Our collective consciousness around the fashion industry’s environmental impact has led to brands embracing sustainable raw materials. One of the significant switches has been from conventional cotton. Ethical and sustainable companies are now embracing certified organic cotton fabric as an eco-friendly alternative.
The production method is less toxic to the environment and people. The organic type follows a low-impact technique as opposed to the conventional type, which requires synthetic pesticide use and toxic chemicals. In this article, we’ll thoroughly explore organic cotton fabric.
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Organic cotton is a type of crop that farmworkers cultivate naturally, without the use of toxic chemicals such as pesticides or even synthetic fertilizers. The crop is also grown without genetically modified organisms.
The materials, farming practices, and production systems farmers implement in organic cotton farming present sustainable alternatives to conventional cotton farming.
It also helps to maintain soil fertility and curb negative impacts on the environment surrounding cotton farms. This method embraces natural processes as opposed to artificial or synthetic systems.
To be considered organic, there are various certifications and requirements. For instance, in the United States (US), cotton obtained from farms or plantations is deemed organic if it meets specific standards2. These include those of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Organic Programme (NOP).
Cotton is one of the world’s most important textile fibers. This soft fabric common in many of our clothes accounts for about 38% of the world’s fiber market. However, the process of acquiring fiber for non-organic cotton apparel requires pesticides and other chemicals, and significant water usage.
On the other hand, organic farming supports water conservation. From an eco-friendly lens, cotton produced organically uses 88% less water compared with conventional cotton. And also 62% less energy. Generally, these lead to a more friendly impact on the environment.
As much as manufacturers use cotton to make several clothing items, this doesn’t limit the use of organic cotton. Brands use it in t-shirts, underwear, bedding, and even footwear. We can also find this material in personal care items such as cotton pads, sanitary products, and ear swabs.
When looking for organic cotton products, certifications can serve as important indicators. They let us know that cotton is fair trade cotton and toxic or chemical-free. These also indicate that eco-friendly cotton is grown using natural and responsible production systems.
Some of these certifications for organic materials include Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex Standard 100, USDA-Certified Organic, Organic Content Standard (OCS), Better Cotton Initiative, and Bluesign organic certification.
Read more: Environmental Impact of Cotton from Growing, Farming & Consuming
Organic cotton production follows many procedures. The organic farming methods include growing cotton, ginning, cotton spinning, cotton fabric dyeing, garment construction, and distribution. This section details the processing of organic cotton into finished textiles.
The initial stage of growing organic cotton is planting the seed. The rain then helps to feed these seeds to enable growth. Organic cotton farmers pick the cotton by hand when the plant grows.
Cotton growers undertake organic cotton cultivation without synthetic fertilizers and toxic chemicals. Alternatively, crop growers use rich composts. They also remove pests by hand, which renders this process labor-intensive.
This entails the process of converting cotton bolls harvest from the organic cotton plant into the fiber. Once the farmers pick the cotton bolls, they deliver these bolls to a ginning factory.
Here, a ginning machine separates the cotton fiber from seed pods. This process helps to get rid of leaves, stems, dirt, and linters (short fibers left on the seed).
Once this separation process takes place, the seeds become useful for creating other products. Manufacturers can refine them to create cottonseed oil. They also use cotton linters to manufacture paper.
This is the process in which fiber goes through a carding machine. This separates the fibers to convert them into yarn. During this procedure, they clean the cotton.
The factory workers pass the fibers through a range of machines which turn these fibers into soft and delicate finished yarn. When this process converts the cotton into knitted cotton fabric, the dyeing process comes next.
Organic cotton dyeing doesn’t follow the conventional method. The traditional dyeing method uses a lot of water and chemicals.
Apart from the negative effect on the environment, this also goes on to affect people, that is, consumers. This is because a significant portion of the harmful chemicals in the dyes lingers on the textiles and products, which, in turn, can trigger skin reactions.
On the other hand, certified organic factories don’t use these harmful chemicals. They incorporate natural and low-impact dyes during the dyeing process.
Some of these natural dyes include turmeric, organic indigo, and onion shells. These come from nature and are therefore eco-friendly and safe for the environment and planet. Once the dyeing process is complete, they send the textiles to the garment factory.
Here, the textiles are now ready to be constructed into clothes and other products. The textile workers cut, sew, and stitch the finished cotton according to the required designs from each fashion company.
Once the clothes are ready, the workers send them for cleaning, pressing, and then packaging in a warehouse. Afterward, shipping takes place. They then send clothes to clothing stores for sale.
From the early 1990s, we began to see a rise in certified manufacturing and consumption of this fiber and fabric. This came about when pioneers in Turkey and the United States (US) created markets for organically grown cotton.
In the beginning, producers brought these textiles, in a limited number, to the market. This consisted of 100% certified organic cotton products that were sold in health food and natural textile stores.
At the time, people were selling these organic cotton products mainly for their eco-friendly benefits to the environment. Fashionable clothes, style, design, and the quality of textiles were secondary.
In 1992, designers and companies began to launch more fashionable eco-friendly materials. This was motivated mainly by the low-environment impact of textiles. People (customers) and the fashion industry at large started gaining environmental awareness about clothing and textile production.
In the second part of the 1990s, the quality, design, and color options of organic cotton products improved significantly. Manufacturers expanded the materials and yarn options available. This led to manufacturers also improving the quality of organic cotton textiles for sale to customers.
The organic cotton supply was in excess at this point. On the other hand, demand got stagnant as people were confused about the claims of being ‘natural’ and ‘hand-picked.’
By the 2000s, companies began to brainstorm new ways to increase demand and production. When people started getting more concerned about ethical issues like child labor, living wages, and sweatshops, brands started paying attention.
