In this guide, we list some of the potential pros and cons of organic cotton.
These pros and cons could be useful to consider when comparing organic cotton to conventional cotton, along with other textile fibres and materials.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Organic Cotton
We go into each one of the pros and cons in more detail in the guide below.
But, as a summary list of these pros and cons:
Some organic cotton materials and products come with an independent third party organic cotton certification label as assurance (of what exactly you’re buying)
Reduces or eliminates the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, and focuses more on natural pest control substances and methods (like biological methods)
Reduces or eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers (especially nitrogen fertilizers)
Reduces or eliminates the use of synthetic chemicals used in processing and manufacturing i.e. dying, bleaching and printing
Reduces the use of plant growth regulators
Reduces the use of synthetic chemicals used in leaf removal
May result in less environmental pollution and negative environmental side effects (water pollution, soil pollution, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions)
May result in better crop diversity, and reduced reliance on monocultures
May result in better soil health (including water and nutrient retention), and less soil erosion
May result in lesser impact on wildlife, and their habitats and ecosystems
May result in 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/or fairer working conditions and rights for cotton farm workers
Potentially steadier and better business conditions for cotton farmers
May lead to better management of natural resources for society (such as fresh water – which impacts water scarcity)
Does not use GM cotton seeds
Lesser reliance on non natural resources and inputs (which can increase independence for farmers)
Crop yields can be good in some instances
Organic farming in general may help society better achieve environmental and social goals compared to some types of conventional farming
Some case studies on small organic cotton farms show favorable outcomes
Some consumers report that organic cotton feels softer than regular cotton
Might use more water than conventional cotton, and still use a significant amount of total water
There might be no guaranteed way to confirm the type of water a cotton product has used, or whether other water was added to rainfed cotton
May have lower yields than conventional cotton
There can be a range of consequences and side effects to lower yields – economic, and also sustainability related
Organic cotton may require both more human labor, and labor requirements might be more intensive in some instances
The conversion process over to certified organic can be slow (for farm conversions in particular)
Organic cotton certification requires both an upfront investment, and an investment to main certified status
Organic cotton still makes up only a small % of total cotton grown (and this mans the market for organic cotton is smaller too)
There might be a level of business risk for growers, producers, suppliers and seller converting to, or selling certified organic cotton
Can struggle to meet demand, scale production, and increase market share because of various challenges and factors (both supply side, and consumer side)
The price of organic cotton can be more expensive at the consumer level
Doesn’t currently have the subsidisation or industry support regular cotton does in some countries
Some think that GMO seed benefits used in regular cotton (and not organic cotton) outweigh the risk – so, organic cotton misses out on these potential benefits
Some natural or organic pesticides might 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, and so on.
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.
These considerations need to be taken into account when assessing the full net tradeoffs of organic cotton.
Firstly, 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).
– And, usually 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
Some Organic Cotton Comes Labelled With Third Party Certification & Assurance
Regulations usually outline the basic requirements for products that can and cannot use the word ‘organic’ commercially in developed countries.
What this does, is that it enables consumers to look for third party certification labelling on an organic cotton product, which gives them an assurance for the criteria under which that product has been made
One example of this at the moment is the international GOTS standard.
Consumers can check out the GOTS standard criteria prior to purchasing a product that comes GOTS labelled, to make sure the criteria they use is aligns with their values and what’s important to them.
Comparatively, 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 (that might be hidden in the price).
Reduces Or Eliminates The Use Of Synthetic Pesticides, & Emphasises The Use Of Natural Pesticides Or Biological Pest Control
Organic cotton aims to reduce or eliminate the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides that could be harmful, or persistent in the environment.
Instead, it may use natural pesticides, or even biological pest control.
Integrated pest management may be one of the more environmentally friendly ways of managing pests.
One benefit of reduced synthetic pesticide use might be that organic cotton reduces or avoids some of the potential negative side effects that conventional cotton might have.
The use of natural pest control chemicals and biological pest control may also reduce the likelihood that pesticide resistant pests or secondary pests develop.
… innovative weeding strategies are used [for organic cotton] instead of herbicides; beneficial insects and trap crops control insect pests; and alternatives to toxic defoliants prepare plants for harvest.
Reduces Or Eliminates The Use Of Synthetic Nitrogen Based Fertilisers
Conventional cotton usually uses nitrogen based synthetic fertiliser to boost soil nutrients and produce better yields.
Not only might this help organic cotton reduce some of the potential negative side effects that organic cotton may have on the environment, but it may also help save on some of the energy usage and renewability concerns that synthetic fertilizer manufacturing may have.
