Is Organic Cotton Better? Wait a Cotton Pickin’ Minute

I’m mostly sold on the idea that organic cotton is best (even if I don’t eat my clothing the way I consume food), but not all organic cotton is the same. Just like all people are equal with some people more equal than others, some organic cotton is just more organic

Not all organic cotton is sustainable. And sustainable, organic cotton can also be blended with synthetic materials and dyes that render the fabric non-biodegradable and harmful for the environment.

What is organic cotton? 

Organic cotton is cotton grown with techniques that typically have less negative environmental impact than conventional cotton. Organic farming practices replenish the soil and encourage farm biodiversity. Many organic cotton farms have third-party certifications which ensure the highest standard for their cotton. 

A farmer holding cotton seed.

Cotton is a natural seed fiber derived from the cotton plant and is the second most common fiber in textiles after polyester, making up nearly 35% of the textile market

Organic cotton has emerged amid the consumer quest for greater sustainability and ethical working conditions for farmers who grow the crop down to factory workers who stitch our garments.

Organic cotton is handpicked, making it softer because the process does not damage the fibers as machine-picked conventional cotton.

As organic cotton is hand-picked, it is a more time-consuming process. Organic cotton is also grown without insecticides and pesticides. This growth method, along with manual harvesting, results in lower crop yields and higher prices. Organic cotton is just more expensive to produce. 

Is organic cotton sustainable? 

Not necessarily. When compared to conventional cotton, organic cotton is a more sustainable option. However, only 1% of all the global cotton is organic.

Cotton, organic or conventional, needs and uses a lot of water. According to the WWF, organic cotton needs 243 liters of water to make just one t-shirt, and conventional cotton needs a staggering 2,700 liters to do the same job. Different studies will tout different figures, with many making the claim that organic cotton requires more water. 

Cotton is a very water-hungry crop grown in extremely hot regions of the world that regularly face acute shortages.

Varying figures aside, it takes hundreds upon hundreds of liters to produce one cotton garment – organic or conventional.

Water shortages are a major global problem. Cotton is typically grown in hot climates where water can be scarce and, therefore, can take away water from locals. In fact, many top cotton-producing countries fall into the water scarcity category, including China, India, Pakistan, and Turkey.

There is thusly an argument that it’s neither sustainable nor ethical to make or purchase an organic cotton shirt when production of that garment siphons away water from a water-hungry population.

In organic praise of polyester…

Organic cotton must be better than polyester, right? Cotton doesn’t take centuries to decompose in landfills the way that polyester does, that’s true.

But polyester is a much more sustainable fabric from a consumer care standpoint. Polyester is a highly durable fabric that lasts a really long time. It requires less water and heat to wash and care for, has outstanding versatility, does not shrink, is lightweight, can hold its shape well, has a quick dry-time, and it is resistant to fading, stains, and wrinkles.

Also when it comes to swimsuits, rain coats, and winter gear, you need polyester material. Who wants to go sledding in an all-organic winter snowsuit? Cotton and similar textiles are not waterproof or wind resistant. The best snowsuit will have a polyester shell and polyester insulation. Increasingly, brands are using recycled materials in snowsuits, like fishing nets and plastic bottles. One could definitely argue that polyester is renewable.

Is organic cotton renewable? 

Yes, organic cotton is a renewable and natural resource. However, it can still put a strain on the environment. Since organic cotton crops have lower yields than conventional cotton, some experts claim that organic cotton could be worse for the environment. Upfront, it takes more water to produce one organic cotton garment. However, over time organic cotton requires less water because soil with more carbon from organic production can better store water.

Is organic cotton biodegradable? 

Yes. Biodegradable means it can be broken down, especially into innocuous products, by the action of living things (such as microorganisms). 

Since organic cotton is a natural fiber and can break down, it is biodegradable. Things like dye, toxic chemicals, blended fibers, and trims can hinder biodegradability, but cotton is a sustainable and biodegradable fiber in its pure form. (Yet another reason to ditch those cheugy skinny jeans. Spandex is entirely non-biodegradable.)

What are the disadvantages of organic cotton? 

Since organic cotton fields do not use GMOs, chemicals, persistent pesticides, and other environmentally harmful substances, the crops can have lower yields than conventional cotton. This means that more cotton and fields will need to be harvested to yield the same amount as traditional cotton.

Although organic cotton has the advantage of using fewer chemicals, it still uses chemicals (just naturally derived ones). Unless your organic cotton is certified by a 3rd party certifier like GOTS or Oeko-Tex, it’s hard to know which chemicals it may have come into contact with during any stages of the growing, manufacturing, and finishing process.

What are the 3 most environmentally friendly fabrics?

When looking for environmentally friendly materials, it can be overwhelming. Typically, organic materials will be a better option due to production requirements for them to be classified as organic. Also, natural fibers are going to be better environmentally than synthetic. The top three environmentally friendly fabrics are

  1. Recycled Organic Cotton (or organic cotton if you cannot find recycled) – the material is made with post-industrial and post-consumer waste. It uses far less water and energy to produce in comparison with conventional and organic cotton. (In its virgin form, organic cotton is made with fewer chemicals than traditional cotton, is biodegradable, and softer on the skin.)
  1. Organic Hemp – environmentally friendly, durable, biodegradable, requires little water to grow. 
  1. Organic Linen – breathable, requires little water and little to no pesticides, and biodegradable. 

