Some people might be interested in the idea of organic cotton, but might not know what the potential positives and negatives of this fibre are.
In this guide, we list some of the potential pros and cons of organic cotton.
These pros and cons could be useful for example when comparing organic cotton to conventional cotton, but also other fibres, and materials.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Organic Cotton
We go into each one of these pros and cons in more detail in the guide below.
Some organic cotton materials and products comes with a third party certification assurance (of what you are buying, and a criteria that you can check if you are satisfied with before you buy)
Less synthetic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides used, and more of a focus on natural and organic chemicals and methods used for pest control
Lesser chance of pesticide resistant pests developing, and secondary pests developing
Less synthetic nitrogen based fertilizers used
Less synthetic chemicals used in processing i.e. dying, bleaching and printing
Reduced use of plant growth regulators
Less synthetic chemicals used in leaf removal
Less toxic runoff into freshwater sources and the ocean
Less overall water pollution
Less air pollution
Less GHG emissions, less energy intensive and smaller carbon footprint
Better crop diversity and no monocultures
Better soil health, soil water retention and less soil erosion
Lesser impact on wildlife and their habitats and ecosystems
Lesser impact on the environment overall
Lesser negative impact on the health of humans who work in, or have exposure to cotton related industries (farms, processing factories, and so on)
Possibly better and fairer working conditions and rights for cotton farm workers
Potentially steadier and better pay for cotton farmers
Saving of fresh water resources and less contribution to water scarcity
No use of GMO seeds
Lesser reliance on non natural resources and inputs, which can increase independence for farmers
Crop yields can be good in some instances
Overall, organic farming seems like a sustainable practice and sustainable system
Some people experience that organic cotton can be softer than regular cotton
Might use more water in total, and contribute to water scarcity if that water is unsustainably being withdrawn and used
Some reports indicate organic cotton can have lower yields per plant, or per area of land
With lower yields, organic cotton can use more land or be less land efficient
Might go against some sustainability objectives and indicators (relating to lack of efficiency with use of resources like water, land, energy and so on)
Lack of efficiency and lack of yield can lead to less revenue produced per square area of land
Possibly higher GHG emissions
More labor might have to be used and it might be more intensive labor, and might be more time intensive
The conversion process for organic cotton growers (in converting to an organic farm) can be slow
Certification can take time and there is some maintenance involved
Can be some short term risk for farmers and those along the supply chain in converting to organic
Can struggle to meet demand, increase market share, and other costs can creep in
Consumer awareness for organic cotton may be lagging
The market for organic cotton is currently smaller comparatively to regular cotton
Organic cotton can be more expensive at the consumer purchase level
Doesn’t currently have the subsidisation protection regular cotton does in some countries
Some think that GMO seed benefits outweigh the risk
Some natural or organic pesticides can be as harmful as synthetic ones
For items like shopping bags, organic cotton can be worse environmentally than regular cotton
The pros and cons listed above and below in this guide are generalisations.
The final pros and cons of organic cotton products all depend on individualised factors such as where the cotton is sourced and grown (the country is grown in, the farm it’s grown on, and supply chain it’s sourced through), how it’s processed (dyed, bleached, printing on, and so on), how it’s transported, etc..
So, there are many variables for individual cotton production processes, materials, products and companies.
There’s also challenges such as complexity of supply chains, and available study and analysis data when reporting on organic cotton.
What Is Organic Cotton?
Generally, organic cotton is cotton that is grown and produced with:
No synthetic agricultural chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) at the growing stage
No GMO (genetically modified) seeds
No synthetic chemicals in the processing stage (in bleaching, dying and printing). [Organic cotton] still uses naturally derived or organic chemicals [but not synthetic ones] (qz.com)
And, usually a combination of sustainable/organic farming practices (that might emphasize things such as soil health, and so on)
You can read more about what organic cotton is in this guide.
Potential Pros Of Organic Cotton (Benefits)
Some Organic Cotton Comes With A Third Party Certification Assurance
A buyer of third party certified organic cotton might have more information available, and certainty and assurance of how their product was grown, processed and distributed.
