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Have You Cottoned On?…. Organic vs Conventional Cotton Explained

Have You Cottoned On?…. Organic vs Conventional Cotton Explained

Phoebe McCarthy

In this weeks blog post we look at the difference’s between conventional cotton and organic cotton, like how it is grown and whether organic cotton is worth paying more, and is it really better for people and the environment? …….

What is Cotton? Cotton is a soft, fluffy fibre that grows in a protective case around the seed of a cotton plant. China and India are the biggest producers of conventional cotton in the world, with India set to be the largest supplier to the global cotton market soon. Countries including Indonesia, Vietnam and parts of Africa are also growers of cotton.

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What is the Difference Between Conventional Cotton and Organic Cotton? There is a significant difference between them. Regular or conventional cotton is grown using chemical pesticides and fertilizers to cultivate it. To put this into perspective, the amount of land used to grow cotton is roughly the same as it was back in the 1930s, but yields have increased by 300%. These high volumes are achieved by hybridization, intensive land management and the use of a large amount of pesticides, fertilizers and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).  Conventional cotton still supplies the bulk of cotton to the clothing industry, in particular to  big name brands producing fast fashion products. 

Organic cotton on the other hand is cotton that is produced and certified to organic agricultural standards. It is produced without the use of artificial inputs like pesticides and fertilizers and sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people by using natural processes. Importantly organic cotton farming does not allow the use of toxic chemicals or GMOs.

What Does a “Conventional” Cotton Producing Farm Look Like?  

To paint a picture of your typical cotton field, this is the usual process for making “conventional” cotton. To prepare the soil for growing cotton crops, it is initially sprayed with organophosphates which kill off any living organism. Once treated, nothing lives in this soil. Organophosphates are a type of harmful pesticide that can damage the human central nervous system. There are about 9 types of pesticides commonly used in cotton farming and all are highly toxic and about 5 are probable carcinogens.

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The intensive spraying of pesticides like this means it will take between 3-5 pesticide free years before any sign of life such as earthworms, insects or soil health can return. When it rains, the rainwater seeps into surrounding land and eventually enters rivers and streams. It runs off from cotton fields has been a significant contributor to ocean dead zones. 

Conventional cotton fields contribute to millions of metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Cotton fields smell really bad, the smell of chemicals is potent. It burns the eyes and can irritate the stomach causing nausea for workers on the field. Before the crop is harvested, it is typically sprayed with a crop duster defoliant like paraquat which is deposited onto the fields using a small aircraft flying overhead. Typically only about half of it lands on the intended field, whilst the rest is sprayed onto the surrounding landscape causing severe damage to the environment and to the people and wildlife inhabiting the area. Needless to say, this entire process and the collateral damage producing conventional cotton causes is totally unnecessary. Farming cotton in this way is relatively new and actually most cotton produced prior to WWI was organic. The demand for conventional cotton is because of the trend for fast cheap fashion needing fast cheaply produced cotton.

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Is Organic Cotton Worth Paying More For? The trend for fast and cheap fashion often means someone else or something else is paying the price. If you are a consumer who is conscious about the purchases you make, then you should factor in all of the costs of making the product not just the actual price tag on the product itself. 

If we are talking about cotton - it is the farmers who pay the price firstly and also the environment. The bulk of cotton is produced in developing countries and farmed by people who live on the breadline and also in an environment that has been degraded and is toxic from the pesticides and fertilisers used. 

Because nothing is able to grow on the land, farmers can’t benefit from growing other crops such as mung beans or sunflowers in addition to the cotton, which are products they could sell for extra income or use as a food source (they can and do often do this on organic farms). In addition, the toxic environment has an adverse impact on workers health and wellbeing. 

For all of the above reasons, it is worth considering paying a little more for organic cotton because the price of organic includes investments made by farmers who are working to protect our environment, maintain soil fertility and biodiversity, support wildlife and conserve water. This means organic cotton sometimes is more expensive, about 20-30%  more because the costs aren’t hidden. There is labour involved in producing high quality organic cotton. Paying farmers a fair wage is critical to help encourage more farmers to consider transitioning their farms to grow organic cotton.

We appreciate that paying more is not possible for everyone all the time and thats ok too. Consider treating yourself to an organic cotton t-shirt for example when you can. We find they tend to last much longer, wear well and maintain their shape compared with conventional cotton fabric t-shirts, so will get the most out of your investment and will not need to buy as many.

Finally, there are also many environmental benefits of organic cotton over conventional cotton. The Textile Exchange commissioned a Life Cycle Assessment on organic cotton which nicely summarises the measurable environmental benefits of organic cotton:

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In summary buy less, make it last and buy organic! 

Our Organic Cotton Fashion Brands are Available on Our Online Vegan Marketplace, launching this Autumn 2019.

 Shop vegan and ethically with CARMA. Sign up for the latest updates ahead of launch here.