What’s So Great About Organic Cotton?

 

There are so many good reasons to switch to organic cotton, so long as it is governed by a strict set of standards that you can trust, such as the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS).  In this article we explain why organic cotton is better than conventionally grown and manufactured cotton.

We set out below the detail of why:

(1) it’s better for you

(2) it’s better for the environment

(3) it’s better for the people who grow and sew it

So Firstly, Why is Organic Cotton Better for You?

 

The main reason why organic cotton is better for you is that it is simply the best quality cotton you can get.  

THE FEEL FACTOR . . . 

That’s because with cotton the basic building block of quality is the staple fibre that is taken from around the cotton seed and spun into the yarn.  If that staple fibre is kept in top condition then the yarn will be softer and stronger, and so will the fabric made from that yarn.  We’ve lost count of the number of people who feel our cotton products, look shocked and then ask us what makes it so soft.  It’s simple – we never compromise on quality, fabric weight or thread count and we always use GOTS certified organic, which means the many harsh chemicals used in the growing and manufacture of conventional cotton are banned from the production of our cotton and the natural benefits of cotton can take centre stage.

LASTS LONGER . . .

 

People also often tell us that their LittleLeaf Organic Cotton products feel even better after they have been washed a few times.   Again, this is because of the integrity of the underlying fibres, which remain strong and undamaged, meaning they continue to offer you the very highest quality, soft and strong cotton fabric you will find.  It also means that although a little more expensive to purchase initially, your LittleLeaf Organic Cotton products should outlast cheaper conventional cotton making it better for your wallet too.

TOXIN FREE . . .

In addition to the many herbicides, pesticides and insecticides used to grow it, the manufacture of conventional cotton includes some exremely harmful chemicals, including chlorinated benzenes, chlorophenols, endocrine disruptors, ammonia treatments, Azo dyes, formaldehyde, chlorinated bleaches and heavy metals.   All of these chemicals are banned from use in the production of GOTS Certified Organic Cotton, giving you peace of mind that the clothes you and your family wear and the bedding you sleep in have not come into contact with these harmful chemicals or that they may still contain their residues.

Extracted from GOTS Flyer “Compare- From Field to Fashion” – see the full flyer here

Secondly, Why is Organic Cotton Better for the Environment?

 

We’re all increasingly becoming aware of the terrible impact our fashion and textile use is having on the environment (see for example Tom Whipple’s article in The Times “Cheap Fashion is Costing the Earth” 8h April 2020)

The evidence shows that conversion to organic cotton farming will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water usage and pollution.

In 2014 a comprehensive Life Cycle Analysis of Organic Cotton was published by the Textile Exchange, covering global organic cotton production.  The report can be found here and included the following findings about the benefits of organic cotton production compared to conventional cotton:

%

organic cotton uses 91% less water than conventional cotton

%

reduction in global warming potential

%

reduction in primary energy demand

%

less acidification potential

%

eutrophication potential

switching from conventional cotton to organic cotton helps reduce global warming

Agriculture accounts for around 14% of total global greenhouse emissions and 84% of global nitrous oxide emissions, which is driven by the manufacture and application of synthetic fertilisers.  Nitrous oxide production is particularly worrying because its global warming potential is 300 times more than for CO2.

For the 2013-14 organic cotton harvest alone the saving in CO2 is the equivalent to driving an average car around the world 14,114 times! 

And this doesn’t include all of the potential environmental benefits of organic cotton, such as the increase in biodiversity or enhanced carbon sequestration in soils cultivated organically.

Cotton is also estimated to use about 16% of all global insecticide use, more than any other crop, which is why it has been labelled as the world’s dirtiest crop by, among others, the UK Soil Association.

as much as one fifth of the water used for conventional cotton is for diluting pollutants

Organic Cotton production uses so much less water than conventional cotton because the focus on healthy soils means that organic crops can rely more on the available natural irrigation and therefore significantly less blue water irrigation is necessary.  Blue water is the water taken from aquifers or reservoirs to artificially irrigate crops.  There are though some shocking downstream factors as well – it has been estimated that up to one fifth of the water consumption related to non-organic conventional cotton is for the purpose of diluting pollutants.

There are no mandatory or independent checks on the factories that produce conventional cotton and with strong pressures on costs the incentive for these factories to save money and increase production by using harmful chemicals and ignoring pollution is enormous.  Properly certified and controlled organic cotton pushes back against these pressures.  Organic Cotton certified to GOTS (the Global Organic Textile Standard) MUST comply with the very specific criteria set out in the standard, which includes:

  • The evaluation of all chemical inputs against basic requirements on toxicity and biodegradability
  • The prohibition of critical inputs such as toxic heavy metals, formaldehyde, aromatic solvents, functional nano particles, genetically modified organisms (GMO) and their enzymes
  • The prohibition of chlorine bleaching (bleaches must be based on oxygen)
  • The prohibition of Azo dyes (which release carcinogenic amine compounds)
  • Stringent limits on unwanted residues in all raw materials, intermediates, final textile products and accessories
  • The prohibition of discharge printing methods using aromatic solvents and plastisol printing methods using phthalates and PVC
  • The requirement for all waste water from all wet processing units to be treated in a functional waste water treatment plant
  • The requirement for wet processing units to keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment, including the disposal of sludge.
  • The requirement for all operators to have an environmental policy including target goals and procedures to minimise waste and discharges

Extracted from GOTS Flyer “Compare- From Field to Fashion” – see the full flyer here

The GOTS standard also reaches forwards in the production chain to control the packaging and labelling of organic cotton products, so there are specific requirements in the GOTS standard that:

  • Packaging material must not contain PVC
  • Paper or cardboard used in packaging materials, including hang tags and labels, must be recycled or certified according to FSC or PEFC

And the criteria keep developing, so the latest version of the GOTS Standard (version 7.0) now includes the six steps due diligence requirements for good business conduct as elaborated in the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible
Business Conduct  and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the
Garment and Footwear Sector (GOTS Standard Version 7, Section 4.1, page 11).

