Organic cotton vs cotton: Why is organic cotton better?

I started buying organic cotton long before I even thought about why it was better. That’s how powerful the word ‘organic’ is.

But there’s more to the story. There always is.

You already know the ending. Organic cotton wins. But how did organic cotton win? And does conventional cotton have any redeeming features?

To answer these gripping questions, we need to ask 3 more:

  1. Is organic cotton better for us than cotton?
  2. Is organic cotton better for the people involved in its production than cotton?
  3. Is organic cotton better for the planet than cotton?

Is organic cotton better for us than cotton?

Yes. This is why:

Organic cotton is non-toxic

By virtue of earning the ‘organic’ label, organic cotton has to be farmed without synthetic chemicals. And when your organic clothing is certified by strict third party organizations like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), this means it wasn’t dyed and treated with any toxic chemicals either. We are ingesting and absorbing enough toxins daily without adding chemical-laden clothing to the list.

Further reading: 8 of the best organic underwear brands

It’s also hypoallergenic

As there is hardly any chemical use, organic cotton clothing is at much lower risk of triggering chemical sensitivities and skin allergies.

And naturally more comfortable

Organic cotton feels softer and more luxurious than conventional cotton. Being hand-picked, organic cotton fibers are longer as they don’t get broken by machines. The fibers are also not damaged as they haven’t been treated with harsh chemicals.

Organic cotton clothing last longer

As organic cotton fibers are not damaged by machinery and chemicals, they are longer and stronger than conventional cotton. This means it will take more wear-and-tear, which is exactly what we  sustainable shoppers want. Buy better quality and use for longer.

Buying organic is better for your mental and emotional health

When you buy organic, you are choosing to make a sustainable choice. Don’t underestimate the emotional and mental benefits of knowing you are taking the higher road.

Is organic cotton better for the people involved in its production than cotton?

Yes. The farmers and factory workers will thank you.

Organic cotton farmers are better off

  • Organic cotton farmers and their families are not exposed to toxic pesticides and insecticides in their fields or through their food and water supply.
  • Organic cotton seeds can be re-used to plant a new crop whereas genetically-modified cotton seeds used in conventional farming are usually modified so the plant doesn’t produce viable seeds. This means farmers are beholden to big corporations for more seeds.
  • Premium prices paid for organic cotton means better livelihood for organic cotton farmers
  • Organic cotton is mostly farmed in rotation with other crops to improve soil quality. This leads to better food security and possibly a good side income.

Organic clothing factory workers are healthier and happier

GOTS is by far the most common certification for organic cotton clothing. GOTS not only checks that your organic clothes are toxin-free, it also has high social standards that need to be met by all manufacturers. These standards include banning of child labor, safe and hygienic working conditions, and workers must be paid a living wage.

The chemicals used to dye and treat clothing are one of the most toxic around. Unfortunately, many textile factories don’t do enough to protect their workers, putting them at risk of diseases ranging from allergic reactions to cancers. Fortunately, GOTS-certified organic cotton clothing means all chemicals used have to be non-toxic.

Is organic cotton better for the planet than cotton?

For the most part, yes. As you can guess, this is where conventional cotton makes a feeble attempt at a left hook.

Organic cotton farming is less polluting

Conventional cotton farming uses 16% of the world’s insecticides and 7% of pesticides. Organic cotton is farmed without synthetic chemicals. Therefore, it is safer for the soil and its inhabitants and has less impact on air and water pollution.

On composting, less toxins are released

After its lifecycle, when cotton clothing biodegrades, it releases the chemicals in its fibers into the environment. GOTS-certified organic cotton is much cleaner on composting.

Less blue water is wasted

The majority of organic cotton is grown on small-scale farms which tend to be rainfed rather than irrigated. In fact a 2017 report by Textiles Exchanges estimated organic cotton uses 91% less blue water (fresh water) than conventional cotton.

Sounds great so far? Read on.

Conventional cotton plants are more efficient

Over many years, big stakeholders in the cotton industry have tweaked their genetically-modified cotton seeds to produce insect-resistant plants with better yield.

To harvest the same amount of fibers, organic cotton farmers will need to plant more crops. This means more land, water and resources are needed.

Organically, more water is needed for the same yield

Cotton Inc, a not-for-profit research company serving the cotton industry, reported that it takes 290 gallons of water to grow enough conventional high-yield cotton to make a t-shirt. To grow the same amount of organic cotton, it takes a whopping 660 gallons of water. It’s hard to imagine that such a thirsty crop is primarily rain-fed (as claimed by Textile Exchange).

To wrap up

At the end of the day, organic cotton still trumps conventional cotton with its many health, environmental and social benefits. But it’s still resource-intense.

Instead of buying a new cotton t-shirt every season, take care of the ones you have and continue wearing those instead. Or opt for more eco-friendly fabrics like Tencel lyocell.

Further reading: 5 toxic fabrics to avoid (and what to choose instead)

Choose GOTS-certified organic cotton clothing from these ethical brands:

Quick links:

Sharon James
Latest posts by Sharon James (see all)

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