For example, if they are buying GOTS certified organic cotton, they can go to the GOTS website and read for themselves the criteria that that cotton has to meet in order to be certified and receive a GOTS certification symbol on the label.
The buyer can then determine themselves if they are satisfied by that.
A buyer of regular cotton might have no uniform or recognised way of knowing how that cotton was grown and processed, and the impact it’s had on society and the environment.
Paying attention to traceability might be important too.
Less Synthetic Pesticides, Insecticides & Herbicides Used, & More Of A Focus On Natural & Organic Chemicals & Methods Used For Pest Control
Organic cotton places more of a focus on using natural and organic pest control methods compared to conventional cotton that uses synthetic pesticide chemicals.
Per business-ethics.com: innovative weeding strategies are used instead of herbicides; beneficial insects and trap crops control insect pests; and alternatives to toxic defoliants prepare plants for harvest.
Per swedishlinens.com: Regular cotton consumes 16% of the world’s insecticides and requires $2 Billion in pesticides each year.
Pesticides and insecticides used in cotton production contaminate the soil we use to grow crops, the air we breathe and the water we drink.
The deaths of animals exposed to these contaminants is counted in the millions every year.
Per qz.com: particular chemicals used in conventional farming have raised serious concerns, such as glyphosate, a widely used herbicide that’s the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller brand, which the World Health Organization has deemed a “probable carcinogen” based on studies of workers who used the product.
[But, there’s no evidence to suggest that wearing clothing made from cotton grown with the chemical is harmful].
Per frankandoak.com: Conventional cotton production has resulted in reduced soil fertility, loss of biodiversity, and life-threatening health problems to those who have been exposed repeatedly to toxic chemicals used in pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides.
White cotton covers just 2.5% of the planet’s total agricultural area, it uses 7% of all pesticides and 16% of all insecticides with entire chemical companies making neurotoxic formulas just to support cotton.
Conventional cotton relies on these chemicals for production.
These strong chemicals are subsequently released into the environment and pollute and distort ecosystems.
These chemicals are also said to have harmful effects on farmers’ health.
Lesser Chance Of Pesticide Resistant Pests Developing, and Secondary Pests Developing
Synthetic pesticides might cause pesticide resistant pests to develop after consistent or repeated exposure to the synthetic chemicals.
Secondary pests may also develop too.
The use of natural/organic pest control chemicals and methods may reduce this, or eliminate it from happening.
Less Synthetic Nitrogen Based Fertilisers Used
Conventional cotton usually uses nitrogen based synthetic fertiliser to boost soil nutrients and produce better yields.
There’s both the production of fertilizer itself that requires energy, and the use of fertilizer on farms that has emission and run off concerns.
Organic cotton farming on the other hand relies on sustainable/organic farming practices (cover crops as one example), as well as natural fertilizers like composted animal manure that promote good soil health and soil nutrients to help the cotton grow.
Per business-ethics.com: Conventionally grown cotton also uses large amounts of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizer—almost a third of a pound, says the OTA, to grow one pound of raw cotton
… Researchers have found that the fertilizers used on cotton are the most detrimental to the environment, running off into freshwater habitats and groundwater and causing oxygen-free dead zones in water bodies.
The nitrogen oxides formed during the production and use of these fertilizers are also a major part of the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Less Synthetic Chemicals Used In Processing I.e. Dying, Bleaching & Printing
Certified organic cotton may use naturally derived chemicals in the processing stage i.e. in dying, bleaching and printing etc.
Per qz.com: before [an] organic cotton garment can make it to a store, it must be dyed and finished—one of the dirtiest and most chemically intensive steps in making clothes.
Unless your organic-cotton garment is certified under a program such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, it is near impossible to guess whether the dyeing processes used were organic or not.
Per oecotextiles.wordpress.com: Conventional textile processing is highly polluting – it uses many chemicals, and pollutes a lot of water.
