When you’re looking for a light, comfy, soft t-shirt, the fabric of choice is a no-brainer: cotton. It’s little surprise it’s one of the most frequently worn materials – we produce 29 million tonnes of cotton every single year, which is about enough to make 29 t-shirts for every single person on the planet, according to Hubbub.

But, how much do you know about where cotton comes from and how it is grown? 

Cotton is picked in fields, spun into threads and then woven into a light, breathable material, which naturally biodegrades and doesn’t contribute to plastic pollution the way manmade fabrics do. So far, so natural. 

But, of course, thanks to our mass consumption of clothing the reality is very different.

Cotton: the world’s dirtiest crop

Cotton has been dubbed ‘the world’s dirtiest crop’. In fact, 16% of the insecticides and 10% of pesticides used worldwide are for farming cotton alone, according to the the Soil Association.

The chemicals are linked to cancer, neurological diseases and serious health issues for farmers and people living near cotton production.

Cotton has an effect on the livelihoods on a huge amount of people. The cotton-growing industry employs nearly 7% of labour in developing countries (WWF) employing roughly 100 million people in 80 different countries (Soil Association).

Growing cotton requires serious work. It involves long hours of cleaning, seeding and watering (hauling the water to the fields by hand), and pollinating plants by hand. If it grows to produce cotton (the plant is prone to pests), it can then be plucked by hand.

This physical work is often done in extreme heat. And despite all this, most barely earn enough to eke out a living.

Now, it has been revealed that roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from the Xinjiang region. Here, modern slavery is linked to the oppression of as many as one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities.

Organic cotton: why is it different?

Like with all certified-organic products – organic milk, organic chicken – organic cotton is grown without toxic chemicals and farmed more in tune with nature.

Organic cotton is grown in crop rotations. Organic cotton farmers tend to have a more stable supply of food because they can grow food on the ‘off’ years. 

The natural farming methods cultivate healthier soils, which is important for soaking up floods and growing healthier plants.

At its very best, this means the soil can absorb water more effectively and then release it in times of drought – imperative, given increasing flood and drought risks caused by the climate crisis.

Only 1% of the world’s cotton is grown organically, but demand is rising.

Organic cotton requires less water to grow

Sort of.

Cotton is very thirsty – and the drying up of the Aral Sea in Central Asia (once the world’s fourth largest sea) has been linked to cotton production. To understand the significance of this, watch this short yet impactful (read: terrifying) clip of when the BBC’s Stacey Dooley visited the region.

You need 20,000 litres (aka a LOT) of water to grow one kilo of cotton – the equivalent of a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. 

Technically organic cotton is even thirstier. But, it’s largely grown in rain-fed areas, which means the farmers rely on rain to water their crops rather than putting pressure on the local water supply. And if you see the point above, because the soil holds water more effectively, the plants require less watering from non rain sources.

What you need to look out for when buying organic cotton

The dying and finishing of a garment is also environmentally damaging and chemically heavy, so ‘organic’ needs to applied to the whole process. Here are two certifications to look out for:  

GOTS – When something has been certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard, it’s been grown to organic standards and has been produced in a way that limits the use of toxic bleaches, dyes and other chemicals.

It’s internationally recognised as a good standard because it includes social and environment standards. 

Regenerative Organic – This is a very new standard and aims to be the holy grail of organic certifications.

A note on GMO

Genetically modified crops repel insects. Great, right?

But they have failed farmers across the world. Crop failures are common. Other pests (known officially as secondary pests) eat the crops instead. Within a few years, the primary pests grow resistant and come back.

The thing with GM seeds is you never own them. So every year you have to buy them, rather than harvesting seeds from your crop and regrowing them for free.

About 90% of India’s
cotton area of 11.8 million hectares is GM.

Many farmers have turned to loan sharks to pay for GM seeds, and the subsequent insecticides and fertilisers that are needed to grow cotton with them. When their crop fails, they enter a cycle of unmanageable debt – which has ben linked to a rise in hundreds of thousands of suicides among Indian cotton farmers for years.

The government is now offering widows of farmers who have died in this way compensation. Yet they do nothing to stop the sale of GM seeds.

Ultimately, GMO isn’t the answer – and leaves farmers stuck with expensive seeds that still were vulnerable to pests, expensive pesticides, and crop failure.

Regenerative organic is a method of farming that helps soil life (microbes, worms etc) to thrive. It leads to healthy soil that is able to store carbon from the atmosphere. The certification was established with the help of Patagonia in 2017. It brings together pasture-based animal welfare, fairness for farmers and workers and strict requirements for soil health and land management.

Organic cotton vs non-organic cotton: the conclusion

Organic cotton is certainly better than conventional cotton, but it’s not the answer to all our problems.

The reason cotton is grown with so many fertilisers and pesticides is because it’s such a sensitive plant. When grown organically, the yield is lower. Charity WWF has worked out that organic cotton requires 25% more land to get the same yield.

The best thing we can do – as always – is to minimise our consumption.

If you have to buy a new top – and we know we can’t resist sometimes – opt for organic cotton. It’s worth looking into new high-tech new fabrics like Tencel or Lyocell, too.

As an aside, stay away from other ‘Bamboo’ fabrics. We’ll explain more soon but essentially it a lot of the processing techniques are highly toxic. This is greenwashing at its finest.

Main image: Rapanui, which uses 100% organic cotton in all of its clothing