You might have noticed there has been a recent proliferation of brands like TenTree and Kotn pushing the organic cotton narrative as a core selling point. And if you’re anything like me your first reaction is:
“Eh? What does that even mean?”
This kind of stuff can sound good, even if you don’t exactly know what it means. And then the website usually has a tab explaining what organic cotton means, and it sounds wonderful.
And then you remember,
“Oh, right, they’re trying to sell me something.”
So let’s break down what organic cotton actually means, why it matters, and why it might not be as much of a universal solution to the problems of regular cotton production as it first seems.
Doing research for this it was easy to get tied up in random stuff I find interesting — like difficulties in doing organic cotton farming that isn’t accidentally (or “accidentally”) contaminated with genetically modified seed through handling or other mistakes, but I’m going to try to contain this to a question that is actually useful for you:
Is organic cotton worth buying?
And this really comes down to three core things — (1) size of the problem it is attempting to solve, (2) the impact it actually has on the problem, and (3) the price. How much more expensive is it, and how much better is it?
So, let’s briefly cover how big of a problem regular cotton actually is, then go over the marketing story for organic cotton (the pitch, so to speak), then talk about some complications with the real story. Along the way we’ll talk a bit about a couple different certifications, what they actually mean, and which ones you should look for. Finally we’ll circle back, look at the price differential, and talk about how to think when making a purchase.
So is regular cotton production really that bad?
The short answer is yes, it really is. First of all, it’s big — with about 75% of the world’s apparel products containing some amount of cotton (not even including non apparel products like cotton swabs)
While cotton only occupies 2.5% of all agricultural land it, uses up 16% of all pesticides and 7% of all herbicides in the world — and these chemicals have harmful effects on the environment, the workers (especially when safe labor practices are not used), and even on nearby populations. These toxins leak into water, and into dust which can be blown into nearby areas — causing disease and death.
There are also concerns about biodiversity loss from monoculture genetically modified cotton plants that can have cascading effects on local ecosystems. On top of that, a single ton of cotton produces 1.8 tons of CO2 emissions (which is particularly relevant in the clothing industry — an industry that is responsible for 10% of all green house gas emissions — more than aviation and maritime shipping combined), but let’s get back to that toxic water and dust point for a second.
Not only does cotton pollute an insane amount of water, but it also uses an insane amount of water. In a world where 1 billion people don’t have access to fresh water and 2.4 billion people live with inadequate sanitation some estimates place the water cost of a single cotton t-shirt at 2,700 liters — enough fresh water to take one person off of that list of a billion people for 900 days.
This water consumption can have macro effects on environments as well, like the massive irrigation done by the soviets starting in the 1960s that drank the Aral Sea dry for a central-planned push to increase cotton production (or “white gold” as the soviets called it).
To go back to the dust point, drinking this land-locked sea dry also meant that all of the pesticides and other toxins that had been dumped in the water were left behind as it evaporated, creating contaminated dust that contributes to the fact that populations downwind of the dying sea began to have extremely high rates of cancers, respiratory diseases and infant mortality.
We may have similar macro-ecological disasters on the horizon in places like India that has 18% of the world’s population, but only 4% of the world’s usable water supply — and is producing about 26% of the world’s cotton.
So in short, yes. Cotton production really is that bad. It pollutes the environment, destroys ecosystems, can be a danger to workers and nearby populations, creates significant carbon emissions, and is a huge part of the overall textile industry. It’s been called the world’s dirtiest crop.
So does organic cotton fix these problems?
Well it helps with some of them some of the time.
What does “organic cotton” really mean? By itself, almost nothing. Words like “natural” “organic” and even in some cases “biodegradable” have different meanings in different localities — and that can cut both ways. I was recently on a call with a founder of a company that patented a new technology for recycling polyester and producing biodegradable polyester — which they cannot even advertise as biodegradable polyester in the state of California, only “biodegradability enhanced”. The point is that what “organic” means by itself can vary significantly in different places, with some having stricter regulations and others having almost none.
The way to cut through this is third-party certifications. If you’re paying a premium for organic cotton products then take the moment to check the website for one or both of these certifications:
Organic Content Standard (OCS) or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
These two have some overlap, but also mean different things, which can be relevant depending on what you care about.
OCS is a lighter certification: It creates standards for what constitutes organics, which include things for the organic contents like no genetically modified organisms, constraints on energy and water consumption, limitations on CO2 emissions, and (perhaps most importantly) banning synthetic fertilizer and hazardous pesticides.
Unfortunately even with these requirements, this is only a content label certification — basically meaning that the product contains organic fibers — and it allows blending, meaning the fabric only has to have 5% organic fibers to satisfy its criteria.