GOTS certification covers the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, exportation, importation and distribution of all natural fibers; that means, specifically, for example: use of certified organic fibers, prohibition of all GMOs and their derivatives; and prohibition of a long list of synthetic chemicals (for example: formaldehyde and aromatic solvents are prohibited; dyestuffs must meet strict requirements (such as threshold limits for heavy metals, no AZO colorants or aromatic amines) and PVC cannot be used for packaging).
Reduced Use Of Plant Growth Regulators
Per sourcingjournal.com: Chemically intensive agriculture, especially in irrigated systems, push the ecosystem year-on-year for higher yields,
… “This requires the use of an ever-increasing amount of chemical inputs, including growth regulators.”
Less Synthetic Chemicals Used In Leaf Removal
Per frankandoak.com: Conventional cotton might involve … leaves removed by toxic chemical defoliant … [but] Organic cotton might involve … removal of leaves and weeds through freeze drying and water.
Less Toxic Runoff Into Soil, & Freshwater Sources & The Ocean
Both synthetic pesticides and fertilizers can leach or seep down through the soil causing soil contamination issues, and also into ground water aquifers when washed away by rainfall.
There can also be a run off into streams, rivers and into the ocean and other water sources.
This run off can cause water pollution, acidification, eutrophication, damage to wildlife and a range of other issues.
Less Water Pollution
There’s also the chance of less water pollution overall – from decreased leaching of synthetic chemicals, and from decreased pesticide drift of synthetic pesticides.
Per sourcingjournal.com: The real issue about water [in regards to cotton] is pollution.
Toxic chemicals used in conventional cotton production are poisoning the very water it claims to save
Potentially Less Air Pollution
From the reduced use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.
Both fertilizer production, and fertilizer use on farms can emit gases that pollute the air and reduce air quality e.g. ammonia.
Although, livestock manure can produce all sorts of gases like ammonia and VOCs, so, it’s at least questionable whether less air pollution is really a benefit of organic cotton.
Less Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Less Energy Intensive and Smaller Carbon Footprint
Per sourcingjournal.com: organic cotton is 46 percent less harmful to global warming [and] organic cotton can reduce demand for energy by as much as 62 percent.
Per swedishlinens.com: Global consumption of non-organic cotton releases huge amounts of greenhouse gas into our atmosphere, about 220 million tonnes a year.
1 tonne of conventional cotton fiber produces 1.8 tonnes of CO2e.
Organic cotton produces around 46% less CO2e compared to conventional cotton.
Per oecotextiles.wordpress.com: The energy used (and therefore the CO2 emitted) to create 1 ton of spun fiber is [higher for conventional cotton than organic cotton].
The KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber for conventional cotton (USA) is 5.90, compared to 3.80 for organic cotton (India) and 2.35 for organic cotton (USA).
Substituting organic fibers for conventionally grown fibers is not just a little better – but lots better in all respects: uses less energy for production, emits fewer greenhouse gases and supports organic farming (which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits).
Read more in this oecotextiles.wordpress.com resource about organic cotton vs conventional cotton, and organic farming vs conventional farming, in relation to greenhouse gases, energy requirements (to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers and so on), carbon storage in soil, and the impact of cover crops and animal manure on carbon sequestration in soil.
Better Crop Diversity, & No Monocultures
Conventional cotton farming has produced cotton monocultures.
Organic farming focuses on crop diversity and crop rotation – aiming to produce a more diverse crop culture
Better Soil Health & Soil Water Retention, & Less Soil Erosion
This is due to organic farming practices such as cover crops, crop rotation, organic fertilizers, and an overall focus on soil health, soil moisture retention, and so on.
Per sourcingjournal.com: With organic cotton, the potential for soil erosion drops 26 percent.
Per frankandoak.com: Conventional cotton might involve … soil loss due to single cultivation [and] organic cotton might involve … good soil maintained through crop rotation
Lesser Impact On Wildlife & Their Habitats & Ecosystems
Pesticides and fertilizers used in conventional cotton farming can introduce harmful chemicals to the habitats animals live in – both on land and in water.
Synthetic chemicals can be particularly detrimental to aquatic environments, and soil dwelling microorganisms like earthworms, or even beneficial soil bacteria.