Reduces Or Eliminates The Use Of Synthetic Chemicals Used In Processing & Manufacturing
Certified organic cotton may use naturally derived chemicals at the fibre processing and manufacturing stage i.e. for dyeing, bleaching and printing
Comparatively, non certified cotton may use heavy synthetic chemicals for processing, which may be hazardous to both workers, and the environment when discharged in wastewater.
… 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.
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 … [which includes the] 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).
May Reduce Or Eliminate The Use Of Plant Growth Regulators
Compared to some forms of conventional agriculture, some forms of organic agriculture may reduce or eliminate the use of growth regulators.
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.”
May Use Less Synthetic Chemicals Used In Leaf Removal
Another potential difference between conventional cotton and organic cotton.
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.
May Lead To Less Overall Environmental Pollution & Negative Environmental Side Effects (Water Pollution, Soil Pollution, Air Pollution, & Greenhouse Gas Emissions)
There’s a number of potential environmental pollution side effects from conventional cotton that may be reduced by organic cotton.
As a small summary of those potential effects:
– Water & Soil Pollution
One form of pollution is run-off and leaching of synthetic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, that can be washed away by rain
They can seep into soil or wash away into water sources like rivers, streams, lakes, and the ocean.
In water sources, they may impact aquatic and marine life, as well as other wild life.
Water pollution, acidification, eutrophication, and other issues can occur in water environments.
– Air Pollution & Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers can also lead to air pollution and the emission of greenhouse gas
Both fertilizer production, and fertilizer use on farms can emit gases that pollute the air and reduce air quality e.g. ammonia.
Nitrous oxide is also a greenhouse gas emitted by nitrogen fertilizer use.
Although, livestock manure used in organic cotton growing can produce all sorts of gases like ammonia and VOCs, so, it’s at least questionable whether less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions is really a benefit of organic cotton.
May Result In Better Crop Diversity, & Reduced Emphasis On Monocultures
One of the concerns about conventional cotton farming is that in some places, it can frequently be grown as a monoculture crop.
Organic farming may address this focuses by placing an emphasis on crop diversity and crop rotation – aiming to produce a more diverse crop culture.
May Result In Better Soil Health, & Less Soil Erosion
Organic cotton farming may place more of an emphasis on farming practices that promote better soil health (better water and nutrient retention for example).
Such practices might include cover crops, crop rotation, reduced till farming, organic fertilizers, and an overall focus on retaining healthy topsoil.
Potentially Reduced Impact On Wildlife (& Their Habitats & Ecosystems)
Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers used in conventional cotton farming might introduce harmful chemicals to the habitats animals live in – both on land, and in water.
Synthetic chemicals can impact aquatic animals, but also soil dwelling microorganisms like earthworms, or even beneficial soil bacteria.
Potentially Reduced Negative Impact Of Cotton Farming & Production On Human Health
Specifically farmers, farm workers, and those who work in fibre and textile production and processing.
Especially in developing countries, conventional cotton farm workers might be exposed to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, whether through skin contact, or breathing in pesticides in the air.
There’s also heavy chemicals used in processing factories in the treating and finishing of cotton materials and products.
Organic farming and organic cotton production criteria/standards may significantly reduce this negative impact on human health.
Possibly Better & Fairer Working Conditions & Rights For Cotton Farm & Cotton Industry Workers
Potentially Better Market Conditions & Business Control For Some Cotton Farmers
Regular cotton farmers in lower income regions may experience far more volatility, far more risk, and far less market power/leverage as a business owner compared to cotton farmers in other parts of the world.
May Lead To Better Management Of Natural Resources For Society (& In Turn, Help Address Other Resource Management Issues)
One example of this is better management and conservation of fresh water resources.
Regular cotton may use both a large quantity of irrigated water, and use this irrigated water inefficiently on cotton crops.
In some countries like India, they currently use more than double the global average of water on their cotton crops.
Organic cotton that focuses on rainfed cotton, better soil health with better water retention, growing cotton in more suitable climates, and less total irrigated water use (especially from ground water sources that are slow to recharge), may help reduce the unsustainable water footprint of cotton.
This would in turn impact issues such as water scarcity that some countries face too.
No Use Of Genetically Modified Cotton Seeds
Some point to the potential cons of GM crops to question whether GM crops and seeds should actually be used, citing various potential concerns.
Obviously the cultivation of organic cotton with non GM seeds eliminates some of these potential concerns.
