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Cotton vs. Organic Cotton – Overview

Nicole de Boer
Product Sourcing

Cotton vs Organic Cotton – The Complete Guide

Cotton is the most popular textile fiber globally, accounting for about 40% of total world fiber production. 60% of this covers all the synthetic fibers, regenerated fibers and other natural fibers including wool & silk. (More on the other textile fibres in future posts) Non-organic or standard cotton, is grown in  some 80 countries globally. Cotton producing counties are largely: China (24%), the United States (20%), and India (16%) together produce over half the world’s cotton. The U.S. and Africa are the world’s two leading exporters of raw cotton, accounting for more than half of the $12 billion market worldwide. Other top exporters include Uzbekistan, Australia, and India. China is, by far, the world’s largest cotton importer. In the U.S, the  cotton industry accounts for more than $25 billion in products and services annually, generating over 400,000 jobs in industry sectors from farm to textile factories.
Figure 1. A cotton boll ready to be harvested
In Africa, more than 20 million people depend directly on cotton crops for their livelihood, and to put this in real-life perspective;  typical small-scale West African cotton producer makes less than $400 per year on his crop.[1] Producing cotton, as with any occupation or sector in the agricultural industry,  has a prime focus of yield and income. The pesticides applied to protect the crop, affects the soil and the water, damaging the natural resources in the process and negatively impacting on biodiversity. With increased  awareness  and consciousness  about the negative impact on biodiversity, with a serious impact on human health and safety, the attention towards environmental issues, paved the way  to the increasing production and popularity of organic materials. Organic cotton has been around for a while now, and is used to manufacture products ranging across towels and  bed linen (also referred to as home textiles), and apparel (clothing), across baby or infant wear to women’s and men’s wear.  Products made from organic cotton are usually considered ‘high’ end or special, and are generally more expensive than regular cotton products. The ‘utopian model’ at some point in the future,  would level price disparity as one would project the acceleration in demand.

Difference between organic and regular cotton

Why would one choose organic cotton? There are several benefits to organic cotton:

Purity of the Cotton

In choosing a cotton product, one needs to know that the ‘wording’ used on the sew in labels are paramount. The mere use of the word “organic’ has been used as ‘green-washing’[2]  for a decade or two. If a product is labelled as organic cotton – there is no certification or ‘proof’ of the use of organic cotton. If the product states ‘100% certified organic cotton’ the implication is the use of 100% certified organic cotton. That signifies that all criteria were complied to, that the product is certified by a 3rd party as pure 100% organic certified cotton. The 3rd party certification starts with the soil. The soil is tested and for a minimum of 3 years, no pesticides or insecticides were used, resulting in the soil not containing any residue or traces (or small particles within agreed set tolerances) of ‘toxicity’. The cotton grown on the certified soil, starts out at a ‘zero’ base of toxicity (pesticides/insecticides).
Figure 2. Typical terminology in ‘green washing’
In some marketing campaigns there are references to “contains organic cotton’ or ‘pure cotton’. The key indicator for the purity of the cotton, is in the word ‘certified’.

Cotton Farming

The cotton seeds used in non-organic or standard cotton farming, embraces the use of  GMO or genetically modified seeds. These seeds are modified to resist insects, reducing risk for the farmer. In farming, risk is a threat to projected income. The producer applies additional insecticides and pesticides/herbicides if required to protect the crop. The cotton farming industry consumes 25% of pesticides used in the entire global farming industry.  These include highly toxic insecticides and carcinogens. Organic cotton is made from natural seeds, and there is no use of pesticides or other harmful chemicals. (Again, the specification against which the purchase is made is key, and the 3rd party certification is key). The crop is normally smaller, and at a higher risk to produce. This results in the price being higher. With no application of genetics or chemicals, organic cotton products are claimed to be less harmful and safer to the human skin. The certification of organic cotton largely stops here. Organic cotton as we know it, comes from ‘good’ seeds and ‘good’ land. The certification does not include any of the subsequent manufacturing processes. (In a later post, more information will be provided on the subsequent labelling and certification of cotton to the finished retail product)

Processing and Manufacturing

In the processing of cotton fiber, the use of heavy metals, chlorine bleach and other chemicals, as well as dyes are the ‘status quo’. The textile processing and manufacturing industry has been subjected to regulatory requirements in the application of chemicals on garment items as the ‘skin contact’ of apparel garments are increasingly linked to allergies and skin irritations and rashes as well as exposure to carcinogenic chemicals that were applied to textile apparel garments. Even after washing the finished products, the residue of these chemicals remains and can cause serious skin allergies including some cases of eczema, etc. The certification process of ‘certified’ organic cotton has resultantly been extended to the processing and manufacturing industry.  

How do the consumer know?

It is important to research the retailer and ask questions. It is important to purchase reputable products. Refer to the post on ‘How do I know the Organic cotton product I am buying is 100% certified organic cotton?