Lesser Impact On The Environment Overall
Per sourcingjournal.com: [of all cotton production methods] organic cotton [production] has the lowest environmental impact as it doesn’t use any toxic chemicals or genetically modified seeds.
Per textileexchange.org: Textile Exchange found Organic farming (before actual production) was “significantly more environmentally friendly”.
It also found that organic cotton farming is less likely to contribute to global warming, acidification, and eutrophication than conventional cotton farming.
Lesser Negative Impact On The Health Of Humans Who Work In, Or Have Exposure To Cotton Related Industries (Farms, Processing Factories, & So On)
Especially in developing countries, cotton farm workers can be exposed to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.
They can breathe in these chemicals and touch them with their skin, which can lead to a range of health issues and sickness, and sometimes death.
There’s also heavy chemicals used in processing factories in the treating and finishing of cotton materials and products.
Per swedishlinens.com: Global organizations estimate thousands of people exposed to the chemicals used in non-organic cotton production die of cancer, poisoning, and miscarriages each year.
Many also suffer from birth defects and other diseases such as asthma.
The exposure to these toxic chemicals is taking its toll mostly in developing countries, such as India and Uzbekistan.
Per organiccottonplus.com: Chemicals used to grow conventional cotton have tremendous impact on the earth’s air, water, soil, and the health of people in cotton-growing areas.
They are among the most toxic chemicals as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency
… The problem is even worse in developing countries with uninformed consumers, and lack of stable institutions and property rights.
In addition to destroying the land, thousands of farmers die from exposure to these chemicals every year.
Possibly Better & Fairer Working Conditions & Rights For Cotton Farm & Cotton Industry Workers
This is especially the case when workers are covered by certification programs that include ethical social objectives.
Per swedishlinens.com: GOTS certified organic cotton for example places and emphasis on social/ethical cotton – where workers have access to a safe and fair work environment
… About 100 million households are engaged in growing and producing cotton and 300 million people work in the cotton sector as a whole
… The majority of [non-organic] cotton farmers and workers live in developing countries, work extremely long hours, are exposed to poisonous substances daily and earning very little in wages
… In fact, many of them have unsustainable debts because they are unable to keep up with employer demands.
Other factors such as climate change, decreasing prices of cotton and tough competition from farmers in rich countries don’t make it any easier
… Sadly, suicide rates among cotton farmers have been high in the last 20 years.
In the year of 2013 alone 11,772 farmers committed suicide in India, that’s 44 farmers a day …
Potentially Steadier & Better Pay For Cotton Farmers
Organic farming in general, and certain organic cotton certifications (that include social criteria) may ensure farmers receive either a reasonable pay (costs plus minimum profit) for their organic cotton, and this pay may be more steadier than pay received for conventional cotton or non certified cotton which can rise and fall with world markets, and sometimes leaves farmers in debt, or to go bankrupt.
This can be particularly detrimental for low income farmers in low income areas of the world who’s livelihood is tied to their farming income.
Per sourcingjournal.com: Organic cotton results in 70 percent less acidification of land and water
Saving Of Freshwater Resources & Less Contribution To Water Scarcity
If organic farming practices that result in better soil retention and more efficient water use leads to overall reduced water use, especially from irrigated water, then this results in water conservation and helps address water scarcity concerns.
Per sourcingjournal.com: With organic cotton, surface and groundwater use falls 91 percent.
Per theguardian.com: Organic cotton production … has a lower net water use because it uses no chemicals.
Encouragingly, India currently produces two-thirds of the world’s organic cotton.
However, this is just 2% of the country’s cotton acreage.
Per sourcingjournal.com: The notion that chemical cotton uses less water than organic cotton is false
… Taking a T-shirt [as an example] to produce it, conventional cotton would use 2,168 gallons of water compared to 186 for organic (a difference of 1,982 gallons).
To make a pair of jeans, conventional cotton would take 9,910 gallons of water compared to 932 with organic (a savings of 8,978 gallons).
