Cotton accounts for about a half of the world's fiber needs but it carries a considerable environmental cost because most cotton is grown using toxic chemicals, and other practices that are not environmentally friendly. This is where organic cotton comes enters the picture. Here is how this relative newcomer compares to conventional cotton in terms of environmental impact, production methods, cost, and quality of the finished product.
Organic cotton is grown without the use of pesticides or other toxic chemicals and it is not exposed to chemicals after the growth process. Instead, organic cotton growers emphasize natural, biological methods which have far less impact on the environment compared to conventional cotton. These methods include crop rotation, cover crops, organic fertilizers, beneficial insects, and human labor for weed control. Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture.
Organic cotton is grown in many countries, with the leading producers being China, India, and Turkey. Other large-scale organic cotton producing countries are Egypt, Peru, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, and the United States. In the U.S., Texas is, by far, the largest organic cotton producing state.
Conventional cotton production accounts for nearly 1/4 of the world's insecticide use while comprising only about 3% of farmland. In the U.S. alone, it takes about 1/3 of a pound of pesticides to grow enough conventional cotton for just one T-shirt.
Conventional cotton requires intensive water irrigation and synthetic fertilizers. Conventional growing practices cause soil losses due to predominantly mono-crop culture. Furthermore, conventional cotton seeds are treated with fungicides and insecticides. Many of the seeds are of the genetically modified organism (GMO) variety. Organic cotton uses untreated, non-GMO seeds.
Conventional cotton production employees herbicides to defoliate the plants and make picking easier. Harvesting machinery compacts the ground and impacts soil productivity. Organic cotton production often involves handpicking - no chemicals, defoliation, or machinery.
Conventional cotton relies on a number of potentially harmful chemicals for scouring, washing, and leaching. Chemicals include chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, alkylphenoloxylate (APEO), and ethylenediamine tetra-acetate (EDTA). Organic cotton processing uses natural spinning oils, potato starch, and other natural compounds. No chlorine is used.
Organic cotton fiber is used in everything from personal care items (sanitary products, make-up removal pads, cotton puffs and ear swabs), to home furnishings (towels, bathrobes, sheets, blankets, bedding), children’s products (toys, diapers), clothes of all kinds and styles (whether for lounging, sports or the workplace), and even stationery and note cards. In addition, organic cottonseed is used for animal feed, and organic cottonseed oil is used in a variety of food products, including cookies and chips.
The quality of organically grown cotton is equal to or better than conventionally grown cotton. Because it is less processed and not treated with harsh chemicals (like chlorine bleach and formaldehyde) that can wear down fibers, organic cotton is often more durable than conventional cotton.
Organic cotton is free of allergens and nasty chemicals contained in chemically grown and processed products. It does not cause any allergy or irritation when it comes into contact with sensitive skin (like baby skin).
Conventional and organic cotton fabrics shrink the same amount. No miracles here.
Organic cotton is more expensive than conventional cotton because its production takes more time, skill, and hands-on labor.