Is it Really Worth Buying Organic Cotton?

by Karly Rayner

“Organic” is one of those words which is bandied around so much that it has almost become a parody of itself — attached to everything from blusher to brussels sprouts — but are organic products still worth shelling out for?

As we become more conscious of sustainability when pulling our wardrobes together, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish “greenwashing” buzzwords from genuine Earth savers. 

Here at The Shirt Company, we believe everyone should be empowered to make informed choices about the clothing they choose to invest in. To help with this, check out our handy guide to the pros and cons of organic cotton to help you make your own decision. 


The Pros & Cons of Cotton in General

Our organic cotton Mister Darcy shirt in blue

As a crop, cotton has fallen victim to its own popularity and success. Its lightweight, breathable, wearable properties make cotton extremely versatile, but its popularity means that a huge amount of water and space is used to produce it. 

Cotton production consumes 16% of the world's insecticides and requires $2 Billion in pesticides each year and a singular cotton t-shirt can take up 2700 litres of water to produce. 

While this might sound awful, high quality cotton goods will last for many years and can help avoid the trappings of fast fashion. After all, there is a huge difference between wearing a t-shirt a few times before discarding it and choosing a timeless piece which will be worn over and over again — therefore mitigating the environmental cost of cotton production.

Although the cost of creating cotton is resource-high, as a natural fibre, cotton is totally biodegradable, which makes it more environmentally sound than synthetic fabrics when it reaches the end of its life cycle. 11 million items of clothing are sent to landfill each week, so the plastic in synthetic items presents a real issue. 

There are governing bodies in place which try to make cotton production more ethical, for both the planet and the farmers who grow the crops. At The Shirt Company, all of our cotton — whether certified organic or not — is produced under The Better Cotton Initiative. This initiative aims to cut out the most harmful, cost-cutting methods used to produce unethical, cheap cotton with the following standards. All BCI Farmers: 

  • Minimise the harmful impact of crop protection practices
  • Promote water stewardship
  • Care for the health of the soil
  • Enhance biodiversity and use land responsibly
  • Care for and preserve fibre quality
  • Promote decent working conditions 
  • Operate an effective management system


Pros of Organic Cotton for the Environment 

Image Credit: Flickr/Xavier

Bearing all of the above information in mind, why might choosing organic cotton be a more sustainable option?

The main feature of organic cotton is that it is grown without harmful chemicals. This leaves the soil, air and water free from harmful contamination. A study by the Soil Association states that organic cotton produces around 46% less CO2e compared to conventional cotton.

Organic cotton also uses a staggering 91% less blue water (water taken from freshwater sources such as rivers and lakes) with only 180 cubic metres used to create each tonne of organic cotton, compared to 2,120 cubic metres in some more conventional cotton operations. This is because organic cotton growers typically rely on rain more than irrigation methods, which drain water from natural habitats. 

In addition to this, there is 70% less acidification (a buildup of hydrogen cations, which reduces the soil pH) and 26% reduced eutrophication (enrichment of water by nutrient salts which causes structural changes to the ecosystem) in the production of organic cotton. 


Pros of Organic Cotton for Farmers

There is also a human benefit to organic cotton in terms of ethics. 

A 2014 report by the Soil Association undertook a number of case studies which showed how organic cotton production can improve food security for the farmers producing it due to increased availability of food crops on organic farms. 99% of organic cotton farmers live in developing countries where hunger continues to be a day-to-day worry, and it appears that improving the methods used to produce cotton can be a way to increase access to food for farmers and the wider community around them. 

The Organic Cotton Sustainability Assessment Tool (OC-SAT) has found that producing organic cotton can increase financial stability and encourage diversity among farmers — with more support for women and minorities and a greater compliance with fair labour practices. 

Growing cotton organically also limits exposure to potentially harmful chemicals to farmers. 


Pros of Organic Cotton for You

Our organic cotton Madelena shirt

Along with sustaining a healthy ecosystem and helping to support ethical farming, organic cotton also has some plus points on a more personal, micro level.

Natural fibres in general are better for your body as they become softer with every wash and are breathable and free of microplastics, and organic cotton has the additional benefit of being grown without pesticides which can be an irritant for very sensitive skin. 

Organic cotton devotees swear the fabric smells better than ‘regular’ cotton and, according to Fibre2Fashion, organic cotton offers better long-term value to the individual customer due to its durability.


Should Organic Cotton be the Future of Farming?

Image credit: Flickr/Adam Cohn

Evidence shows that a conversion to organic farming (which currently only accounts for 1 percent of cotton production) will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve environmental, social and human conditions. 

There are currently around 148,000 organic cotton producers, but added consumer demand and support from the fashion and textile industry will support these pioneers and help their numbers to grow. 

The Soil Association concludes that, as a consumer, it really can make an impact to choose organic cotton, bedding and other items causing a ripple effect to greater positive change. 


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