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Cotton vs Organic Cotton – Certifications of Organic Cotton

Certifications of Organic Cotton

Nicole de Boer
Product Sourcing

Certifications of Organic Cotton

The landscape of cotton certifications is cloudy, with little agreement on standards. This is very confusing for consumers. There are a few certifications relating to fashion retail and these standards are hard to tell apart. Standards are important when it comes to ‘organic’ cotton’. The word ‘organic’ is not a trademark or patented word and standards in certifications gives a guarantee to the consumer, that the standards were met in growing, processing and manufacturing the organic product. What is organic cotton? Which certifications are there and  what are the differences? And why is GOTS certified organic cotton preferred? Organic cotton is increasingly preferred over standard cotton. The largest impact is that organic cotton is grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides. The farming of standard cotton incorporates these and  contaminate the soil and seep into the water table – sometimes referred to as  grey water or groundwater  – negatively affecting biodiversity and negatively impacting on human health. Farming organic cotton has additional benefits of a decreased carbon footprint combined with lower water usage (improved water management). Additionally, organic cotton stems from seeds which are not genetically modified (GMO). Three of the most well-known certifications use some of these factors:
Figure 5: BCI logo
1.    Better Cotton Initiative
BCI does not guarantee organic practices but advocates for improvement. BCI provides training and guides farms in planning and setting objectives to improve cotton production. . The objectives include the use of  pesticides, water management, managing the recovery or replenishment of the soil, biodiversity improvement and working conditions. BCI provides seven key principles with corresponding criteria that the cotton producers needs  to meet.
Figure 6: Organic Content Standard
In order to sell cotton produced as ‘BCI’ with a ‘Better Cotton Claim Unit’ (BCCU), the 7 key principles need to be complied to.  The BCCU is used to track the volume or quantity of better Cotton throughout the supply chain. The retail fashion brands specifying the BCI certified cotton in the production of their products contribute by buying Better Cotton and making it part of the complete chain, but it does not mean that the product you’re buying actually contains the Better Cotton. This makes it an easier system for farmers and buyers to participate in. In conclusion, Better Cotton is, not organic, but a step in the right direction to improving the fibers consumers purchase.
2.    Organic Content Standard 100 & Blended
The standard gives away, that  this certification guarantees organic content. Provision is made for 2 different types;
  1. 95% organic fibers and up you can get OCS 100 certified.
  2. below 95%, the certification ‘OCS Blended’, with a minimum of 5% organic fibers. This standard also apply to certify linen, hemp and other organic fibres
Figure 7. GOTS – Global Organic Textile Standard Logo


The focus of this certification is the traceability of the organic content, traced by transaction certificates. The transaction certificates state: Every time the organic content goes to a new company in the chain, a transaction certificate is given that confirms the organic content. The organic raw materials can be traced from the final product, all the way back to source and location of production. The first step to a more sustainable industry is total transparency and total traceability, and OCS does exactly that.

