Is organic cotton really better?
Cotton—you sleep on it at night, dry yourself with it after a shower, and are probably even wearing it right now. But despite representing nearly half the fibre used in the textile industry, cotton has a dark side.
With issues surrounding cotton's negative impact on the planet and its inhabitants, organic cotton has become a more ethical alternative. From plant to yarn to fabric, conversations surrounding organic cotton raise questions on greenwashing, sustainability, and authenticity.
What is organic cotton?
Organic cotton is an eco-friendly alternative to standard cotton. Cotton is the world's most widely used natural fibre, and despite organic cotton becoming a go-to for sustainable fashion brands, it makes up less than 1% of the market's total cotton production.
The fibre is grown using methods and materials with low environmental impact. Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilisers, and build biologically diverse agriculture. Third-party certification organisations verify that organic producers use only methods and materials allowed in organic production.
It is grown without toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, with federal regulations prohibiting the use of genetically engineered seeds for organic farming. Cotton sold as organic must meet strict regulations as to how the cotton is grown.
The facts & figures
- Less than 1% of cotton grown is organic
- Organic cotton uses up to 91% less water
- 81% of the water used is rain-fed, reducing pressure in drought-prone areas
- It uses 62% less energy to grow and produce
- It is hypoallergenic as it contains no chemicals, perfect for sensitive skin
- Organic farming grows more resilient crops that naturally withstand pests or bad weather
- It promotes fair wages and better working conditions for farmers
- It promotes gender equality, particularly in Africa and Asia, with around 10% of organic farmers being women and having control of their own farms
How we got here—a history of organic cotton
The history of organic clothing goes back centuries, with the earliest examples of natural fibres being used for clothing dating back to ancient civilisations. However, it wasn't until the 20th century that organic clothing began to gain momentum as a sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional, synthetic fabrics.
Thanks to the rise of hippie culture and free-spirited living in the 1970s, several small, independent clothing companies began to emerge, offering organic cotton, linen, and hemp clothing. These companies were often run by people passionate about sustainable living who wanted to make a difference.
By the 1990s, organic clothing began to gain mainstream popularity as consumers became more aware of the environmental impact of synthetic fabrics. Many large clothing companies began offering organic cotton clothing lines, and several certifications were established to ensure that clothing labelled as organic met certain standards.
Today, the organic clothing market continues to grow, with more and more consumers choosing organic clothing for its environmental and health benefits. Organic cotton is now widely available in various styles, from casual t-shirts to formal wear. With the growing awareness of the impact of synthetic fabrics on the environment and human health, we can expect organic clothing to continue to grow in popularity in the coming years.
Look for the right labels—organic cotton certifications and accreditations
From the government to voluntary standards and certification bodies, there are several stages to meet organic cotton requirements. To legally be sold as organic, the cotton must be grown on a farm certified to its respective government-controlled organic standard.
When buying organic cotton products, look for the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) label—the gold standard for organic cotton certification—or Textile Exchange's OCS (Organic Content Standard). These voluntary standards use a chain of custody model to track volumes of organically grown cotton as they move along the supply chain.
Accreditation bodies monitor and assess the certification bodies to ensure they operate as intended. This process allows standard-setting bodies to detect irregularities, delivering confidence to consumers.
Organic cotton why is it better?
To put it simply, organic cotton is a more sustainable solution. It is grown without pesticides from seeds that have not been genetically modified.
Organic farming practices avoid harmful chemicals while aiming for environmental sustainability and using fewer resources. Chemical-free agricultural land stays fertile much longer than land hampered by the constant use of pesticides, so farmers generally have a longer lifespan for cotton commodities.
The benefits are clear: using fewer pesticides means that workers' health improves dramatically, communities can live in relative health with access to clean water and food supplies, and the land has a longer lifespan because chemicals are not damaging. It also means our clothes are safer since they don't contain many chemicals often found in conventional cotton garments.
On the social front, organisations such as the GOTS have been working to ensure organic textiles also enhance (or at least do not harm) people's lives. GOTS covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading, and distributing textiles, ensuring that environmental and social standards—such as safe and hygienic working conditions, no workplace discrimination, and fair pay rates—are respected. You should also look for Fair Trade Certification to ensure workers are treated well along the supply chain.
Organic cotton production reaches new heights
The Textile Exchange 2021/2022 Organic Cotton Market Report estimated a 37% growth in organic fiber. With overall cotton production reported by ICAC (International Cotton Advisory Committee) in 2020/21 totalling 24,380,507 tonnes, 1.4% of all cotton grown is estimated to have been organic. The total number of countries growing certified organic cotton remained at 21. While Thailand, Myanmar, and Senegal could not produce any certified organic cotton in 2020/21 due to flooding, political instability, and certification issues, Spain and Kazakhstan grew organic cotton for the first time.
Ranked by production, the top seven organic cotton-producing countries, which together account for 95% of the global output, were India (50%), China (12%), Kyrgyzstan (12%), Turkey (10%), Tanzania (5%), Tajikistan (4%), and the US (3%).
Gen Woo is committed to making better choices
Since launching the eponymous brand in 2018, Gen has desired to be part of the movement working towards a more sustainable fashion industry. Focusing heavily on fabric choice, in the brand's early days, Gen sourced only deadstock fabric to create her designs, using only waste materials. To this day, she continues to use deadstock alongside as much sustainable fibre as possible. From recycled, organic and BCI cotton to FSC viscose, Tencel, linen and bamboo—the family-run factory that produces Gen Woo clothes is certified by Cotton Made in Africa and the Organic Exchange Programme. Gen Woo in 2023 received Singapores SME500, Biz Cert and UK SEDEX certifications.
Responsibility, community, positivity and freedom lie at the heart of Gen Woo. Part of a family-run business with a thirty-year history of making quality clothing, all Gen Woo pieces are produced in their own accredited factory, which promotes a safe, inclusive and fair working environment for all workers, recognised through several accreditations and certifications.
From seasonless styles to ethical fabric choices, the Singapore-based sustainable fashion brand aims to position itself at the forefront of slow fashion. For further reading on Gen Woo's stance on environmental issues, visit our journal and sustainability content. To be part of our story, sign up for our newsletter now to access exclusive deals and more.
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