Is organic cotton better than normal cotton? 

Yes, most environmental agencies, wildlife organizations, and experts believe so. However, there are some experts who think that conventional cotton may be better because there are higher crop yields thus more efficient use of farm land.

Yet while conventional cotton is known as the world’s dirtiest crop, organic cotton is much cleaner. It produces less toxic and polluting chemicals by restricting what they put on their crops for pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals

Organic cotton regenerates soil health and promotes farm biodiversity. Production does not use GMOs (genetically modified organisms), but it is important to note that this leads to lower-yield crops. Still, with potentially cancer-causing carcinogens found in common chemicals used for traditional crops, organic cotton can be a safer alternative.

Certified organic cotton is the organic gold standard

Organic cotton can also be certified, which verifies different components of the farming, manufacturing, and finishing process. GOTS certification is the world leading textile processing standard for organic fibers. From harvesting raw materials and environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing to labeling, GOTS certification provides a credible assurance to the customer. Oeko-Tex certifications offer companies various certification levels to verify a product’s safety and production processes for human health and the environment. 

How long does it take organic cotton to decompose? 

Organic cotton decomposes in about five months, relatively quickly compared to other fabrics. If the material is composted, it can decompose in only a few weeks. 

Linen and hemp decompose rapidly in only two weeks, making them another great sustainable option for clothing. 

What fabrics take the longest to decompose? 

Garbage dumps of unwanted clothing donated from the US are common in developing countries around the globe.

It’s no surprise that synthetic materials take longer to break down, but just which synthetic fabrics take the longest to decompose?

  • Polyester (in most clothing today) can take up to 200 years.
  • Spandex is entirely non-biodegradable (big yikes).
  • Sequins are entirely non-biodegradable (your sequin jumpsuit from your 20s will literally never decompose)

Do jeans decompose? 

Depending on the material, yes! If your denim jeans are 100% cotton, they will take around 10 to 12 months to biodegrade fully and even less time if composted.

However, today many jeans are blended with synthetic fibers like elastane or Spandex to give them added stretch. While this often makes the jeans more comfortable, it creates a landfill nightmare and can cause your jeans not to fully decompose for up to 200 years.

How is organic cotton recycled?

To recycle organic cotton involves a somewhat labor-intensive process. The majority of recycled cotton is processed through a recycling machine.

The fabrics are sorted by colors and then run through a machine that shreds the fabric into yarn and raw fiber. The raw fiber is then spun back into yarns for reuse in other products.

Unfortunately, this process is pretty tough on the threads and can cause damage, reducing the number of times the product can be recycled or the longevity of the recycled item. Brands are currently experimenting with different techniques and blends to try and ensure their recycling efforts can maintain the integrity of the garment.

Garments cut into strips to be made into recycled fabric.

Many companies are coming up with innovative ways to deal with waste. Although H&M is typically synonymous with fast fashion, they have a recycling program where you can take in your clothes (it does not have to be an H&M brand), and they will recycle on your behalf. This is an excellent program for those who want to up their recycling efforts. 

Additionally, Blue Jeans Go Green is an innovative company to note. Founded in 2006, this company recycles old cotton denim jeans to be recycled and used for insulation in homes.

What are the best organic cotton brands for babies and kids? 

Children and baby brands have lots of organic options. The childrenswear industry has always been progressive in offering organic cotton clothing for its littlest customers.

With many parents caring about what goes on their children’s skin, organic clothing has been popular with many parents for decades. A few popular organic cotton brands for babies and kids are:

With This in Mind

How sustainable organic cotton really is depends on your personal values. Organic cotton, if carefully shopped, can be biodegradable instead of polluting our water systems and landfills. It can be safer and cleaner to produce, often manufactured in more ethical working conditions.

But no matter how ethically made, cotton is a water-heavy crop and there’s already far too much existing clothing in circulation – both brand new goods and “donated” garments.

Personally, I appreciate that cotton is a natural fiber and that it can be cleanly produced. But as a practical matter, cotton has its downsides. 

Cotton easily wrinkles (I hate ironing) and doesn’t hold its shape well. Cotton fades, shrinks, and stretches out easily. It also clings fiercely to stains and does not want to let go: chocolate and ketchup love cotton fibers. And cotton is not flattering for some garment types. There’s a reason freakum dresses are made with thicker polyester and structured materials, not cotton T-shirt fabric.

With that said, it all comes down to buying garments sustainably in a way that matches your lifestyle and your values. Twenty organic dresses is probably not more sustainable than two polyester dresses that you care for and wear a great deal. It’s all about thoughtful consumption and not over-buying. 

In terms of how I consume fashion, I look for garments I can wear at least 14 times. I prefer used, but will not hesitate to buy new if it fits my criteria. This means the garment has to be high-quality, easy care (I iron quilt squares, not clothes), and it has to “go” with the rest of my wardrobe. More of a maximalist, I admit that I don’t buy timeless last-forever pieces. But I do buy pieces that will be in style for longer than a couple of wears. 

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