Question: I’m a retailer looking to “green” my product line by exploring alternatives to traditional textiles. Why should I consider organic cotton as a viable option?

Answer: The production of organic cotton is a pretty hot topic in the world of retail at the moment. While organic cotton has many “green” attributes, a lot of retailers are wondering if the high costs associated with the production of the fibre are really worth the investment. Here’s what you need to know about organic cotton before deciding whether or not it’s worth it for your business to make the switch.

What is organic cotton?

Both conventional and organic cotton are used within the natural cotton clothing industry. As the Organic Trade Association suggests however, organic cotton is grown using methods that have a low impact on the environment.

According to the Textile Exchange Organic Cotton Farm & Fibre Report, approximately 151,079 metric tons of organic cotton (693,900 bales) was grown on 802,047 acres in 2010-2011, amounting to 1% of global cotton production. While production in certain countries has dropped – India, producers of 70% of the world’s organic cotton, saw a drop of 37% between 2010-2011 – the global market for organic cotton is on the rise, with 81% of brands and retailers having indicated a desire to expand their use of organic cotton in 2011 and a reported 32% growth in the organic cotton retail market (Fibre2Fashion reports) from 2010-2011. At present, Swedish clothing retailer H&M leads the race in organic cotton use, having used more than 15,000 tons of organic cotton in 2010, up 77% from 2009. Sustainable Business says that retailers can expect a $7.2 billion market in 2012.

How does organic cotton differ from conventional cotton?

LivEco suggests that the major differences between conventional and organic cotton include: the use of GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, the lack of crop-maintenance, and the use of water irrigation in the production of conventional cotton. According to Fairtrade Canada, the world’s freshwater supplies have fallen by more than a quarter in the last few decades, with cotton, rice, and wheat farming making up one third of this decline.

Fairtrade Canada also suggests that conventional cotton production is responsible for approximately 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of worldwide pesticides used. These chemicals are usually petrochemical based and are very harmful to the environment, wildlife and humans (especially farmers), finding their way into the ecosystem (particularly into the water supply) and into the bodies of consumers through absorption and ingestion.

Organic cotton, on the other hand, is farmed using processes that are chemical-free. According to Gaiam Life, organic crops are kept healthy using natural methods like mechanical or hand-weeding, crop-rotation, intercropping, the use of mulches, adjusting planting dates and densities of crops, and introducing beneficial insects. Gaiam also suggests that while during the transitional phase from a conventional to an organic crop, more water is used, after 2-3 years water usage is likely to return to normal levels, or less.

“Green”? Yes. Energy-efficient? Possibly not.

While organic cotton is clearly more advantageous to the general well-being of the environment, it doesn’t come without a downside.

According to the Organic Trade Association website, organic cotton is grown (or was shown to be following a 2011 report) in Syria, China, Turkey, United States, Tanzania, Egypt, Mali, Kyrgyzstan, Peru, Pakistan, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Benin, Paraguay, Israel, Tajikistan, Brazil, Nicaragua, and Senegal. Since Canada doesn’t grow organic cotton, Canadian producers and retailers have to buy from one of the 219,000 farmers growing the fiber outside the country, the nearest to Canada located in the United States.  Consequently, the investment in organic cotton does little to lessen the carbon footprint of your business or encourage energy-efficiency throughout the retail industry.

If you’re interested in growing organic cotton, check out this fiber-footprint calculator, courtesy of the Sustainable Cotton Project.

If you’re interested in learning more about acquiring third-party certification for your cotton products, visit the Global Organic Textile Standard website (Canada does not currently offer third-party certification).

If you have questions or comments about organic cotton, leave them below!


image credit: Brian Hathcock