Probably in large part for this reason, if you’re in the united states, the USDA does not accept OCS for organic labelling, but does accept GOTS.
GOTS has a lot of similar constraints with two major differences. First of all, it requires that the product in question is 70% organic fiber, which obviously is a lot more restrictive. Secondly, in addition to the constraints on the resources and inputs, it also includes constraints on labor practices which the OCS does not (outside of not breaking whatever the local labor laws are). This includes living wage stuff, collective bargaining power, occupational health and safety standards etc., which, to the point of how some cotton farming can be harmful to the workers, is highly relevant.
OK so if GOTS gives you assurance that the product in question is mostly organic, and meets those kinds of restrictions, let’s talk about the more complex story of how big of an impact those restrictions actually have.
How much better is “organic”?
There is a fair amount of debate about popular estimates that organic cotton uses less water. You can find different sources that predictably make estimates in either direction based on their bias — Cotton Inc. estimates that organic cotton uses twice as much water than conventional cotton, while organic certifying bodies and organic brands make estimates saying that it uses up to 91% less.
There seem to be broadly two big differences that can help explain this disparity: First, while organic cotton uses less water per hectare it also yields less than half as much cotton per hectare than conventional cotton. So, even if conventional cotton is using twice as much water per hectare it would actually use less water per kilo of cotton. Second, there is variation in “Green” water vs “Blue” water usage. Because organic cotton uses less water overall per hectare, there are more places where “green” water (like rain water or water existing in the soil) can account for nearly the entirety of the water needs for the crop — in which case it is using essentially no water that must be diverted to it or could be used for other things.
So, unless you’re going to go really deep on sourcing, if you are seriously concerned about, say, Aral-Sea-esque ecological disasters in India, organic cotton you buy may be more of a problem than a solution. At the very least, it isn’t obvious that it is better. So, while it is true that organic cotton generally produces less water pollution, it’s a bit more case-by-case on whether it actually uses less water in resource to output terms.
And there can even be some variability in that “pollution” situation. While organic growers cannot use synthetic insecticides and pesticides, they can use a suite of organic approved pesticides including pyrethrins from plant material, copper sulfate as a fungicide, and a variety of insecticidal soaps — a suite of organic pesticides that can actually be toxic to the environment just like synthetic ones.
And, because of issues with lower crop yields and relatively less sturdy non-GMO plants….in some cases they actually use a lot more of them to try to make up for the yield deficit. One of the interesting impacts of GMO plants is that while they can pose a threat to biodiversity they also generally decrease the amount of pesticides and insecticides you need to use because they are more resilient and higher yielding.
When you factor things like this combined with the fact that, while only about 1% of all cotton production is organic, India alone accounts for 51% of organic cotton production and the combined production of India, China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Tajikistan and Tanzania together makes up 95% of all organic cotton production — unless you live near one of these places, the CO2 emission impact of having these things shipped halfway around the world could completely offset the “benefit” of the cotton being organically produced.
In short organic cotton, if you check for the right certifications, can make some of the problems of cotton somewhat better some of the time, depending on which things you most care about.
So, now that we’ve discussed the benefits and potential drawbacks of organic cotton, we need to discuss whether it’s worth buying. And you can’t discuss whether something is worth buying without discussing the price.
The reason that organic cotton is more expensive is that to run a business growing organic cotton, you are spending more per kilo of cotton produced. For the market to allow such businesses to exist there has to be a price premium that covers: production cost (including the yield loss), certification and inspections, training and extension services, investment in farming operations, research, development and investment in seed and farm innovation, and in some cases a percentage that goes toward social services for the community (housing, education, etc.)
Growing organic cotton is difficult and expensive. The size of that price differential depends on the idiosyncratic costs of the locality and so on average sits anywhere from 5 to 20% but in some localities like Kyrgyzstan, raw organic cotton can be multiples of the price of conventional cotton. How much of that input price ends up eating at the margins of the end-point consumer facing business or getting passed on to the end consumer depends on who you’re buying from.
Where do we end up on this?
Whether or not you want to buy organic cotton really depends on what you care about, what you can afford, and how much work you’re willing to do. First off, if you don’t see the GOTS certification (although in the US the USDA will help with its requirements), I would basically not put too much of a premium on something being “organic”. When you do see that a product is certified, this will mean in most cases this cotton is probably better in terms of worker health, maintaining biodiversity, etc. But if you want to be sure (especially regarding water usage and pollution) you would have to do more research than looking at the label.
Maybe if you’re US based and care more about carbon emissions and labor safety, it could be more important to you that cotton was produced in the United States than that it’s organic. There is no one-size-fits all solution here. All I can do is give you information, tools to use, and frameworks to help you make your own purchase decisions.
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