What is organic cotton?
You may have heard of the term ‘organic cotton’ before, but you may not know a lot about the practices associated with it. Organic cotton is produced through sustainable agricultural practices, and are therefore fundamental to not only sustainable fashion, but to ethical fashion as well.
Organic farming follows a tried and true process that has been used for thousands of years, during this process farmers utilize plants that have not undergone genetic modification, sometimes called non-GMOs. These plants are grown without the synthetic chemicals that are often used in pesticides and herbicides. Conventional modern farming typically focuses on producing a high yield, and while that may be rewarding in its own right, they often make many humanitarian and environmental sacrifices to achieve these lofty goals.
Organic farming attempts to work with nature, not against it. This often entails using more ecologically friendly farming practices; fertilizers like green manure or pesticides like horticultural oils. While conventional farming practices work by simply eliminating their concerns, organic farming thinks of a broader scope of problems. Organic farmers work to manage insects and take a more pragmatic approach to boosting their plant growth.
If you take a look at your wardrobe it’s not difficult to imagine how common and important cotton is to the world, but even this is an understatement. The impact of cotton production can show you just how much we invest into this one crop. Cotton farming accounts for over 10% of the world’s pesticide usage. Perhaps even more shocking, about 3% of the world’s water usage can be attributed to cotton farming as well. Just think about how much we use water; drinking, sanitation, factory production, etc. Yet cotton production makes such an impact that it is plainly noticeable in the grand total. It is not an overestimation to predict that the vast majority of humans alive today have worn some form of cotton.
At the same time, conventional practices have brought many disadvantages to the communities they affect, even if they do personally benefit from the cotton industry. Third world countries that lack strict agricultural regulations struggle to implement the ones they do have, and because of this they are often the ones victimized by large corporations. Many potent pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers can leech into waterways and have profound medical effects in local communities, including birth defects, cancers, and many other harmful conditions. Keep in mind, this is only taking into account the recorded effects on humans we can see in real time; the long term effects on both humans and the local
flora and fauna are yet unknown.
Many of these chemicals are banned in the United States for this very reason, yet companies are incentivized and rewarded when these practices are undertaken in foreign countries. Another side effect of this is often overlooked, but this implies that conventional farming effectively uses more water than organic farming. When the water reserves of a community is tainted, both the people and many other industries in the area, cannot utilize the same water anymore. Therefore, the water resources available to the planet are reduced even further.
Indirect exposure due to water consumption is not the only way you can come into contact with these harmful substances. Some cotton farmers also produce cottonseed oil, and other secondary products, which is then used in food production. Unfortunately, conventional cotton farming makes up about 95% of all cotton production, dwarfing organic cotton production by a wide margin. It feels impossible to work around these problems; how do you reduce your cotton consumption?
But don’t let these statistics bring you down, cotton is not the problem. It is a beautiful material, both functional and versatile, it can be used in every climate or even blended to broaden its applications. In your lifetime you have probably used cotton far more than you suspect, in your shoes, bags, beddings, and even your national currency. There is no urgency to cut out your cotton altogether. Organic cotton farmers have been working tirelessly for the past few decades to change the narrative surrounding the environmental impact of the cotton industry. With the help of ecologically conscious customers, they have for the most part found success. Organic farming as a whole is expected to grow by 8.4% by the year 2026.
The domino effect of organic cotton production can also be seen in downstream industries. Some dyes used in T-shirts and other cotton products have been proven to have cancer causing components and other harmful effects. However, in order to identify and advertise as organic cotton, many factories are banned from using harmful dyes. Not only does this protect the consumer who will be in close contact with the material for an extended period of time, but it also protects factory workers who do not have a choice. Many factories producing textiles are in developing countries where poverty is rampant and many people will take any job they have access to, this is troubling for many reasons.
It might not have been evident to you from the very beginning that there are so many implications and a wide web of influence related to your simple fashion choices. However, these impacts exist and can’t be overlooked for much longer, not if we are working towards a brighter and more sustainable future. As populations steadily increase, our cotton consumption needs will have a similar increase as well. This can either mean that our cotton needs will be met by any means necessary, thereby making future generations struggle with a worse problem, or we may work together and encourage sustainable practices, like organic cotton production. We should not ignore cotton as a whole, instead we should focus on how we can improve our production and meet demands in a sustainable and ecologically conscious manner. The key to doing your part is to look into methods of sustainable and ethical fashion.
By supporting sustainable and ethical fashion, you give the industry an incentive to change their practices and adopt a more organic mentality. The power of the consumer should never be overlooked, and you have the power to change the standard of cotton production.