Lesser Reliance On Some Non Natural Or Non Renewable Resources & Inputs
Overall, organic cotton generally involves decreased use of, and decreased dependence on non renewable/non natural inputs like synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, non renewable GM seeds, and synthetic chemicals.
Not only is this potentially more sustainable, but it may also increase the control and independence farmers have over their businesses as a result, as farmers aren’t as reliant on big GM seed companies (who may supply them with non renewable seeds on restrictive contracts), or big agricultural chemical companies.
Some of the potential cost and business control related issues cotton farmers may face with using GM seed cotton farming are outlined in this guide where the ‘thegreenhubonline.com’ resource is listed.
Reported Yields From Some Organic Farms Can Be Good
Some studies indicate that in drought years, organic farming can produce higher yields, and in some instances can almost match conventional farming yields.
Organic Farming In General May Help In Achieving Environmental & Social Goals Compared To Some Types Of Conventional Farming
Some Case Studies On Small Organic Cotton Farms Show Favorable Outcomes
Read more about a Cambridge small organic cotton farm case study in this guide.
Some People Report That Organic Cotton Can Feel Softer Than Regular Cotton
Some people have reported that organic cotton is softer than regular cotton based on feel.
Some sources indicate that this might be because the fibres are longer.
It’s worth noting though that 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 and traits of cotton.
Potential Cons Of Organic Cotton
Might Use More Water Than Conventional Cotton, & Still Use A Significant Amount Of Total Water
Despite some sources indicating that organic cotton emphasises rainfed cotton, and uses less water overall, other sources indicate that organic cotton actually uses more water than conventional cotton, and all types of cotton use a lot of total water.
If organic cotton does actually use more water in total for finished products (counting all stages from farming through to the entire supply and production chain), this result would obviously negate any benefit that water savings would contribute to issues like water scarcity and water stress in different regions of the world.
Some sources indicate that water use in cotton ultimately needs to consider the type of water being used, and also indicate that total water use might differ between different farms and different supply/production chains.
There Might Be No Guaranteed Way To Confirm The Type Of Water A Cotton Product Has Used
Certified organic cotton exists, and it’s possible some certification programs have criteria for the water used in the organic cotton product containing the certification labelling.
But, in other cases, it may be difficult to confirm the type of water used in the cotton product.
Even if rain water is used for cotton crops, it may be difficult to discern if irrigated water was also added.
… The most water-efficient option is … rainfed 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 [in the form of irrigated water for example]
Might Have Lower Yields Than Conventional Cotton
These yields are generally expressed at the total % of production that conventional cotton produces over and above organic cotton (rather than per plant, or per square area of land).
Some sources say conventional cotton yields 25% more, and other sources say over 40% more.
Some sources indicate this is because organic cotton doesn’t use pesticides and fertilizers, while others indicate that it’s because organic cotton doesn’t make use of GM seeds that can help increase yields as well.
There Can Be A Range Of Consequences & Side Effects To Lower Yields – Economic, & Sustainability Related
– Uses Natural Resources & Inputs Less Efficiently
Such as natural resources like water and land, but also inputs like organic fertilizers and organic pest control substances
There may also be more energy used in some processes as a result of lower yields (because more resources are having to be used for the same production)
The net result of this is that it goes against some overall sustainability objectives involving efficient use of resources.
As just one industry example, we list some sustainability objectives and indicators for fibres in this guide that efficient/inefficient use of resources might impact
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.
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.
– Potentially Contributes To Environmental & Social Issues In Some Ways
As a result of lower yields and more inefficient use of resources, there might be an impact on environmental issues and social issues as a result.
We gave the example with fresh water use above in this guide.
But, some sources indicate that there might be greater greenhouse gas emissions, and this obviously has potential to impact climate change.
Per qz.com: The lower yields of organic crops have even been linked to higher greenhouse-gas emissions on the industrial farms producing them.
– Less Production (From Lower Yields) Means Lower Revenues Per Square Area Of Land Or Per Plant, & More Capital Invested For Less Output
If yields are lower, that means that less production and ultimately less revenue is generated from the same square area of land, or per seed planted.
Additionally, it means that to get the same total production (to meet the same revenue goals), more capital and inputs have to be invested.
Overall, a farm has to input more to receive the same output as conventional cotton when yields are lower, which impacts the bottom line.
Per theconversation.com: Organic farms use more land and labour to produce the same amount of produce as conventional agriculture.
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
Organic production typically requires more human labour, land and cost input than conventional cotton production (source: European Union, 2014 and ICAC, 2006, via cottonaustralia.com.au)
Organic Cotton May Require More Human Labor, & Labor Requirements Might Be More Intensive
Separate to the issue of yields, organic cotton may require both more human labor and potentially in some cases more intensive human labor for some organic farming activities.
