Cotton is a staple material of the fashion industry, representing about one third of the fibre used to produce clothes and other textiles worldwide. As consumers’ awareness of sustainability increases, so does the popularity of the material. Many believe to be making an eco-friendly choice when buying clothing made from cotton - after all, it’s natural, renewable and biodegradable. But despite these favourable attributes, the environmental and social impact of conventionally grown cotton is far worse than one might expect. And even organic cotton, which is receiving more and more attention from sustainable fashion lovers and well-known brands alike, might not be the ideal solution.
Yes, cotton is naturally derived from the cotton plant, which makes it a renewable and biodegradable material. However, it is estimated that each year the production of conventional cotton uses 16 per cent of the world’s insecticides and around 6 per cent of the world’s pesticides; shocking numbers for just one crop. These chemicals are often highly toxic, contaminating groundwater and releasing nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas which gravely contributes to climate change. Soil degradation caused by the chemicals also often results in farmers facing declining yields and being forced into poverty. As if all of this wasn’t enough already, the pesticides and fertilisers used to grow cotton can cause serious illnesses or even death among cotton farmers - and they are toxic for your skin too.
Cotton is also an extremely thirsty crop, requiring around 2,700 litres of water to yield enough fibre for just one T-shirt. To put that into perspective: it takes the average person around 900 days to drink this much water.
The increasing awareness of cotton’s negative impact has seen a rise in the demand for organic cotton, which is grown without the use of chemicals and genetically engineered seeds. Making use of natural fertilizer instead of toxic ones, organic cotton creates less greenhouse gas emissions and doesn’t contaminate our planet as much as conventional cotton - and it’s also much better for farmers and for you. In addition, organic production systems focus on replenishing and maintaining soil fertility and building biologically diverse agriculture. But what about water consumption? Pesticide-free soil requires less water, and so do non-GMO seeds. In addition, most organic cotton is grown on small-scale farms, which tend to be rainfed. Altogether, this means that organic cotton uses approximately 90 per cent less ‘blue’ water (from groundwater and surface-water bodies, such as freshwater lakes and rivers) than conventional cotton.
Organic vs. Conventional Cotton
Still, less than one per cent of cotton grown globally is organic. Now you might be wondering why this is the case if cotton is so much more harmful than its organic counterpart. The answer is simple: since the crops are genetically modified and the toxic chemicals mentioned above protect and nourish the plant, conventionally grown cotton is a more effective solution in terms of quantity. The implications for the sustainability discussion around different types of cotton aren’t as simple. Although organic cotton seems like the more sustainable option, the smaller yield of the crop means we would have to clear additional land in order to grow all the cotton currently demanded worldwide. Deforestation is inevitably connected to global warming, loss of biodiversity, acidification and all the other issues we were hoping to solve with the help of organic cotton.
The Bottom Line
Conventional cotton is not as sustainable as often believed, and although organic cotton is a way less harmful option, it might not be the perfect solution for the fashion industry either. In addition, keep in mind that the processing (cleaning, dying, etc.) of both conventionally and organically grown cotton can make use of toxic chemicals too. When choosing to buy organic cotton, it’s therefore helpful to look for third-party certifications, such as GOTS (= Global Organic Textile Standard), which ensures that a garment has been processed in line with both environmental and social standards - from seed to finished product.
It’s important to keep in mind that even if all the cotton worldwide was produced organically, it would still cause our planet some harm - unless we considerably slow down our consumption. As a consumer aiming to make more sustainable decisions, it therefore is best to buy certified organic cotton, but also to practice a slower approach to fashion - by making fewer and more conscious purchases, taking care of your clothes and encouraging others to do the same.
Is The Slow Label GOTS certified?
We as a brand as well as our products are not yet certified, but we are working on it. Our organic cotton items have always been manufactured according to the GOTS standards, but without the end product being certified itself (which can be a lengthy and expensive process), we are not allowed to communicate the certification for our materials and production sites on products and product pages yet.
OECD Trends in Consumption of Textile Fabrics
Organic Trade Association
Vogue: How sustainable is organic cotton, really?
The Pretty Planeteer: All the Pros and Cons of Organic Cotton you might want to know about
ABC Science: Greenhouse gas Nitrous Oxide
WWF: The Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt
Pesticide Action Network UK
Global Organic Textile Standard