Per swedishlinens.com: It takes 2700 litres of water to produce one cotton t shirt
…1 billion people don’t have access to freshwater and 2.4 billion people suffer from inadequate sanitation.
Millions of people, mostly young children, die each year due to water-borne illnesses caused by inadequate sanitation and lack of water.
Yet we still use 10,000 liters of water to process just one single kilo of conventional cotton …
Organic cotton uses far less [fresh] water to grow since organic cotton growers typically utilize rain far more than irrigation.
No Use Of Genetically Modified Seeds
Per triplepundit.com: Organic cotton places an emphasis on the use of natural cotton seeds over genetically modified cotton seeds.
Some people worry about the effects GMO seeds might have on wildlife, plants and the ecosystem in the future, and on the biodiversity of crops and plants.
Regular cotton is one of the crops most intensively reliant on big GMO seed companies like Monsanto.
With 83 percent of cotton coming from GMO seeds, it one one of the top four GMO crops produced in the world alongside soy (89 percent), canola (75 percent) and corn (61 percent)
Lesser Reliance On Certain Non Natural Resources & Inputs Overall (Fertilizers, Pesticides, Chemicals, GMO Seeds, & So On), Which Can Increase Independence & Decrease Some Costs & Debt For Farmers
Per thegreenhubonline.com: Organic cotton has less of a reliance on non natural resources, and more reliance on the natural land, soil etc
… This lessened reliance decreases some costs, and creates more independence for farmers
… With seeds in particular, some developing country farmers may go into debt buying non renewable seeds from cotton seed suppliers.
If they don’t make a profit in that season, they can go into debt and never pay that debt off …
Organic cotton seeds that are renewable may help developing country farmers recover debt with more consistency over the long term and give them a better chance of success for their farming operations
.. There’s one major company that has a monopoly on GMO cotton seeds [and] This company continuously increase seed prices, throwing farmers into more and more debt, and destroying their financial freedom and independence.
Their seeds are also non renewable – which means farmers much buy more and more of them
… There’s thousands of farmer suicides in India yearly – and debt may be a reason why
Yields In Organic Cotton Can Be Good
Some organic cotton farms do have good yields.
Per sourcingjournal.com: In drought years, yields were higher in organic systems, and an analysis … found that yields in organic farming systems with “good management practices” can almost match conventional cotton yields
Overall, Organic Farming Seems Like A Sustainable Type Of Farming Compared To Conventional Farming
When looking at the end result of organic farming practices, it does seem like a sustainable system.
Per oecotextiles.wordpress.com: Organic farming helps to ensure other environmental and social goals [relating to eliminating] … the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which is an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity … [and it] conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion) … [and it] ensures sustained biodiversity … and compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire
… Organic agriculture is [also] an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming
… The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years) provides convincing evidence that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices – can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions.
Some People Experience That Organic Cotton Can Be Softer Than Regular Cotton
Some people will say that organic cotton is softer than regular cotton in general, or because the fibres are longer.
This may be true in some instances, but, not all organic cotton is grown and produced the same way, and the quality of cotton and how it feels can be influenced by the climate/temperature in which it’s grown, how long it grows for and where it’s grown.
For example, if the growing season is longer in one place than another, the cotton plant has more time to grow.
This is just one of many potential factors that might determine the quality of cotton in general
Potential Cons Of Organic Cotton (Disadvantages)
Might Use More Water (& Contribute To Water Scarcity)
If organic cotton does actually use more water either in total, or per pound of cotton produced, then this consumption contributes to water scarcity if that consumption comes mainly from irrigated water (which could be depleting groundwater and other freshwater sources) and not renewable rainfall sources.
Per qz.com: It will take you about 290 gallons of water to grow enough conventional, high-yield cotton to produce a t-shirt
… To grow the same amount of organic cotton for a t-shirt, however, requires about 660 gallons of water. For a pair of jeans, organic takes around 2641 gallons, while regular takes around 1135 gallons of water
… [Some sources also say] organic cotton actually requires less water over time, in large part because soil with more carbon from organic matter stores water better.
