As we noted a few weeks ago in our post on Nature’s Path, there remains a fair bit of ambiguity around the word “organic” for the average consumer—particularly when talking about clothing. When we launched our new website this month, we wanted to make it easier for customers to choose organic by customizing a search for organic fibre products. We want to shed some light on why we are keen on this particular textile, and give some insight into the differences between organic and conventional cotton.
As far as sustainable textiles go, organic cotton is the most popular and most readily available. However, just as with bamboo, the question remains: how eco-friendly is it really?
The fact is conventional cotton crops use the most chemicals out of all other crops. Cotton attracts a wide variety of insects, making it the most pesticide dependent crop in the world. Cotton covers only 2.5% of cultivated land globally, yet it accounts for nearly 25% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides. To put that into perspective: nearly one-third of a pound of chemicals is needed to grow enough conventional cotton to make one single T-shirt.
Organic cotton minimizes the need for agricultural chemicals through methods that include crop rotation, intercropping, mechanical or hand weeding, and the use of mulches. Even the seeds planted are stripped of pesticides and are free of genetically modified organisms.
A popular misconception is that organic cotton crops require more water than its conventional counterparts, but this is not necessarily the case. By maintaining healthier soil, the farming of organic cotton requires less irrigation, because the plants are able to use water more efficiently. Also, increased pesticide use can seep into local streams and public water supplies. Aside from the obvious dangers this has on the environment, using contaminated water on cotton crops can actually slow its growth, requiring more water to speed up the process.
Though the advantages of organic cotton are clear, there is a major drawback. The largest producers of organic cotton are in India, Turkey, China and Africa—and the biggest consumer demand is in North America. As we discussed a few weeks ago, not all shipping methods are created equal—and the environmental impact of shipping via the ocean is far less than trucking a product from long distances within the country. Unfortunately, it is difficult to know exactly how an organic crop is transported from the farms to processing plants, and finally to retailers. Luckily, demand for organic textiles is growing and local production of organic cotton—mainly in North Carolina, California and New Mexico—continues to expand to meet that demand.
The emergence of organic cotton, as well as recycled cotton—a fibre we are also fans of—signals a shift towards a more conscious consumer base. However, no matter how many benefits there are to organic or recycled garments, the customer “care” phase of a garment has the harshest impact on the planet. Studies show that the everyday washing, drying and ironing of clothing account for 60 to 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Choosing to cut back on laundry, wash by hand, hang-dry, or stick to cold-water washing cycles makes a big difference, regardless of whether the garment is organic or not.