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The Organic Crew guide to organic cotton.

Cotton is one of the most widely grown and manufactured products on the planet. According to Statista, 123.7 million 480-pound bales of cotton were produced globally in 2018 alone.

WWF states that conventional cotton is responsible for a multitude of negative environmental impacts – including soil degradation, pollution through the use of pesticides and chemicals, and water contamination. Up to 7% of the workforce in developing countries can be attributed to cotton production, with human rights abuses in the industry widely known.

Which means? Conventional cotton is not only harmful to the environment in general, but to the quality of life for local communities. This is why we choose to use 100% GOTS certified organic cotton.

But what does it mean for cotton to be organic and why does it matter? In this piece, we break down exactly what organic cotton is and why making the switch from conventional cotton is the right choice.

.What you’ll find in this guide:

What is organic cotton?

Organic cotton is grown without the use of toxic pesticides, fertilisers, or synthetic chemicals. The seeds used to grow the cotton are also non-genetically modified, unlike conventional cotton.

Organic cotton farmers utilise less harmful farming practices that help support the natural environment – through prioritising and replenishing soil fertility and the biodiversity of the environment in which the cotton is grown (Textile Exchange Quick Guide to Organic Cotton, 2017).

Most organic Cotton – including the cotton we source at Organic Crew – is grown in India on small plots that suit the best conditions for growth. There are many that sit on hills to capture the right amount of sunlight and also rain water usage – organic cotton relies on rain water rather than irrigation like conventional cotton.

IFOAM Organics International describes organic agriculture as a: ‘production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people’. Organic cotton farming is done with the purpose of causing less harm to both the environment and the end consumer who wears or uses the cotton product.

The benefits of organic cotton

Choosing organic cotton has a number of benefits – for the environment, for local communities, and for the end consumer when using the organic cotton product. Knowing these benefits can help you to make an informed choice when purchasing products made from cotton.

Environmental benefits

If you’ve read anything about cotton before, you might be wondering – is organic cotton good for the environment? There are a number of reasons organic cotton is better for the environment than conventional cotton:

  • Organic cotton is grown without synthetic chemicals, eliminating the use of toxic pesticides and fertilisers. This means soil, water, and air are not exposed to these harmful substances
  • Organic farmers prioritise soil health and fertility, whilst also improving biodiversity through their farming practices
  • Organic farming prioritises managing water sustainably, which means the average organic tee shirt saves 1,982 gallons of water when compared to conventional cotton tee shirts (Textile Exchange Quick Guide to Organic Cotton, 2017)
  • Between 2014/2015, organic cotton production was responsible for savings of 92.5 million kilograms of CO2 when compared to conventional cotton tees, which is the equivalent of driving a car around the world 13,572 times (Textile Exchange Quick Guide to Organic Cotton, 2017)
  • While all cotton is biodegradable – that is, it will break down in landfills over time – conventional cotton contains synthetic chemicals that are harmful to the natural environment, unlike organic cotton.

Social benefits

Conventional cotton not only has a harmful effect on the environment, but on the farmers and manufacturers of the cotton fibre too. Certified organic cotton ensures that the people making the product are treated well and benefit from the production of the cotton fibre and fabric:

  • According to the EJF, conventional cotton ‘is responsible for $2 billion worth of chemical pesticides every year’. A report by the UN also suggests that 200,000 people die every year from pesticide poisoning, 99% of whom are in developing countries. Organic cotton farming uses no synthetic pesticides or harmful chemicals, so farmers who grow the product are not exposed to these hazardous substances
  • The Textile Exchange has found that 97% of organic cotton producer groups encourage participation by women, while 84% have described benefits to communities from organic cotton production
  • Organic cotton has the added benefit of improving the economic return for farmers (org). Farmers tend to use resources for inputs that they can get locally (like compost and manure, for example), which means costs are lower and they experience greater financial returns
  • 65% of producer groups of organic cotton have ‘Fairtrade or decent working policies’ in place according to the Textile Exchange. And when organic cotton is certified by GOTS, fair, safe and financially viable working conditions are guaranteed for all workers.

Personal benefits

And finally, what are the personal benefits for the end consumer? Aside from knowing you’re reducing your negative social and environmental impact there’s an added health benefit for you, too.