In the US especially, those companies that had international operations were increasingly concerned about their brand image. Some of them started realizing that including ‘organics’ in their offerings would boost their brand image and value.
However, they were not open to paying a significantly larger amount for organic cotton.
There were also other issues, such as the ample supply that was required and other risks. This brought about a blending program. Manufacturers were mixing organic cotton with other fibers, such as conventional cotton or other yarns. This helped to reduce costs and increase sales.
By 2006, many clothing companies started launching organic cotton conversion programs, following in the footsteps of brands like Nike. The demand for organic cotton is now increasing. We can see 100% organic cotton products in boutiques, fashion fairs, online stores, and other shops.
Although not perfect, the organic cotton manufacturing process curbs many of the unkind methods nonorganic cotton production requires.
During the manufacturing of normal cotton fibers, farmers require a large number of pesticides and insecticides. They use these to increase yield and prevent pests. These pesticides and other chemicals are harmful substances toxic to the environment and harmful to workers’ health.
Also, cotton is a water-thirsty crop. This means that a large amount of water is usually required to grow the crops and develop them into materials. A lifecycle analysis revealed that organic cotton crops use 91% less water than conventionally grown cotton.
Organic cotton, compared with conventional cotton production, follows strict regulations. This includes growing cotton crops with only natural pesticides that cause less environmental harm. Unlike conventional cotton, the process uses beneficial insects to manage pests.
Additionally, the organic farming system conserves water and uses rainwater to grow crops. It also incorporates sustainable farming practices to protect the land and maintain soil health and fertility.
Although certification standards can vary from nation to nation, the core goal of each certification is to ensure ethical and sustainable practices that recognize standards for organic crops.
This includes systems that replenish soil fertility, using natural water from rain and non-synthetic pesticides. Some sustainable fabric certifications include Global Organic Textile (GOTS), Oeko-Tex Standard 100, Fair Trade, and Organic Cotton Standard. Global Organic Textile (GOTS) is the “worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers.”
Further reducing the impact on the planet, 100% organic textiles are completely biodegradable and compostable. So you can add your old t-shirts and any other organic cotton garment to the compost pile, as long as they are 100% organic.
Textile Exchange analyzed the lifecycle of organic cotton. The findings revealed that the farming method is significantly more sustainable than conventional cotton farming. Textile Exchange also revealed that it is less likely to contribute to acidification and global warming.
Some counter that using fewer chemical fertilizers requires more land to produce the same yield. However, similar to organic food, organic farmers have progressed their methods to close the gap. Similarly, there seems little doubt that less chemical used on our land to produce our food makes sense1.
Below, we’ve highlighted a list of some sustainable and ethical fashion brands using sustainable organic cotton in their products:
MUD Jeans is a denim clothing brand prioritizing circular design and simplicity. This brand uses GOTS-certified organic cotton and recycled cotton as the two main fabrics in its products.
PACT is a certified B Corp and Fair Trade-certified clothing brand. This brand provides sustainable organic cotton clothing ranges for the family using ethical processes throughout the supply chain.
This brand creates timeless and eco-friendly pieces that are handmade by artisans. Indigenous offers 100% organic cotton pieces for sale.
This brand uses GOTS-certified organic cotton in its sustainable pieces. Organic Basics provides essentials and activewear.
Is organic cotton better than the standard variety? One of the reasons people love organic cotton is that it is softer on the skin compared with conventional cotton. It is also less likely to cause skin irritations. This is because regular cotton clothes usually have chemicals from farming lingering on them.
Regarding the crop growth process, organic cotton is more sustainable cotton. The organic cotton industry uses less water, no synthetic chemicals, and no genetically modified crops to produce organic cotton. It is significantly safer for the planet and the workers involved in production.
Compared with organic cotton, bamboo fabric is more absorbent with its moisture-wicking properties. This is why sustainable activewear brands often use it.
Considering the different bamboo manufacturing processes, bamboo rayon is more chemically intensive (per any other type of rayon fabric). In this light, organic cotton is more sustainable because it doesn’t require synthetic chemicals. Also, for the finished material, bamboo tends to shrink at a faster rate.
Recycling cotton promised to turn our cotton garments into new materials that we can reuse, as opposed to drawing on new cotton harvests, which have an environmental impact.
However, the problem here is that cotton fibers become less and less useful with recycling. As such, you won't find recycled cotton used by sustainable fashion brands in the same way you might synthetics.
Fabric recycling still aids sustainability in some way, as turning cotton fabric at the end of its life into cushion stuffings or paper products is better than it ending up in a landfill.
However, recycling still uses energy and, as a result, greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable clothing that lasts longer is, therefore, the best buy for the environment.
Fair Trade supports producers and promotes global trade. It relies on the principle of paying premium prices to farmworkers and producers. Organic cotton, however, is mainly focused on low-impact processing and the quality of the finished material.
We each have an individual role to play in making the industry’s effects cleaner and safer. This shows up in our choices of materials. From this article, we can see why organic cotton is quickly becoming a go-to fabric for more sustainable brands.
Its low-impact processing and techniques contribute to a safer and healthier planet. In general, it is good news that we have the option to buy organic cotton versus the less environmentally friendly conventional type.
D. Rigby, D. Cáceres, Organic farming and the sustainability of agricultural systems, Agricultural Systems, Volume 68, Issue 1, 2001, Pages 21-40, ISSN 0308-521X
Radhakrishnan, S. (2017). Sustainable cotton production. In Sustainable fibers and textiles (pp. 21-67). Woodhead Publishing, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-102041-8.00002-0
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.