But generally a cotton plant requires the same amount of water whether it’s organic or not, and non-organic farmers also use plenty of methods to keep their soil healthy.
Per frankandoak.com: Cotton Inc. reports that it takes 1,098 litres of water to grow enough cotton to make a t-shirt from a conventional cotton plant.
To make the same t-shirt from organic cotton you would need over double that – 2,500 litres of water
… Conventional cotton, as well as organic, requires an enormous amount of water. One kilogram from cotton fibre (the amount you need to make a pair of jeans) needs between 7,000 and 29,000 litres of water.
Also Per qz.com: The main environmental concern with water use relates to irrigation, especially in countries such as India, struggling with water scarcity.
But about half of cotton crops globally—organic and conventional—get their water from rainfall,
… The most water-efficient option is … rain-fed cotton, but there’s no way to know whether the cotton in the t-shirt you’re buying was that variety, or whether it required additional water.
Per sourcingjournal.com: Each [cotton] farm and geographic region of the world will have different water usage and impacts
A Possible Lower Yield For The Same Area Of Land
This can be farm and location specific, but, lower yields from organic cotton might result from a lack of modern science and technology based improvement being applied at the growing stage/on farms.
Per qz.com: Conventional cotton varieties have a higher yield, meaning a single plant will produce more fiber than its organic counterpart.
That’s because conventional cotton has been genetically engineered for that purpose.
In the past 35 years, cotton yields have risen 42%, largely due to biotechnology and better irrigation techniques.
Per frankandoak.com: One study found that the average organic yield of cotton was 25% lower than conventional.
Per fashionhedge.com: More recently, a study … titled Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture revealed that – The average organic-to-conventional yield ratio from our meta-analysis is 0.75 … that is, overall, organic yields are 25% lower than conventional.
If Yields Are Lower, Organic Uses More Land For The Same Amount Of Cotton Compared To Conventional Cotton I.e. It’s Less Land Efficient
Per qz.com: To get the same amount of fiber from an organic crop and a conventional crop, you’ll have to plant more organic plants, which means using more land.
Per theconversation.com: Organic farms use more land and labour to produce the same amount of produce as conventional agriculture.
That’s the major reason you pay more for organic products.
Adoption [of GM] would massively improve the productivity of organic agriculture, and the productivity boost would help make organic food price competitive.
Might Go Against Some Sustainability Objectives (Relating To Lack Of Efficiency)
If a cotton farm has to use more water, land and energy to grow their organic cotton – this can go against some overall sustainability objectives involving efficient use of resources.
Per fashionhedge.com: Organic agriculture is less efficient, meaning that the same amount of resources produce a lower volume of product, compared to traditional farming.
This is extremely important, because if we are talking about sustainability, the scarcity of resources has to be taken into account: world hunger and clean water are two areas in which efficiency is capital to build a sustainable future.
Organic Agriculture’s Lack Of Efficiency Can Lead To Less Revenue Produced
A lack of yield and lack of efficient use of resources can lead to less revenu produced per square area plot of farming land or per cotton plant planted.
Per fashionhedge.com: A 2001 study on organic cotton farming efficiency conducted in Greece, showed that organic farms produced only 73% of the yield of those of a conventional farm and 86% of the revenue
Possibly Higher Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Per qz.com: The lower yields of organic crops have even been linked to higher greenhouse-gas emissions on the industrial farms producing them.
And how far cotton travels before it winds up in your closet should factor into the environmental equation too.
More Labor Might Have To Be Used, & It Might Be More Time Intensive
Because organic cotton, and certified organic cotton in particular requires thorough quality assurance and checking, and different farming practices for the land and soil – organic cotton growing and production can require more labor, be more labor intensive and take far more time from growing to production compared to regular cotton.
Labor involved in the farming practices can be more intensive too – like for example the practices involved in manually de-weeding or crop rotation.
The Conversion Process Over To Organic Farming Can Be Slow – Up To Around 2 Years
Farms converting from conventional to organic cotton farming may find that the conversion process can be slow.
