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Report: The Truth About Organic Cotton and its Impacts

Hoping to quell misconceptions about organic cotton and its differences from the conventional kind, Textile Exchange released a Quick Guide to Organic Cotton. The fact sheet, out Friday, points to organic cotton as a preferred fiber, or one that is ecologically and socially progressive, and outlines exactly why.

“Cotton production has evolved over the last 15 years,” Textile Exchange managing director La Rhea Pepper said, continuing, “greater awareness of the health, economic and environmental benefits of organic farming practices by farmers and buyers has influenced corresponding improvements in many cotton production systems, including the input intensive practices of chemically grown cotton.”

According to Textile Exchange, adoption of preferred cotton production methods has increased to 8.6% of the overall cotton market, and of those methods, organic cotton has the lowest environmental impact as it doesn’t use any toxic chemicals or genetically modified seeds. Looking further into the sector, 193,840 farmers produced 112,488 metric tons of organic cotton in 2015. Nineteen countries are farming the fiber—India is making the lion’s share of it (67 percent)—and global sales of organic cotton products totaled $15.76 billion in 2015.

Organic vs. not—what are the benefits?

In attempting to drawing a comparison between the benefits of organic cotton versus conventional, Textile Exchange used a life cycle assessment (LCA) produced by Cotton Inc. in 2014 as a baseline and set out to create a similar LCA for organic cotton. The findings revealed that organic cotton has the potential for environmental savings in several areas: it’s 46 percent less harmful to global warming, there’s 70 percent less acidification of land and water, the potential for soil erosion drops 26 percent, surface and groundwater use falls 91 percent and demand for energy could go down by as much as 62 percent.

What’s the deal with water usage?

As more companies look to lessen their environmental footprints, water use has become a hot topic—especially what’s using less and how much less, and that has been a prevalent discussion in stacking organic cotton against conventional.

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“It is well established that cotton agriculture and apparel manufacturing, in general, require significant amounts of water. Whether the cotton is grown with chemicals, or organically, each farm and geographic region of the world will have different water usage and impacts,” Textile Exchange said. “However, the notion that chemical cotton uses less water than organic cotton is false.”

Taking a T-shirt, Textile Exchange said, to produce it, conventional cotton would use 2,168 gallons of water compared to 186 for organic (a difference of 1,982 gallons). To make a pair of jeans, conventional cotton would take 9,910 gallons of water compared to 932 with organic (a savings of 8,978 gallons).

But, as Textile Exchange added, “The real issue about water is pollution. Toxic chemicals used in conventional cotton production are poisoning the very water it claims to save.”

What about yields?

Many have pointed to yields in organic cotton production as the reason the process can’t be scaled up, but according to Textile Exchange, there’s been recent research indicating otherwise.

A Rodale Institute Farming System Trial has found that, in drought years, yields were higher in organic systems, and an analysis by Seufert et all found that yields in organic farming systems with “good management practices” can almost match conventional cotton yields.

“Chemically intensive agriculture, especially in irrigated systems, push the ecosystem year-on-year for higher yields,” Textile Exchange said. “This requires the use of an ever-increasing amount of chemical inputs, including growth regulators.”

What’s ahead for organic cotton uptake?

Brands have steadily been foraying further into the use of organic cotton and, by volume, the five biggest users are: C&A, H&M, Tchibo, Inditex and Nike. And in the years ahead, Textile Exchange expects those volumes will continue to grow.

“Alongside the multiple ‘homes’ in which organic cotton resides, the organic movement is continuously evolving. While the core principles of organic remain intact, the priorities have evolved as the organic movement matures from the beginning phase, of establishing the standard, to building the market for organic products through certification and labeling, which has been the focus in more recent years,” Textile Exchange wrote in the report. “Now, we are moving on to become more inclusive as a movement, accounting for impact, and factoring in continuous improvement, as this is being referred to as Organic 3.0.”