We’ve already put together some other guides on both conventional cotton and organic cotton elsewhere on the site, and we’ve linked to those guides below.
This guide is a comparison guide of organic cotton vs regular cotton.
We look at what the main differences might be, which one might be better if you are looking to buy a cotton product, along with other relevant considerations.
Summary – Organic Cotton vs Regular Cotton
What Is Organic Cotton?
Firstly, it’s worth knowing what organic cotton is.
Organic Cotton vs Conventional Cotton – Differences
In the guide below, we list what 5 of the main differences between organic and regular cotton might be.
We also list what some of the other differences might be, and provide a resource that compares the two in greater detail throughout the cotton cultivation and production stages.
Which Is Better?
We provided a potential answer to this question in the guide below.
Overall, it depends on whether the consumer values the standards and criteria that a specific organic product is grown and produced to, or, whether they value something else that regular cotton can offer that organic cotton might not.
These things that regular cotton might offer might include a cheaper product, or some type of product feature, quality, or performance that a brand who makes organic cotton products doesn’t offer.
What Are The Different Types Of Cotton?
Cotton can be categorized mainly as regular/conventional cotton (also called non organic cotton), and also as organic cotton.
Regular cotton may either be GM cotton (genetically modified), or non GM cotton (although most of the cotton grown worldwide currently uses GM seeds).
All organic cotton is non GM cotton.
Looking at organic cotton – not all organic cotton is the same.
Some organic cotton may just meet the organic product regulations in a particular country (i.e. what is allowed to use the word ‘organic’ in the commercial market), whilst some organic products may additionally meet the criteria/standards of a third party independent certifying body.
Depending on the symbols and labels that come with the organic cotton product, different organic cotton products might also be certified by a different number of certification programs,
So, check the full set of certifications on an organic product before buying
Beyond a certification program like GOTS, there are also traceability standards and certifications as well for example.
One other thing that may be worth mentioning is that not all products are 100% cotton, or 100% organic cotton.
A product may be 50% cotton, and 50% polyester for example.
So, it’s important to pay attention to details like this in textiles and other products that cotton is found in.
Organic Cotton vs Regular Cotton – Main Differences
A list of the main differences between organic cotton and regular cotton might be:
1. The cotton seeds used
Organic cotton uses organic cotton seeds
Regular cotton uses mostly GM cotton seeds worldwide, which are said to be non renewable and owned by the companies who supply them (as well as having the patents on them)
2. The agricultural chemicals used
Organic cotton uses organic fertilizers, and natural or biological pest control methods at the farming stage
Regular cotton usually uses synthetic pesticides (herbicides and insecticides) and synthetic fertilizers (like nitrogen fertilizers) at the farming stage
3. The farming practices and systems used
These practices might prioritize and promote things like soil health and soil water retention, and minimize topsoil loss and land degradation, just as a few examples.
Conventional cotton usually uses conventional/traditional agricultural practices and methods (although, this can depend on the individual farm)
This might involve the use of more industrial methods of farming that focus on maximizing yields (and also profits), and there may or may not be a long term priority on sustainability and things like soil health (depending on the individual farm).
4. The production and manufacturing processes and chemicals used
Organic cotton production and manufacturing may place more of an emphasis on using organic or natural bleaches, dyes, prints, finishes and other processing stage chemicals
It may also treat waste water, or used processes like closed loop processing that capture and re-use chemicals and waste water instead of dumping them to external water sources
Regular cotton production may use synthetic chemicals for production and manufacturing, and may dump waste water untreated into the environment, and/or not re-use chemicals after use.
5. The overall standards and criteria used to produce the cotton, and the guaranteeing and certifying of these standards
Organic cotton essentially has a set of organic standards and criteria for how cotton is grown, and fibres and textiles are produced and finished.
There are also certification programs in place, and certification labels can be put on specific organic cotton products to let buyers know the standards to which those products were made, according to independent third party certifiers.
Organic cotton usually also places an overall emphasis on meeting specific environmental and social standards.
Regular cotton on the other hand doesn’t have a core set of standards or criteria for how it’s grown, produced, and finished.
That choice is up to the growers, producers and suppliers, as long as they operate within the relevant laws and regulations.
It may or may not meet certain standards, but, depending on what information sellers provide and what labels or symbols are placed on a product, there may be no way for a consumer to how a particular regular cotton product was made.
Organic Cotton vs Regular Cotton – Other Differences
Other General Differences
We’ve outlined what some of the other general differences between organic cotton and regular cotton might be in these guides:
Some of the categories those differences fit into include:
– What % of total cotton is organic cotton (around 1% or less) and what % is regular cotton (around 99%)
– How much of each is produced and consumed
– Their yields
– Water use
– Carbon footprint
– Energy use
– Pesticide use
– Fertilizer use
– Cropland use
– Chemical use during production, manufacturing and processing (and finishing) of fibres and textiles
– GMO use
– Transport footprint
– Potential impact on humans and human health, the environment (including pollution), and wildlife
– Potential economic impact
– Practical benefits
Other Specific Differences
They identify those differences from seed preparation, through to soil preparation, weed control, harvesting, production, whitening, finishing, dyeing and printing.
They also look at how Fair Trade, as well as the marketing and price of each type of cotton differs.
A few examples of trait differences might be:
[Something some people say is that] organic cotton products are softer than regular cotton because of the longer fibers.
Being handpicked ensures these fibers don’t get weakened or broken, resulting in softer and more durable products
Clothing made from organic cottons have the feel of linen without the weight.
Since natural cottons are not chemically stripped of its natural wax, most weaves have a characteristic smoothness and weight which makes the fabric particularly flattering in its drape and in the mellow way it reflects and absorbs light
Natural cotton garments are sometimes offered in limited colors because traditional dyes are made from chemicals that must be avoided
Organic Cotton vs Regular Cotton – Which Is Better?
The best way of answering that question might be with another question …
Is it important to you to know the specific criteria and standards for how the cotton you buy is grown/harvested and processed/manufactured, and also the impact it potentially has on the environment, humans and wildlife?
If the answer is yes, certified organic cotton with pre-determined and transparent criteria and standards that you can read up on at the certifying bodies’ website before you buy might be worth your consideration.
Regular cotton on the other hand doesn’t have a common set of organic goals or a similar uniform standard – there might be far more variance and uncertainty in the way non certified organic cotton products are made.
If you are not concerned with this variance and uncertainty, regular cotton might be worth your consideration.
But, it depends what recognized certifications are labelled on the conventional cotton product too.
It’s also worth mentioning that at this point in time, organic cotton products may be more expensive than similar non organic cotton products, which may be a buying factor.
Some people will also take into consideration other buying factors such as the brand, the appearance of the products, the performance and features of the products, plus other factors.
Other Options & Tips To Reduce Textile Sustainability Footprint
If organic cotton or regular cotton don’t sound like options for you, you might keep in mind the following options and tips to potentially reduce your textile sustainability footprint:
Look at other fibres/fabrics which might be sustainable in some ways (hemp, tencel, bamboo etc.)
Look for products labelled with the specific certifications that match your desired standards and criteria
Consume less products in general and don’t over consume
Buy products that will last longer (high quality might help achieve this goal), and keep your product/s longer between your next purchase
Buy secondhand and re-use products where you can
When you wash and dry your clothes – try to use water and energy efficient devices
These tips may help reduce your impact on humans, animals and the environment.
They can also give you other options in terms of the price and quality of the product.