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Why that organic cotton tee deserves a place in your wardrobe

Photography By A.BCH
Published 16.06.22

If there's one thing nearly every modern wardrobe has in it, it's cotton.

From your favourite jeans to your collection of tees, cotton is the most widely used natural fibre in the world, representing nearly half of the fibre used in the textile industry. Humans have been cultivating cotton as a fabric since 3,000 BC, but its popularity and a long history don’t mean it’s without critique.

Conventionally grown cotton is said to be one of the worst for the environment. It degrades and erodes soil, requires huge quantities of water to grow and creates pollution which contributes to the destruction of healthy ecosystems. 

Organic cotton is a different story. Predominantly grown in Turkey, China, India, Africa and the US, it uses 91 per cent less water than regular cotton and is produced without genetically modified (GMO) seeds or synthetic chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides. 

Between 2019 and 2020, the largest organic cotton fibre volume was harvested globally. For brands that want to reduce their environmental impact, while still making clothing with all the benefits that cotton offers, organically grown clothing is an obvious choice. The material is just as comfortable, durable and hypoallergenic (if not more so) as regular cotton, and there are no compromises to styling or aesthetic needs (as demonstrated by Stella McCartney’s organic cotton collection). 

To get a better understanding of organic cotton and find out why so many brands are turning away from conventional, we spoke to the co-founder of Cloth & Co Caroline Poiner and the founder of A.BCH Courtney Holm. Both founders have chosen to source and design using organic cotton and are passionate advocates for a more environmentally responsible cotton industry. 

A.BCH's Classic T-Shirt shot by Michael Comninus for RIISE

WHAT IS ORGANIC COTTON AND WHY IS IT A MORE SUSTAINABLE OPTION?

No hazardous synthetic pesticides are used

Instead of using fossil-fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides, organic cotton farmers use natural methods like crop rotation, green manure and composting to control pests and diseases. A non-synthetic approach reduces the risk of food and water supplies being contaminated from runoff, which can cause disease, illness and even congenital disability in the wider community. In fact, it reduces the level of water pollution by 98 per cent, according to a 2022 report by Water Footprint. “I think if people realised the way conventional cotton is grown…[they’d opt for] organic cotton as it’s not only better for the environment, it’s also better for the people involved,” Caroline says. 

Another benefit of certified organic cotton is that it usually uses natural or water-based substances to wash, whiten or dye the finished textile, which means it’s great for sensitive skin or those prone to allergic reactions.

It creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions

By not using nitrous dioxide-releasing fertilisers and pesticides (which also means less farm machinery needs to be used), organic cotton creates around 46 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional cotton. This, combined with crop rotation (growing other crops on the land in the off-season), improves soil health. Healthy soil prevents erosion and land degradation and acts as a ‘carbon sink’, absorbing CO₂ from the atmosphere.

Organic cotton (mostly) uses less water

We’ve all heard the staggering figures about how much water it takes to grow cotton. But as Courtney explains, some of the most widely circulated statistics, including that it takes 20,000 litres of water to make a T-shirt or pair of jeans, have been proven to be false. Even cotton’s reputation as “the world’s thirstiest crop” doesn’t paint an entirely accurate picture:

“For example, some cotton-growing countries may receive a lot of rainfall for their crop (green water) [and] have zero irrigation (blue water), but their total water use is still counted in the average amount used in the growing of the cotton,” she says. Basically, that means the figures for regular cotton’s water use aren’t always as high as they seem and when it all goes into a global average it’s more difficult to understand the nuance around volumes and methods of water consumption per country.

What we do know about organic cotton is that it uses considerably less blue water than conventionally produced cotton. And because organic farming techniques protect the soil, making it more like a sponge, it holds more water and makes the soil more resilient in the face of floods and droughts – key in a rapidly changing climate.

There is an argument that says because organic cotton yields fewer fibres than GMO cotton, it will require more land, plants and water to produce. But that sits alongside the other factors we’ve mentioned, like the production of other organic crops on the land, improved soil health, carbon sequestration and a production process free from synthetic chemicals. 

A.BCH's Fleece Sweat shot by Michael Comninus for RIISE

WHY BEING CERTIFIED IS IMPORTANT – BUT NOT EVERYTHING

You might’ve noticed the acronym ‘GOTS’ associated with organic cotton clothing. It stands for Global Organic Textile Standard, which has been dubbed the “gold standard” for certifications. This certification ensures a strict set of environmental and social criteria are met throughout the entire supply chain, including the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading, and distributing of textiles. It also looks at what chemicals are used in production, wastewater treatment, efforts to reduce water, energy use in general and the treatment of workers.

Courtney, who uses GOTS-certified organic cotton in many of A.BCH’s staple pieces, says she appreciates the level of transparency this certification offers. “From a small business perspective, you can’t always go and verify everything yourself.” But just like a university degree, while it’s a good indication of what you’re getting, it’s not the be-all-end-all. “After years of doing research, visiting farms and going to the origin to learn about the different cultural aspects of growing cotton, I’ve learnt certifications aren’t everything,” she says. For her, it’s important to consider certifications alongside what the farms are actually doing with their cotton yield to mitigate climate change and how environmentally responsible their production processes are. 

REGENERATIVE COTTON IS THE NEXT STEP

Currently, organic cotton only makes up one percent of the cotton trade and the world doesn’t exactly have the resources to support a giant leap in this statistic. “There will not be enough organic cotton for all of the brands that suddenly care about climate change, which is why it’s important to invest at the ground level,” Caroline says. This means encouraging and helping farmers to switch to regenerative organic agriculture practices to help revive land that’s potentially been used for conventional cotton farming for decades.

Regenerative cotton encompasses organic farming practices and then raises the bar, regenerating the soil as a way to fight climate change. “It’s all done through things like using non-GMO seeds, using bullock animal dung as fertiliser, growing natural pest deterrents, using the correct cover crops – it’s basically understanding the whole ecosystem and the biodiversity of the land to create enough yield,” Caroline says.

Currently Cloth & Co. work with an organisation in India called GVK society who help people invest in small plot farms that work directly with the farmers to produce regenerative organic cotton. Although it’s a traditional farming method, these organisations help train farmers to understand what the requirements are to eventually achieve a certification. “Our commitment goes beyond the purchasing of organic cotton, we want to know the money is going to the farmers, we want connection to the people and we want connection to the project.”

A COUPLE OF THINGS TO NOTE 

There’s a lot of grey area in both the organic and conventional cotton industry. But from our research and through conversations with environmentally-responsible brands, we believe organic is a far better option for the environment. 

Organic also isn’t the only alternative worth exploring. There are other ways to source cotton with a lower environmental impact, like recycled cotton (made from post-consumer or post-industrial waste) and BCI cotton which works with farmers to improve the land and their livelihoods. In our next piece, we’ll look at styling with conventional cotton alternatives – and discuss why this material deserves a place in your wardrobe. 

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