Here Comes the Sun

Typically those involved in the production of organic cotton also tend to be more environmentally conscious.  At LittleLeaf we are delighted to be partnering with a factory in India that took the initiative to invest in its own solar panels so that it could supply 100% solar power to the factory that produces our cotton products – going above and beyond even the toughest environmental standards anywhere in the world.

Finally, Why is Organic Cotton Better for those who Grow and Sew Your Cotton?

 

An estimated 100 million households across the world are dependant on cotton farming, with 99% of organic cotton farmers living in developing countries.  

The conventional cotton market is dominated by the large GM seed producers, with farmers forced to buy new seed each year rather than save some of last year’s crop.  They must then purchase additional pesticides and chemical fertilisers to support these crops.  Soils and water courses are damaged by those harmful chemicals, which are also often applied with inadequate safety measures, further contaminating surrounding communities and poisoning those who have to apply these chemicals or who are unfortunate enough to live in such close proximity to the conventional cotton crop.  

The damage to the local environment also reduces the ability of small farmers to grow additional crops alongside cotton, making it harder for farmers to diversify their incomes and provide food security for their families.   

In organic cotton production farmers can reuse seed they have saved from last year’s crop.  They don’t need to purchase harmful chemicals, which means those chemicals are not being applied to their local environment.  Instead they are nurturing their soils, improving them for the future, locking in additional CO2 and improving food security.  In the Textile Exchange LCA study we quote here 100% of the organic cotton producer groups surveyed were also growing additional crops alongside their organic cotton crop.

Apart from the direct impact on human health, a report by the UN has also drawn attention to the longer-term environmental impact of such heavy use of pesticides: “Pesticides sprayed on crops frequently pollute the surrounding ecosystem and beyond, with unpredictable ecological consequences. Furthermore, reductions in pest populations upset the complex balance between predator and prey species in the food chain. Pesticides can also decrease biodiversity of soils and contribute to nitrogen fixation, which can lead to large declines in crop yields, posing problems for food security.”

Extracted from GOTS Flyer “Compare- From Field to Fashion” – see the full flyer here

We think of organic productIon as being primarily about controlling the chemicals used in crop production, but with textiles those controls go so much further.  Many of the harshest chemicals are used in the factories that take the cotton crop and turn it into fabric.  So the GOTS standard provides just as many controls over the factories that produce our cotton goods as the farms that grow our cotton.  As we’ve set out above, in relation to the environmental beneftis of GOTS Certified Organic Cotton, the manufacturing process is also strictly controlled, including:

  • The evaluation of all chemical inputs against basic requirements on toxicity and biodegradability
  • The prohibition of critical inputs such as toxic heavy metals, formaldehyde, aromatic solvents, functional nano particles, genetically modified organisms (GMO) and their enzymes
  • The prohibition of chlorine bleaching (bleaches must be based on oxygen)
  • The prohibition of Azo dyes (which release carcinogenic amine compounds)
  • Stringent limits on unwanted residues in all raw materials, intermediates, final textile products and accessories
  • The prohibition of discharge printing methods using aromatic solvents and plastisol printing methods using phthalates and PVC

 

What isn’t generally as well known is that the GOTS Standard also strictly controls the social criteria used in the production of our organic cotton to ensure that workers are fairly treated throughout.  This comprehensive set of standards is based on the key norms of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which must be met by everybody in the supply chain, from farmers through processors and manufacturers, right up to and including the final retailers.  These requirements are detailed and refer to the relevant international standards, including the ILO, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD.

They include the following areas, amongst others:

  • Employment is freely chosen
  • Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are respected
  • Working conditions are safe and hygienic
  • Child labour must not be used
  • Living wages
  • Working hours are not excessive
  • No discrimination is practised
  • Regular employment is provided
  • Harsh or inhumane treatment is prohibited

“Ethical Business Behaviour is a cross cutting prerequisite at all stages of the supply chain and applies to all stakeholders of the supply chain.”

Section 4 Envionmental, Social and Governance Behaviour, GOTS Standard Version 7, pages 11-31

We’re sure that you agree that the standards adopted by those who grow, sew and sell GOTS Certified Organic Cotton improve things for all of us.  We’ve generally found that people who have chosen to work with organic cotton usually personally care about these standards and want to see these benefits, but it’s also good to know that it’s not just about trusting that this is the case.  In order to be GOTS certified, every link in the production chain must be GOTS Certified, which means being independently audited every year by Certification bodies that are themselves internationally accredited and producers have to see their products undergo residue testing to ensure that they are complying with the restrictions on harmful chemicals.

At LittleLeaf we are GOTS Certified and we are independently audited by the UK Soil Association Certification body.

This is our certification labelling and you can find us in the GOTS public database here.

We hope that you’ve found this article interesting and that you’ll consider swapping some of your cotton to GOTS Certified Organic Cotton in the future – whether it’s your bedding, something for baby, some pyjamas, handkerchiefs or a gift for someone.