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Fashion & Sustainability: Just How Sustainable is Organic Cotton?

Growing conventional cotton is generally considered as one of the most environmentally harmful endeavors. Reports note that it uses 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and 10 percent of the world’s pesticides.1 This does not only negatively impact the environment but also the health of cotton farmers. Plus, cotton is a water-intensive crop, needing at least 8,500 litres of water to grow enough in order to make just one pair of jeans.2 Imagine this being done in the dry areas of the Mediterranean, where irrigated cotton is grown.3 Of course, there is also the fact that all of the insecticides and pesticides used in growing cotton eventually end up in rivers and water systems, contributing to water pollution.

Fashion & Sustainability: Just How 'Sustainable' is Organic Cotton?

The harmful effects of growing conventional cotton makes a strong case for organic cotton. This is GMO-free, does not use fertilizers and pesticides, and consumes less amount of water. However, only about one percent of the total 25 million tons of cotton is grown organically.4

This is because growing organic cotton is a lot more expensive. According to reports, organic cotton fields yield 40 percent less than conventional cotton.5

Fashion & Sustainability- Just How 'Sustainable' is Organic Cotton?

In order to increase harvest, farmers need to invest more on ensuring soil fertility, protecting biodiversity and preserving the environment. Because it is chemical-free, there is a lot of risk that it will be prone to pests. This renders organic cotton as a financial risk. For farmers who depend on their cotton yields for survival, this is quite difficult. Note that 99 percent of the farmers who produce cotton come from developing countries with farming as their only means of survival.6

All these reasons point to the unsustainability of growing organic cotton. However, for the sake of the environment, the health of farmers and those in the cotton industry, and the people who patronize cotton, it is important to support this practice.

Fortunately, there are trailblazers in the fashion world that are trying to help raise awareness and take concrete action in supporting organic cotton. Foremost of these are fashion giants H&M, C&A and Nike who have all committed to use more organic cotton in their clothing. Patagonia, on the other hand, have exclusively used organically grown cotton since 1996.

Patagonia Organic Cotton Canvas Parka

Patagonia Organic Cotton Canvas Parka

Patagonia Organic Cotton T-Shirt for Men

Patagonia Men's Organic Cotton T-Shirt

At the same time, there are campaigns such as the Organic Cotton Initiative which try to raise awareness and encourage support for the organic cotton industry. It is currently working with the Soil Association and the Global Organic Textile Standard in order to promote organic cotton standards and help farmers.

As individuals, we can also do our share in revolutionizing the cotton industry and minimizing its harmful environmental impact. Here are five simple steps that we all can do to support the fledgling organic cotton industry.

Step 1: Patronize organic cotton products.

This is the most important. By buying organic cotton, we are ensuring the growth of the industry and encouraging retailers and fashion brands to use it for their raw materials. This in turn translates to better incentives for farmers to engage in organic farming.

In this way, we concretely do our part in minimizing environmental damage and the impact of climate change and help farmers not just in their livelihood but more importantly, in improving their health conditions.

Fashion & Sustainability- Just How Sustainable is Organic Cotton

People Tree Organic Cotton 'Alana' Jumpsuit

People Tree Organic Cotton Pants Chinos

People Tree Organic Cotton Chinos

Step 2: Educate yourself.

There are a lot of available materials and resources out there on the importance and benefits of growing organic cotton. Do not just be a passive consumer. Learn more about it to know how you can actively support it.

Step 3: Be an organic cotton ambassador.

You are the best person to influence your friends and family to buy organic cotton. Actively advocate for it. Share the negative impacts of conventional cotton farming. Getting even just one person to make the shift to organic cotton means a lot in terms of minimizing the environmental footprint.

Fashion & Sustainable - How to be an Organic Cotton Ambassador

Step 4: Re-use, recycle, donate.

Do you have old cotton shirts and jeans just lying around in your closet? Do not put it in the trash. See if it can be re-used or recycled. If still in good condition, why not consider donating it to charity? Alternatively, H&M also has a program that allows you to bring in your unwanted clothes for recycling purposes.

Step 5: Spread the word.

Actively engage on social media, talk to people, simply spread the word. This is definitely the best way to spread awareness and get people to take action.

Do you have any other suggestions? We welcome any recommendations that you might have in order for the organic cotton revolution to gain momentum.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. We receive a commission for each sale made. This helps us to cover the operating costs of this ever-growing site and ensures that the content remains free for readers. To learn more about our policies, click here.

Show 6 footnotes

  1.  EcoChoices. In: Dietz, D. 2013. Protecting Our Planet and Protecting Ourselves: The Importance of Organic Cotton. Huffington Post, 10 September 2013. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-dietz/organic-cotton-sustainable-fashion_b_3562788.html.
  2.  Triodos Investment Management. 2014. Just How Sustainable is Cotton? Triodos Bank, 23 October 2014. Available at: https://www.triodos.com/en/investment-management/who-we-are/news/newsletter-research/sustainable-cotton/.
  3.  Chapagain, AK. 2005. The Water Footprint of Cotton Consumption. Value of Water: Research Report Series No. 16, September 2005. Available at: http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report18.pdf.
  4.  Cheeseman, G. 2016. The Low-Down On Sustainable Cotton. TriplePundit, 02 February 2016. Available at: http://www.triplepundit.com/special/cotton-sustainability-c-and-a-foundation/the-low-down-on-sustainable-cotton/#.
  5.  Sustainable Cotton Project. Market. Sustainable Cotton. Available at: http://www.sustainablecotton.org/pages/show/market.
  6.  The Organic Cotton Initiative. Facts, Myths and FAQs. CottonedOn.Org. Available at: http://www.cottonedon.org/faqs#sustainable.

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About the author

Polly Michelle Cunanan

Polly Michelle Cunanan

Polly Michelle Cunanan is a results-driven media and communication expert with over 15 years of experience and proven track record in working with the Philippine Government and donor agencies such as the USAID, World Bank, UN-FAO, ADB, European Union (EU) and media. Political and strategic communication, messaging and campaigns are among her expertise. She spearheaded the communication program on the Bangsamoro peace process which led to a conducive environment for the signing of the historic Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. She is a graduate of BA Broadcast Communication from the University of the Philippines and has completed the academic requirements for MA Communication Research from the same university. She is a UK Chevening scholar currently studying MA International Public Relations and Global Communications Management at Cardiff University.

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