Many cotton products are worn or used directly on the skin. Your skin is the largest organ in your body and absorbs the materials and substances that you put on it. Conventional cotton crops are often exposed to hazardous pesticides and insecticides throughout the farming process, which is then transferred and absorbed by your skin when you wear it.

Using organic cotton products means avoiding exposing your skin to these harsh – and sometimes hazardous – chemicals.

The difference between organic cotton and conventional cotton

Put simply, the difference between organic cotton and conventionally grown cotton is that conventional cotton is often sprayed with synthetic chemicals and pesticides, whilst organic cotton is not.

Organic cotton and conventional cotton also have some key differences when it comes to climate change and impacts on farmers and local communities: organic cotton has the potential to reduce blue water consumption by 91%, energy use by 62%, and negative effects on global warming by 46% (Textile Exchange Quick Guide to Organic Cotton, 2017).

Conventional cotton uses about 16% of the world's insecticides and 7% of pesticides (soilassociation.org) – organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture.

Organic cotton farming also ensures farmers are not exposed to toxic chemicals like they are in conventional cotton farming, whilst also contributing to better financial returns for farmers which supports local communities and economies. Local water sources are not negatively affected by any chemical contamination as they often are in the production of conventional cotton (Textile Exchange Organic Cotton Market Report, 2019).

How is organic cotton made?

Organic cotton is made through strict farming and production practices. It can take three years for a conventional cotton farm to finish the process of becoming certified organic.

For organic cotton to be certified organic according to Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), it must be grown and manufactured with naturally-derived pesticides and fertilisers, and not treated with synthetic chemicals.

Then, the processing and manufacturing must ensure no contamination with conventional (non-organic) fibres, along with a strict policy on the types of dyes/bleaches and other materials that the fibres are treated with. This extends to the materials used to create the cotton products.

There are also environmental standards that must be met, including (but not limited to) packaging materials, waste minimisation goals and procedures, and wastewater treatment.

GOTS also specifies strict social standards to be met to ensure there are absolutely no human rights being violated and that employment of all people involved in the cotton production process is chosen freely, appropriate working conditions are met, and living wages are paid.

In addition to being GOTS certified, Organic Crew apparel is accredited by Fair Trade for our Indian-manufactured garments and Ethical Clothing Australia for our Australian-made garments. This ensures that the people making our organic cotton products are fairly treated – the way they deserve to be.

Where is organic cotton grown?

The biggest organic cotton grower in the world is India, which was responsible for 47% of the world’s organic cotton farming in the 2017/18 harvest year. (Textile Exchange Organic Cotton Market Report, 2019). Following India in terms of cotton farming volume is China, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey.

While Australian farmers have attempted to grow organic cotton crops, it is typically not grown commercially in Australia due to it being deemed uneconomical – growing this crop here can be incredibly difficult as we do not have the right weather conditions or the volume of virgin land needed.

Organic Crew’s organic cotton factories

At Organic Crew, we source all of our organic cotton from ethically-accredited manufacturing facilities. Our founder Mel talks about where we source our organic cotton:

We like to source from cooperatives in India that support their local communities – so if a crop fails one year, the families are still supported. We partner with these cooperatives and visit them when we can. The difference we can make to an entire community by choosing organic cotton is so fulfilling.

Not only is organic better for the end consumers, it is better for the farmers and their families health. These cooperatives also fund local schools and supply much needed resources for the community. When we make in Australia, we source the yarn from India then knit it in mills here in Melbourne. Both practices follow the appropriate ethical accreditation for the country.

Choosing organic cotton: good for people, good for the planet

Conventional cotton is harmful for the environment, and for the wellbeing and rights of those who produce it. This is why choosing organic cotton is a no-brainer – you can purchase products with the same breathability and quality as conventional cotton, but with the added benefit of knowing you’re supporting local communities and the environment.

Organic cotton is also much better for your skin. Your skin is the largest organ in your body and absorbs everything you wear, so choosing organic cotton ensures you are not exposing your skin to harsh synthetic chemicals.

When purchasing organic cotton products, always look for the GOTS certification to ensure you are truly buying 100% organic. Organic Crew cotton apparel is created using 100% GOTS certified organic cotton, produced by makers who receive living wages in safe working conditions – ethically produced from seed to store.