Organic Cotton: What It Is, How To Know If It’s Organic, How & Where To Buy, & Whether It’s Worth It

In this introductory guide to organic cotton, we outline:

– What organic cotton is 

The potential pros and cons of organic cotton

– Potential eco friendliness & sustainability of organic cotton as a fibre or textile

– What the main differences might be between organic cotton and regular cotton

– What to look for and understand when buying organic textiles and organic cotton (including how regulations, certifications and standards relate to organic products and fibers)

– Where to buy organic cotton

– Whether organic cotton might be worth the money

 

Summary – Organic Cotton

What Is Organic Cotton

We provide a more detailed description of organic cotton in the guide below.

But, as summaries …

 

–  General Description

Organic cotton might be described as cotton that:

Is grown without GM cotton seeds

Is grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers (that are persistent in the environment or toxic)

Generally uses organic agricultural methods over conventional intensive agricultural practices

Might not use harmful or hazardous synthetic chemicals (like bleaches, dyes, prints, finishing agents, etc) during the textile processing/manufacturing stage

[Some certifying bodies also place social and ethical standards on their organic cotton too]

 

With organic cotton, there’s generally an emphasis of having a lower negative impact on humans, the environment and wild life, as well as using resources more sustainably.

 

– More Specific Descriptions 

Different groups have different definitions for what is considered an ‘organic’ product, an ‘organic fibre’, or ‘organic cotton’.

In the US, the National Organic Program (NOP) develops the rules & regulations for the production, handling, labeling, and enforcement of all USDA organic products.

So, what is considered an ‘organic’ product according to various measures can be found in these regulations.

In terms of textiles, the NOP/USDA indicates textiles that meet the GOTS standard may be sold as organic in the United States. 

When checking out the relevant resources on the GOTS website that we list in the guide below, they give descriptions of what constitutes as an ‘organic fibre’.

So, a more specific explanation of what organic products and fibres are might be extrapolated from these sources. 

For specific organic cotton descriptions, there are various ‘organic cotton’ related groups/organisations that give different definitions of what constitutes organic cotton specifically.

An online search for ‘what is organic cotton’ can show these definitions.

 

Potential Pros & Cons Of Organic Cotton

Read about the full list of potential pros and cons of organic cotton in this guide.

 

Potential Eco Friendliness & Sustainability Of Organic Cotton

Potential Eco Friendliness & Sustainability Of Organic Cotton As A Fibre Or Textile

 

Main Differences Between Regular Cotton & Organic Cotton

Read more about the main differences between organic cotton and regular cotton in this guide

 

What To Look For & Understand When Buying Organic Cotton Or Textiles

– How To Know If Cotton Is Organic

Two things that may suggest a cotton product contains organic cotton is:

a) Labelling using the word ‘organic’, and

b) Certain certification labelling or a certification symbol on the product. It could be on the product label itself, or on the product brand’s website (on the specific product page)

 

It’s worth noting that in some countries some cotton might be organic and only meet the requirements of regulations n that country, whereas other cotton might carry a certification from an organic cotton third party certifier.

So, not all organic cotton is the same – some might be certified, and some might not be.

Additionally, some organic cotton might be certified to different certifications and standards compared to others, so, check the symbols and labels that come with a specific organic cotton product.

 

– The Importance Of Understanding Regulations, Certifications & Standards When Buying Organic Cotton

In order to know what exactly you’re buying when buying organic cotton, it’s important to understand regulations, certifications and standards.

To make it as simple to understand as possible …

Most developed countries should have regulations in place for what products can be labelled as ‘organic’

So, consumers should check the regulations for ‘organic’ products (and what is allowed to be labelled or sold using the word ‘organic’) as a priority before anything else.

In the US, the ‘National Organic Program (NOP) develops the rules & regulations for the production, handling, labeling, and enforcement of all USDA organic products.’

On certain types of products (which NOP/the USDA outlines), like raw agricultural products, the USDA Organic Seal might be found.

But, as it stand right now, various sources indicate that these rules and regulations may mainly apply to food, and not textiles (consumers should cross check and confirm this for themselves though – don’t rely solely on the information you find in this guide)

At the present time, the USDA does specify that ‘… textiles that meet [the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)] may be sold as organic in the United States’ as well.

