Within the modern fashion industry, cotton is one of the most widely used fibres. There has been a rapid increase in the growth of cotton: in 1960, ten million tonnes of cotton was grown globally, this has increased to almost twenty-five million tonnes in 2010 (1), fueled by the demand for fast fashion and higher consumption levels. With this increase in demand, farmers are pressured to ensure high crop yields throughout the year, turning to the use of pesticides, fertilisers and genetically modified cotton plants in order to achieve this.
Cotton must meet certain requirements in order to gain organic certification. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) have regulations for both environmental and labour conditions throughout the supply chain, which are assessed in order to gain organic status. Material that has been labelled GOTS organic must have 95% certified organic fibres, whereas to be labelled ‘made with organic’ the material must consist of 70% certified organic fibres (2).
The criteria of GOTS prohibit the use of any toxic materials or chemicals. To ensure there is no contamination, the organic fibres must be separated from non-organic fibres throughout the supply chain. The packaging and clothing tags used for organic products must be recyclable or certified according to the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) or PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification). They also stipulate social criteria, including safe and hygienic working conditions; prohibited use of child labour; no excessive working hours and regular employment (3). To read the full criteria of GOTS, follow this link.
A GOTS certification is considered reputable within the industry, but there are other certifications that can indicate if cotton is organic. The Soil Association is a founding member of GOTS and certify organic cotton to the same standards. Another alternative is OE-100 or OE-Blended certification, which indicate garments made with 100% organic cotton or a minimum of 5% organic cotton that has been blended with other fibres. The materials within this certification are traced through the supply chain by an independent, third-party; they may not meet the same standards required by GOTS or The Soil Association (4).
The issues with cotton
Organic cotton has a lower water footprint compared to regular cotton. Growing and processing cotton is extremely water intensive: in India, 1kg of cotton requires 22,500 litres of water, the global average is 10,000 litres per kg of cotton (5), but due to inefficient water use and pollution, the water footprint of cotton produced in India is much higher. 20% of freshwater pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing (4). This could be dramatically reduced through growing more organic cotton; GOTS certified cotton use dyes and ink that are biodegradable and non-toxic therefore do not pollute the water used. In addition to this, the factories processing organic cotton must have waste water treatment plants in order to protect the local environment and water supply. Water is a valuable commodity and needs to be used efficiently across the globe. In countries such as India, where 100 million people do not have access to safe water (5), reducing the unnecessary use and pollution of water within the cotton industry is essential.
Chemicals and climate change
Organic cotton prohibits the use of dangerous pesticides and fertilisers that are often used to grow cotton. In developing countries, cotton accounts for 50% of the total pesticides used within farming and agriculture (4). These chemicals spread into the environment and affect the surrounding ecosystem, making the soil infertile for future use and polluting freshwater lakes and rivers, which may act as drinking water for the local community. Through growing organic cotton, these impacts can be greatly reduced, as no dangerous chemicals are used.
Organic cotton also uses less energy. There is no need to manufacture fertilisers to spray onto crops or use fuel to power vehicles that spread fertilisers. Through keeping soil healthy and uncontaminated from chemicals, it can become a carbon ‘sink’, removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Organic soil can also hold more water and is therefore more resistant to floods and droughts (4), which may greatly affect the yield of a farmer.
Farmers buy genetically modified (GM) cotton with the promise of achieving higher yields. Monsanto, who produce and sell GM cotton seeds, control a colossal 95% of the cotton seed market in India (4). When farmers do not achieve the higher yields as expected, they often invest in more fertilisers and pesticides, causing them to go further into debt. The more chemicals used on the soil, the more the soil needs to grow cotton; this leaves farmers trapped in a cycle dependent on chemicals, as the soil has been contaminated. In the last 16 years, there have been 250,000 recorded farmer suicides in India, which is the largest wave of suicides throughout history (6). Organic cotton does not allow the use of GM cotton seeds, which gives the farmers control of their crops and encourages them to work sustainably, without dependence on chemicals.
In addition to this, when growing organic cotton farmers are encouraged to grow other crops, which can be can be used or sold by the farmer. Cotton is typically grown as a ‘monoculture’, which involves the production of just one crop. This can be risky for farmers as they are reliant on the success of one crop, but organic regulations encourage the growth of other crops in order to keep the soil healthy.
As consumers, we can make a change within the fashion industry through buying organic cotton. Some high-profile brands, including Monki and Cheap Monday, have already integrated organic cotton into their clothing. Sustainable clothing brands, such as People Tree, Kowtow, Know The Origin and Beaumont Organic have full ranges of organic cotton clothing available. Through supporting the growth of organic cotton, consumers have the power the show the fashion industry that this is the expected standard. Farming communities should not have to suffer from the damage caused through non-organic cotton. We need to be mindful of our planet’s resources and minimise the impact we create.
(1) To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World? By Lucy Siegle
(6) The True Cost Documentary, available on Netflix UK