It may take up to 2 years to fully transition while doing a conversion from being an existing conventional farm, whilst new farms may be much quicker
Certification Can Take Time, & There Is A Maintenance Involved
To become certified in accordance with some international organic cotton standards, it can take time, cost money, and there can be an upkeep involved for farmers, suppliers and those across the production and supply chain with inspections, and keeping up certain regulatory standards and requirements of the certifying body.
Can Be Some Short Term Risk For Farmers & Those Along The Supply Chain In Converting To Organic
Because of factors like uncertainty, increased labor and regulatory costs, and so on.
Doesn’t Currently Have The Subsidisation Protection Regular Cotton Does In Some Countries
Regular cotton benefits from heavy subsidisation in some countries, whereas organic cotton usually doesn’t
Can Struggle To Meet Demand, Increase Market Share, & There Can Be Other Costs Involved
Per triplepundit.com: Properly certified organic cotton can take time to set up the supply lines and production facilities.
Because of this, organic cotton may have a slower time meeting increased demand and scaling up compared to regular cotton
… [There might be] Higher costs of organic cotton (due to subsidies for regular cotton)
… the system that put control of inputs like seeds into the hands of a few big companies — organic seeds are difficult to procure and distribute to farmers.
Even when they are available, getting them to farmers in developing countries where most cotton currently comes from is a challenge, as is building the capacity of these farmers to be able to go organic farming and receive necessary certifications … the timeliness of payment and market access … the risk of investment made by the farmer … [are all] challenges [organic cotton is having] in growing its market share and making a strong business case for companies to shift to organic
… Companies can’t just purchase more organic cotton; they need to work with suppliers to ensure both quality and transparency along the entire chain.
That includes working with initiatives like the Organic Cotton Roundtable to build farmer capacity to produce more organic cotton
Consumer Awareness For Organic Cotton May Need To Be Increased
Per triplepundit.com: Consumer awareness and demand also needs to increase for organic cotton to become more prominent
Market For Organic Cotton Is Currently Very Small
Compared to regular cotton
Can Be More Expensive To Buy Organic Cotton For Consumers
Per triplepundit.com: Consumers buying organic cotton clothing for example from a shop, may find that certified organic cotton products are slightly more expensive than regular cotton.
Some of this has to do with the fact that regular cotton is so heavily subsidised in some countries compared to organic cotton.
A massive subsidy is why non-organic cotton remains much, much cheaper than organic cotton.
The question isn’t why organic ‘costs’ more, it should be why conventional production is allowed to avoid taking responsibility for so many costs [such as environmental and social costs]
Some People Think GMO Seed Benefits Outweigh The Risk
Per theconversation.com: Some people think that the benefits of GMO seeds which may include resistance against pests, droughts, heat etc., less water required, and increased yields, outweigh the potential risks such as creating super pests and GMO seeds eliminating natural seeds and natural plant life .
.. In Burkina Faso in Africa, documented farmer benefits [of Bt cotton] include a 20% yield increase compared to conventional cotton, a pesticide use reduction of about 67%, while cotton profits were elevated by US$64 per hectare – a 51% increase in previous income levels.
Per theconversation.com: In the most comprehensive meta-analysis (of 147 publications) to date, researchers from Goettingen University have concluded that the adoption of GM technology has:
- Reduced pesticide use by 37%
- Increased crop yield by 22%
- Increased farmer profits by 68%.
The yield and profit gains are considerably higher in developing countries than in developed countries, and 53% of GM crops are grown in developing countries.
In 2012, a joint Chinese-French study on GM cotton showed that insecticide usage more than halved, and the survival of beneficial insects had a positive impact on pest control.
Since they adopted genetically modified Bt cotton, India has been producing twice as much cotton from the same land area with 65% less insecticide.
Some Natural Or Organic Pesticides Can Be As Harmful As Some Synthetic Ones
Per fashionhedge.com: Some natural pesticides can be as harmful as some of the synthetic ones used.