So, the best way to know what you’re getting when purchasing organic fibres and finished textiles products containing organic cotton at this point in time might be to check for GOTS labelling on the product.

Consumers can check GOTS’ criteria and standards on their website for what constitutes an ‘organic fibre’ and what product can use GOTS labelling

Overall, checking the regulations and standards first, and then any relevant certifications (and the criteria and standards the certifying bodies use), can help a consumer understand what they are getting when they purchase organic cotton products

For example, organiccotton.org mentions that in the EU, the Council Directive on Organic Farming defines production and certification requirements of organic crops, and in Japan, the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) does the same.

 

Where To Buy Organic Cotton (Plus Some Buyer Considerations)

Towards the bottom of this guide, we’ve provided some information the following:

– Where to buy organic cotton

– Buyer considerations, such as what to avoid

 

Is Organic Cotton Worth The Money?

This is obviously subjective as it depends on what each person values in the cotton they are buying.

Generally, organic cotton emphasizes the use of natural or non toxic/hazardous substances, and also more sustainable farming, over synthetic (and potentially damaging) substances and intensive farming

More specifically, certified organic cotton is produced according to certain criteria and standards (which are available to view from the certifier’s website)

So, if that emphasis and those criteria/standards appeal to the consumer’s values, the price they pay for it might be worth it.

Furthermore, beyond the organic standards and criteria, a consumer will have to consider product factors like performance, quality, longevity and appearance of the organic cotton product in order to individually assess if they think a product is worth the money.

Some of these things can only be assessed throughout the time of owning a product, and, some of these things may be brand specific (i.e. some brands may produce a better or different product to others).

 

What Is Organic Cotton?

There’s no universal definition of organic cotton.

Different sources, groups and organisations may have their own definitions for what classifies as an ‘organic’ product, or specifically as either an ‘organic fibre’ or ‘organic cotton’.

We discuss these phrases in more depth below in this guide. 

 

A Generalized Description Of Organic Cotton

The main features of organic cotton might be:

– Uses natural and renewable fertilizers and pest control for cotton crop production instead of using synthetic and non renewable agricultural chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides).

In the case of pesticides specifically, some descriptions mention that ‘toxic and persistent’ pesticides can’t be used, instead of describing them as synthetic

An example of a natural fertilizer might be animal manure, whilst natural pest control might involve biological pest control.

Sometimes natural crop management and protection tools such as sulphur dust, citric acid, nitrogen, and zinc sulphate [are used] (cottonaustralia.com.au)

 

– Uses conventional cotton seeds (that are usually renewable) instead of GM cotton seeds

 

Beyond these main features, organic cotton may also place an emphasis on:

– Organic agricultural practices that promote soil health and fertility, biodiversity (especially biologically diverse agriculture), and environmental and wildlife health.

This is instead of conventional or intensive industrial farming practices that lead to environmental problems and resource depletion

 

– Use natural substances (that are more eco friendly, and less toxic or hazardous) instead of synthetic chemicals at the fibre and textile processing, and bleaching, dying, finishing and printing stages

[Organic cotton] still uses naturally derived or organic chemicals [but not synthetic ones] (qz.com)

 

Overall, organic cotton might use processes and methods that have the aim to have less of a negative impact on humans (human health and cotton industry workers), the environment and wildlife, and the sustainable use of resources.

 

More Specific Description Of Organic Cotton

A more specific definition of what constitutes as an ‘organic fibre’ might be found in the GOTS resource links in the sources list

You can go to the ‘The Standard’ section, and read about their requirements for organic fibres under the ‘Key Features’ and ‘Philosophy’ sub sections.

Additionally, different organisations and groups give their own specific definitions of organic cotton too.

 

Other Differences & Features In Organic Cotton

Aside from some of the main features of organic cotton compared to regular cotton, we reference a organiccottonplus.com resource in this guide that has a helpful chart comparing organic cotton to regular cotton through different stages of growing and production, as well as things like marketing and price.

