2021.
“Find out All You Need to Know about Organic Cotton.” Web. 12 Feb. 2021.
“Is Cotton Conquering Its Chemical Addiction?” Pesticide Action Network UK. 26 June 2018. Web. 12 Feb. 2021.
“Recycled Cotton.” SustainYourStyle. Web. 12 Feb. 2021.
Turner, Jane. “The Ethics of Cotton Production.” Ethical Consumer. 10 Sept. 2020. Web. 12 Feb. 2021.
Author: Monica Chang
On my own ethical journey since 2010. Always happy to learn more!