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Study Shows Organic Cotton Causes Less Environmental Damage than Conventional Cotton

More than just a “feel-good” fiber, organic cotton has now been proven better for the environment than conventional cotton, according to a new study.

Textile Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing sustainability in the textile sector, in partnership with sustainability consultancy PE International conducted an 18-month Organic Cotton Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) demonstrating the tangible benefits of organic cotton cultivation.

In short, the organic process showed reduced global warming potential, lower soil erosion, less water use and less energy demand.

La Rhea Pepper, managing director of Textile Exchange said the study’s findings mark a turning point for the organic cotton industry as a whole. “For 12 years, we have been promoting the benefits of organic cotton. This study allows us to show the quantitative data that supports what we already know – that organic cotton is much better for our environment than conventional cotton,” she said.

The LCA study looked at the impact of organic cotton production in five categories, and compared the findings to a separate independent peer-reviewed study of conventional cotton done by Cotton Incorporated.

In the comparison, the LCA uncovered that organic cotton had 46 percent reduced global warming potential, 70 percent less acidification potential (such as acid rain), 26 percent reduced soil erosion potential, 91 percent reduced blue water (water withdrawn via immigration) consumption, and 62 percent reduced energy demand.

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“Under current system boundaries, the difference in results can be attributed to the lower agricultural inputs that are required by the principles of organic agriculture, namely of mineral fertilizer, pesticides, as well as the practices related to tractor operations and irrigation,” the report noted.

The lower acidification potential can be attributed to reduced or avoided agricultural inputs like fertilizer and pesticide production, irrigation pumps and tractor operations. The difference in field emissions due to varied amounts of applied nutrients also contributed to the disparity.

In terms of soil erosion, organically cultivated systems can prevent 90 percent of the soil erosion that would otherwise enable washing off of nutrients into nearby water and soil bodies. Cultivation of rotation crops and intercropping also contribute to less loss in nutrients due to leaching.

The LCA found that nearly all (95 percent) of water used to produce organic cotton is green water, or rainwater and moisture stored in soil and used for plant growth. Organically cultivated cotton in the regions surveyed receive relatively little irrigation in addition to rainfall, reducing blue water consumption—the impact category with the highest relevance to the environment.

Avoiding mineral fertilizer, as organic cotton does, reduces the use on non-renewable energy since mineral fertilizers are derived from petroleum and have a high primary energy demand.

“This information is empowering for the people and organizations along the organic cotton supply chain, including farmers, cotton ginners, spinners, brands and retailers and all the way to the consumer level. Making a commitment to plant, grow, cultivate and use organic cotton in our textiles is also making a commitment to improve our water, soil and air,” Pepper said.

In terms of costs, Pepper said there are a few things retailers can do to accommodate the higher costs of organic cotton compared to conventional cotton: Strategically put organic cotton into products in which consumers place high value – for example, baby wear. This is where consumers are willing to invest a little more to have the best possible materials; Work within their supply chain to leverage cost-effective ways to save on shipping and other costs so they can then accommodate the higher price (and value) of organic cotton; Engage their consumer–show them the value of their investment in organic cotton. This can help eliminate the barriers consumers have to face in understanding why costs are higher and they will eventually be willing to pay a little bit more.

Data for the study was culled from the top five countries for organic cotton cultivation, India, China, Turkey, Tanzania and the United States—which combined account for 97 percent of global organic cotton production.

“The brands and retailers that are committed to organic cotton have seen first-hand the positive results that going organic has on communities, soil, water and more. They already understand the value. What this LCA does is give them the numbers and proof to support what they already know. This LCA demonstrates what we have been saying all along. In addition, this LCA can help convince companies that have been on the fence about organic cotton. To see the results in real numbers is what some need to make the commitment to incorporate organic cotton into their long-term plans,” Pepper said.