 

What To Look For & Understand When Buying Organic Cotton Or Textiles

How To Know If Cotton Is Organic

There’s two main things that might indicate that a cotton product is organic:

a) It is labelled using the word ‘organic’ (to use this word, the product usually has to meet regulatory guidelines of the country it’s sold in)

b) It contains organic certification labelling on the product or on the product page on a brand’s website. 

 

Some products might be 100% organic cotton, but some clothes for example need a synthetic fiber for traits like elasticity or durability.

In this instances, organic cotton is mixed with a certain % of another fibre or material. 

The label or product description usually specifies this.

Additionally, regulations and certification standards usually have criteria to deal with this (such as USDA and GOTS)

 

The Importance Of Understanding Regulations, Certifications & Standards When Buying Organic Cotton

The regulations, certifications and standards help the consumer understand what exactly they are buying when they buy an organic product.

So, they are important to reference.

 

– Regulations

Most developed countries should have regulations in place for what products can be labelled as ‘organic’

So, consumers should check the regulations for ‘organic’ products (and what is allowed to be labelled or sold using the word ‘organic’) as a priority before anything else.

In the US, the ‘National Organic Program (NOP) develops the rules & regulations for the production, handling, labeling, and enforcement of all USDA organic products.’

Currently, products labelled and sold as ‘organic’ in the US must be ‘approved by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before being used in the marketplace’

On certain types of products (which NOP/the USDA outlines), like raw agricultural products, the USDA Organic Seal might be found.

Read more on the USDA website:

USDA Organic Farming & Business Resources Page

Labelling Organic Products (and reference to GOTS for textiles)

Organic Regulations (and what NOP does)

 

– Potential Limitations Of Regulations & NOP

Regulations may have certain limitations when it comes to their application to different types of products. 

As it stand right now, various sources indicate that USDA/NOP rules and regulations mainly apply to food, and not textiles (consumers should cross check and confirm this for themselves though – don’t rely solely on the information you find in this guide)

To address this, regulatory organisations like the USDA/NOP may list individual third parties that have become accredited certifiers.

In their ‘About Organic Labelling’ section on their website, when discussing labelling for textiles specifically, the USDA indicates that ‘… textiles that meet [the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS)] may be sold as ‘organic’ in the United States

 

From ota.com:

While USDA NOP regulations cover the production of raw agricultural commodities such as cotton and wool, the regulations do not include specific processing or manufacturing standards for textile products i.e. the methods and standards are generally not applicable to textile processing

[in this instance] manufacturers may seek out certification for processed textiles through a reputable private standard called the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

GOTS is a stringent voluntary international standard for the processing of textiles containing organic fiber. GOTS addresses the entire post-harvest processing (including spinning, knitting, weaving, dyeing and manufacturing) of apparel and textile products made with organic fiber.

 

From thefutonshop.com:

[regarding the labelling of textiles …] any textile advertised as “organic” must be third-party certified under National Organic Program standards throughout the entire production process

However, because the National Organic Program standards apply to food, not fabrics, it’s unlikely that anyone will see a USDA Organic seal on [fabrics]. So the agency is encouraging textile manufacturers to turn to the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS IWG), which is currently the only third-party certification set up to accommodate organic-fabric producers who want to adhere to the USDA …

Any product that is certified under GOTS standards can be labeled organic. While other eco-labels for clothing and fabrics address raw materials, chemical finishes, or labor standards, the comprehensive GOTS certification is the only program out there that addresses all of those and then some.

 

– What The GOTS Standard Is

Based on what is outlined above, the best way right now to know what you’re getting when purchasing organic fibres and finished textiles products containing organic cotton at this point in time might be to check for GOTS labelling on the product.

Consumers can check the full GOTS’ criteria and standards on their website for what constitutes an ‘organic fibre’ and what product can use GOTS labelling, amongst other information.

 

As a summary …

‘The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent third-party certification of the entire textile supply chain [processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of all textiles].’

One of the aims is to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer

[GOTS certification builds upon four distinctive and unique features – organic fibres, ecological and social criteria, all processing stages, and third party certification.]

Read more about the ‘Key Features’ of the GOTS standard here.