This is outlined in the sources listed in the above section.
Separate to the issue of more human labor being a greater expense (and risk) for farmers (particularly in low income regions, or places with minimal organic farming funding and support), working conditions may be more difficult in some ways if labor is more intensive.
… [one case study on a small organic cotton farm showed] 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.
The Conversion Process Over To Organic Farming Can Be Slow
Farms converting from conventional farming all the way up to getting certification for becoming an organic cotton farm, may find that the conversion process can be slow.
It may take up to 2 to 3 years to fully transition while doing a complete conversion for an existing conventional farm
New farms may be able to set up as organic much quicker.
It can take more than three years for a farm to receive organic certification (cottonaustralia.com.au)
Organic Cotton Certification Requires Upfront Investment, & There Is A Maintenance Investment Involved
To become certified in accordance with some international organic cotton standards, there is an upfront time and cost investment to do things such becoming aware of requirements, and then changing practices to meet requirements.
There’s also an investment required long term 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.
There’s also time spent developing and maintaining new relationships with organic supply chain suppliers, retailers, etc.
Certification May Carry A Level Of Business Risk For Farmers, Producers & Suppliers
With or without funding and support for becoming or transitioning to certified organic, there may be a level of risk for those who earn a living from cotton growing, producing and supplying.
This is because of factors like uncertainty, entering a new market, lack of knowledge, developing new relationships, potentially increased labor, resources and regulatory costs, and so on.
Organic Cotton Still Only Makes Up A Small % Of Total Cotton Grown
Doesn’t Currently Have The Subsidisation Or Support/Protection Regular Cotton Does In Some Countries
The funding and subsidisation for conventional cotton has been around for a lot longer and is usually far higher than for the funding provided to the organic cotton industry
A question that might be asked is how profitable or economically viable organic would be if it received the same level of subsidisation and funding as the conventional cotton industry.
Can either industry become economically competitive without subsidies at some point, or will they always need support?
Per triplepundit.com: … [There might be] Higher costs [for] organic cotton [because it isn’t subsidized as significantly as regular cotton]
Can Struggle To Meet Demand, Scale Production, & Increase Market Share
There’s several supply side factors that impact organic cotton’s ability to both scale up production, and meet demand.
As a result of this, organic cotton struggles to increase in market share.
Beyond the these supply side factors, one source also says that consumer demand is a specific factor that might be preventing market share from growing right now.
Some people for example may not even know what organic cotton is exactly, but for those who do, they may struggle with things such as knowing what certification labelling to look for, what it means, and where and how to buy.
Price may even be another challenge to increasing market share.
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
Also per triplepundit.com:
[Additional factors that may impact ability to meet demand or ramping up production are being able to] procure and distribute [organic seeds] to farmers [effectively], [getting seeds to developing countries where most cotton currently comes from], [being able to efficiently get developing country farmers to convert to organic farming and get certifications] … the timeliness of payment and market access … [and] 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 [and work with initiatives] to ensure both quality and transparency along the entire chain [and …] build farmer capacity to produce more organic cotton
Again from per triplepundit.com (on the consumer side awareness):
Consumer awareness and demand also needs to increase for organic cotton to become more prominent
Price Of Organic Cotton Can Be More Expensive For Consumers
Certified organic cotton products that consumers buy in store may be more expensive than similar or the same non certified or regular cotton products.
There might be several reasons for this ranging from business costs to produce organic cotton, tot the yield of organic cotton, to the subsidies given to regular cotton compared to organic cotton.
[The price of organic cotton products may have to do with the fact that] regular cotton is so heavily subsidised in some countries compared to organic cotton [and this makes regular cotton cheaper]
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]
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.
Some People Think GM Seed Benefits Outweigh The Risk
If the impact of GM cotton seeds is a net positive, then organic cotton by not using them misses out on this net positive impact at the moment.
Some of the benefits of GM seeds might include seeds with more favorable traits (like better water or nutrient retention), better productivity and yields, and ultimately a cheaper final organic cotton product.
But, there would ultimately need to be more evidence on these things before they can definitively be proved.
Adoption [of GM seeds or genetic engineering] would massively improve the productivity of organic agriculture, and the productivity boost would help make organic food price competitive.
Some people think that the benefits of GMO seeds … outweigh the potential risks …
.. 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.
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 Might Be As Harmful As Some Synthetic Ones
Pesticides and pest control are still used used in organic farming.
The potential harm may also stretch to the environment as well.
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.
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