Per qz.com: There’s some evidence to suggest that certain organic pesticides can be worse for the environment than conventional ones
For Items Like Shopping Bags, Organic Cotton Can Be Worse Environmentally Than Regular Cotton
A Danish study compared the environmental impact of different carrier bags, and found organic cotton bags have to be used 20,000 versus 7,000 times for regular cotton bags, to have the same environmental impact as plastic bags across a range of environmental indicators.
An assumption was made that organic cotton yields lower than regular cotton, so the inputs were higher for organic cotton, but benefits of organic cotton like less fertilizer and pesticide use were taken into account.
Read more on the qz.com and mst.dk resources in the resources list at the bottom of this guide.
Some Case Studies Of Small Organic Cotton Farmers
Just a couple of case studies of organic cotton farming:
Cambridge did a case study of ‘organic cotton production on the livelihood of smallholder farmers in Odisha, India’.
A summary of what they found from farmers who converted to organic cotton farming was:
… farmers profit from organic agriculture, mainly due to soil improvements, through reduced exposure to toxic chemicals and lower input costs, which in turn reduces dependency on money lenders.
Organic agriculture enables smallholder farmers in the study region to improve their livelihood by providing access to training and by organizing in groups.
Important social impacts identified in this study were capacity building and strengthened communities, through training and institution building.
However, a higher workload, due to the higher work intensity of organic farming practices, was also observed, with this impacting women more than men.
Environmental conditions and gender aspects still remain challenging.
In the Chihuahuan Desert in North America, GMO cotton has provided the following benefits on one particular farm:
A decrease in insecticide applications from 13, to zero
An increase in beneficial insects
A decrease in secondary pests
A decrease in the amount of herbicide sprayed
A cleaner cotton product (since it uses less pesticides overall)
Cleaner water (since there’s less pesticide)
Cleaner air (since there’s less pesticide)
Better soil health (since there’s less tillage – because less weeds have to be cleared)
A decrease in labor (since there’s less spraying and tillage that has to happen)
Overall, Is Organic Cotton Better Than Regular Cotton?
It’s possible organic cotton is better in some areas compared to regular cotton, but worse in others.
So much depends on the geographic location of the farm where the cotton is grown, methods used to grow the cotton (e.g. whether the cotton is irrigated or rain fed), and then how the cotton is produced into a cotton product (dying, bleaching etc).
The question also has to be asked – what measurement or indicator is most important to you?
Water use? Carbon footprint? Use of pesticides and fertilizers? Yield efficiency for farmers? Or something else?
If you believe overall that organic farming practices, use of natural pesticides, fertilizers and production chemicals compared to synthetic chemicals, and use of natural cotton seeds (compared to GMO seeds) is a good thing – organic cotton might be a good purchase for you.
You can have some level of certainty of what the organic cotton you buy has taken to grow and produce by buying GOTS Certified Organic Cotton – read more about what GOTS Certified Organic Cotton is in this guide.
One of the good things about GOTS Certified Cotton is they tell you the criteria to expect from products with their certification on them – environmental, social, quality criteria and so on.
Organic Cotton vs Regular Cotton
We’ve put together a short summary guide outlining some of the further key differences between organic and regular cotton, and we’ve also included some other useful information such as alternatives to cotton as a material.
Other Considerations When Buying Textiles
When buying textiles, your choices if you want to be sustainable may be more than just organic or non organic cotton.
For example, you might consider (just as a few examples):
Buying another fibre with sustainable aspects such as TENCEL, bamboo, hemp, or something else
Buying an item, and buying to last i.e. keeping it longer between your next purchase
Buying secondhand or pre-used
6. Altenbuchner, C., Vogel, S., & Larcher, M. (2018). Social, economic and environmental impacts of organic cotton production on the livelihood of smallholder farmers in Odisha, India. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 33(4), 373-385. doi:10.1017/S174217051700014X – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/renewable-agriculture-and-food-systems/article/social-economic-and-environmental-impacts-of-organic-cotton-production-on-the-livelihood-of-smallholder-farmers-in-odisha-india/922E6662E3D82E3B34CA119BC43F6F4A