There is a ‘Philosophy’ page with summaries of the mission, development and implementation, and aim, amongst other summaries of different aspect of the GOTS standard.

GOTS also has a Q & A page for some answers to some frequently asked questions.

If you’re thinking of buying a GOTS labelled product, it’s worth doing a complete read of the information on the GOTS website. 

 

– Some Potential Critiques Of Using GOTS

To provide a balanced critique of using GOTS standards for buying organic cotton though …

Some potential problems with GOTS certification right now might be:

It takes time to get the certification – each step of the growing and production process has to be checked and certified, along with all facilities

It takes time and money to convert farms and production facilities already producing conventional cotton

There can sometimes be more immediate profits to be made and time to be saved by sticking with conventional cotton growing and production

Labor and other resource inputs might be more intensive with organic or certified fibres

The organic market for cotton is nowhere near as big as the conventional cotton market yet – it’s still growing and getting established.

Having said this, GOTS certified facilities are growing worldwide according to organic-market.info, and we’ve outlined how both organic cotton production and organic cotton certification is growing

There are some reports that we came across that GOTS certified cotton has not met criteria requirements – you can read about that here 

 

– Other Symbols That Might Be Found On Organic Cotton Products

In addition to an organic cotton textiles product having the GOTS symbol, some other labels and organisations that might display their symbols on organic textiles might include the Soil Association symbol or an Organic Exchange Symbol (OE symbol).

The OE standards for example are traceability standards.

These symbols and descriptions can change over time (like the rest of the information in this guide), but right now the symbols and their explanations might be:

 

cottonedon.org explains some of these symbols:

Soil Association symbol – Product certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard by Soil Association Certification Ltd.

The Soil Association was a founder member of GOTS and is a quarter owner of Global Standard GmbH which manages the GOTS.

OE100 symbol – Cotton in the product grown to organic standards.

Product has been tracked and traced along the supply chain by an independent, third party.

Contains 100% certified organic cotton fibre, but hasn’t necessarily been processed to organic standards.

OE Blended symbol – Product contains a minimum 5% of organic cotton fibre.

 

ota.com explains:

Companies are increasingly becoming certified to traceability standards such as the Organic Exchange (OE) Blended or OE 100 standard, tracing the organic fiber from the field to finished product.

Many manufacturers have also become certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which addresses textile’s processing stages and includes strong labor provisions.

 

cottonedon.org has this to say about GOTS and other symbols on products:

A product claiming to be organic might only contain a small percentage of organic cotton or may be made of organic cotton but dyed using toxic chemicals which would never be allowed in certified organic products.

… to be sure a product really is organic from field to finished product, look out for either the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) symbol, the Soil Association symbol or the Organic Exchange symbol [on the label of the organic product you are buying, or in the description on the brand’s website]

 

Make sure a traceability standard covers everything from the farms that follow organic practices, to factories that process organic cotton separately from conventionally grown cotton, and for shipments of organic cotton between different companies in the supply chain i.e. the whole production and supply chain.

Other certifications and accreditation certificates to look out for might include quality accreditations, Fairtrade, Fair Wear and Carbon Neutral accreditations.

 

– Overall 

Overall, checking the regulations and standards first, and then any relevant certifications (and the criteria and standards the certifying bodies use), can help a consumer understand what they are getting when they purchase organic cotton products

 

Where To Buy Organic Cotton

– Online

Search search engine for the type of organic product you want e.g. ‘organic cotton bed sheets’, and go to a brand’s website for the type of organic cotton product that appeals to you

 

– In Store

Go to a shop in your local area that sells cotton products and see if they sell organic cotton

You could also do a search engine search before you head out for ‘organic cotton [name of your town or city]’ to see if they stock organic cotton products

Instead of buying new, you might be able to pick up some organic cotton pre-owned locally either online or from a second hand store.

 

What To Avoid When Buying Organic Cotton

You may want to avoid products use the word ‘organic’ without providing any further certification symbols or labelling, or way for an individual to cross check the standards the product was produced to, or trace the product along the supply chain.

Brands that make these products can sometimes be using certain labels or words just for marketing purposes, without having a product that meets any standards.