3.    Global Organic Textile Standard

GOTS is the most detailed  certification in existence. It has the same transaction certificate system as OCS (total transparency and traceability), but contains social and environmental aspects as well. In the GOTS product chain, the rules of the certification is inclusive of  water treatment, chemical usage and labour rights. The  same restrictions apply to every certified ‘user’ of the certification and has to comply with the GOTS social standards based on the norms of the International labour Organization.. There are strict limitations included, amongst others, limitations on the percentages of different types of fibres used, the kind of dyes that are allowed and the chemicals you can use during the ‘wet processing’; the treatment of the product for different aesthetic finishes (e.g. ‘vintage – look’), etc. The chemical policy, defines the usage of specific chemicals based on composition and impact on biodiversity. The final products are totally pesticide, insecticide ánd hazardous chemical free, are made in safe factories and contain organic, natural and minimal synthetic materials. GOTS certification is complete in the approach to the entire supply chain and biodiversity.
Figure 8. This table is based on one from Textile Exchange
GOTS certification is the superior certification. Production of Better Cotton  around 30% of all production worldwide. Organic cotton remains in percentage a single digit percentage of the cotton producing industry.  Every consumer can make an impact. Through purchases that are ‘certified’ organic, the organic industry will make progress for the benefit of all of us and biodiversity. B) THE BEST COTTON QUALITIES GLOBALLY The quality of cotton is typically measured by the staple (fiber) length and the variety of the plant the cotton came from. Long staple cotton is 1.25″-2.5″ in length and is called Egyptian Cotton.. Medium staple cotton is 0.75″-1.25″ and is called American Upland Cotton, while the shortest staple length is called Indian Cotton and measures less than 0.75″. This naming system doesn’t necessarily mean that the cotton is grown in the country it is named geographically after. Even though American Upland and Indian cotton have been named, they are rarely mentioned during the final sale of the textile. Only the highest qualities of cotton are used in marketing. Egyptian Cotton is often used in marketing and the cost of the product is at a premium. Some of the ways premium cotton is marketed is illustrated below.  Sea Island Cotton, Egyptian, and Pima cotton are all from the Gossypium barbadense plant, which is grown to have extra long staple fibers with a silky feel/touch to the hand.
Figure 1. West Indian Sea Island Cotton Association label (WISICA), PIMA and SUPUMA Cotton, Egyptian Cotton, Giza Cotton, Organic Cotton
  • Sea Island Cotton
Sea Island cotton is an extra-long-staple Gossypium barbadense cotton that is grown on the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia in the US, where the trifecta of sunshine, humidity and rain provides the perfect conditions for cotton growing.
  • West Indian Sea Island Cotton:
Like Sea Island cotton from elsewhere, the West Indian variety grows in ideal conditions in the Caribbean. Only 0.0004% of the world’s cotton production is actually true West Indian Sea Island with a 50mm+ staple length, and the product is protected with the WTO as a protected origin like Champagne from France. It is considered the “cashmere” of cotton, and in some cases can be sold for even higher prices than cashmere. While it is a magnificent product, WISIC seems to be suffering from some local management issues as we could not locate an active website for the association.
  • Egyptian Cotton:
Again, Egyptian cotton simply refers to the longest staple length of cotton and the variety of the plant. The longer staple makes textiles from this material softer and more durable over time, and Egyptian cotton is commonly found in linens such as towels and bed sheets.
  • Giza Cotton:
Giza cotton makes up a tiny portion of Egyptian cotton, and each quality is noted with a number: Giza 90, 89, etc. The best of the Giza cotton is Giza 45, which is an extra long staple cotton with a superior fineness and uniformity of the fiber. It is grown in an ideal climate for cotton along the Nile river and it is hand-harvested and hand-combed.
  • Pima Cotton:
Pima cotton (also known as American Pima) is named after the Indian tribe in the American southwest that assisted the USDA is raising the Gossypium barbadense, a variety of extra-long-staple (ELS) cotton in the 1900s. The staple length is 1 3/8″ or longer, and it accounts for less than 5% of US cotton production. Supima is a shortened version of “superior Pima”, and unlike Pima it is not a cotton variety but rather a trade organization that trademarks its name to mills around the world and promotes Pima cotton.
  • Organic Cotton:
Organic cotton can refer to any plant variety and staple length, so long as it is not genetically modified and it’s grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Regulating bodies in the EU, Japan, and the US oversee the enforcement of organic claims. Premium cotton origin claims are subject to abuse. This is very similar to the claims of cashmere or Angora or many other premium fibers. Very little is done to enforce the correct use of the terms of any of these premium fibers and this is specifically relevant to Sea Island, Pima, and Egyptian cotton.  Simple math will show that the number of companies reporting  selling premium cotton, by far outweigh the production volume of these fibers. Very often cotton is identified  as “Sea Island Quality” without any evidence or certification of such claim.