Companies that are open and forthcoming with good information about their products are usually a good sign.

You may also want to avoid organic products that perform poorly for their intended use e.g. textiles that wear out or fade quickly. 

So, performance/product quality and practicality is important too.

 

Is Organic Cotton Worth The Money, & Should You Consider Buying It?

When you buy organic cotton – you should figure out the standards to which an organic cotton product have been grown and produced, and whether it aligns with your values and what’s important to you.

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 buying GOTS standard organic cotton, then you’ll have to check that you are satisfied with the outlined environmental, social and quality standards outlined by GOTS on their website.

If you are satisfied with these standards and the outlined criteria – you might consider buying organic cotton.

Additionally, not all products advertised as containing ‘organic’ cotton are the same.

Some products may only meet the bare minimum standards and regulations they are required to meet, whilst some may be made to higher standards.

Some product may contain majority organic cotton, whilst others may contain only a small amount.

This is where buying certified organic cotton labelled products can help with transparency and an assurance of what you’re buying.

 

If for whatever reason this type of organic cotton doesn’t appeal to someone … then, regular cotton may be a better option.

A potential problem with regular cotton is that unless it is certified in some way (which it usually isn’t) – you have no way of knowing the criteria for how it has been grown and produced.

It may not come with a traceability guarantee either.

You may pay a cheaper price for regular cotton because of things like lower upfront costs, subsidies, and no environmental or social penalties for farmers – which is then passed onto you as the consumer.

But, you usually don’t know if the environment, animals and humans have paid a price for growing and producing that cotton.

You can read more about the impact of growing and using regular cotton in this guide.

Beyond these standards though, product performance is important, and this is entirely dependent on the product and brand.

So, do research on these things as well prior to buying in order to figure out what sort of cotton is worth it to you.

Overall, it’s possible organic cotton is better in some areas compared to regular cotton, but worse in others.

It can 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).

 

Other Notes On Cotton

– Neither regular cotton nor organic cotton may be perfect solutions right now in terms of impact on humans, the environment, wildlife, and quality and price for the consumer – each have a distinct set of pros and cons

– The future of cotton may be to combine the best parts of regular and organic cotton to create the highest net positive cotton process, instead of separating the two

– Where the cotton is grown, how it’s grown, how it’s produced – all are huge variables with cotton production that can be hard to full measure the impact of.

As just one example, water use is not as big of an issue in cotton production if majority of water use is from rainfall compared to irrigated cotton using freshwater sources (which can be depleted and run scarce in dryer and hotter climates)

 

Other Options & Tips To Reduce Textile Sustainability Footprint

If organic cotton doesn’t sound like an option 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 pre-used products where you can – good for sustainability

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.

 

Sources

1. https://organiccottonplus.com/pages/learning-center

2. https://organiccottonplus.com/pages/learning-center#questions-and-answers

3. https://organiccotton.org/oc/Organic-cotton/Agronomic-practice/Agronomic-practice.php

4. http://www.cottonedon.org/FAQS

5. https://fashionhedge.com/2015/03/12/the-truth-about-organic-cotton/

6. https://www.global-standard.org/the-standard/general-description.html

7. http://www.cottonedon.org/FAQS#sustainable

8. https://organiccotton.org/oc/Organic-cotton/Standards-and-certification/Standards-and-certification.php

9. https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/estimating-the-carbon-footprint-of-a-fabric/

10. http://organic-market.info/news-in-brief-and-reports-article/gots-certified-facilities-increase-82-in-2017.html

11. https://textile-network.com/en/Technical-Textiles/Fasern-Garne/GOTS-Organic-Cotton-from-India-under-fire

12. https://www.ota.com/sites/default/files/indexed_files/Organic-Cotton-Facts.pdf

13. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ guides

16. https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/labeling#what%20requirements

17. https://www.usda.gov/topics/organic

18. https://www.thefutonshop.com/blog/usda-certified-organic-cotton-vs-gots-certified-organic-cotton/

19. https://ota.com/advocacy/fiber-and-textiles

20. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_cotton

21. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_certification

22. https://cottonaustralia.com.au/organic-cotton

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