THE SUSTAINABLE MATERIAL GUIDEBOOK - PART 1:
THE TRUTH ABOUT ORGANIC COTTON
By Talitha Ward
As Anna Wintour is to fashion media, cotton is to textiles. One of fashion’s most loved materials if often the subject of greenwashing among the fast fashion big dogs, so what does organic cotton mean and how is it a sustainable option for your wardrobe?
As Anna Wintour is to fashion media, cotton is to textiles. One of fashion’s most loved materials, your wardrobe undoubtedly consists of a wealth of pure cotton or cotton-containing pieces. Its comfort, durability and versatility are just a few of the characteristics that make cotton so popular industry-wide with designers, manufacturers and consumers alike.
In an era of increasingly aware consumerism, fast fashion and greenwashing have become an unfortunate pair, muddying the waters for a sea of consumers attempting to make more conscious decisions. ‘Organic’ is a term used freely and widely in the fashion sphere as an incentive to purchase, not only in fast fashion but in the sustainable sector as well. We see organic, we buy. Naturally there is an association with a cleaner, kinder and more conscious fabric.
At LDC we are passionate about educating ourselves and our community in order to be the most conscious consumers we can be. In the hidden world of textiles and manufacturing, there is always more to uncover before we pat ourselves on the back for a purchase well made.
The three main strains of cotton are Pima, Egyptian and Upland; ‘organic’ could be referred to as the fourth type. Simply put, organic cotton is any variant that is made from non-GMO seeds and not only grown but also produced without pesticides or chemicals. Organic farming has a multitude of benefits, one major being that it greatly aids farmers in their independence, reducing their reliance on GM conglomerates and stimulating small businesses (a value that resonates deeply with the LDC team).
Believe it or not, traditional cotton crops make up a tiny percentile of the world’s cultivated land but use more agrochemicals than any other single major crop. Under pressure from intense demand, panicked farmers rely on genetically modified seeds for their engineered resilience towards bugs and pests. Doing anything to ensure the life of their crop, they spray their fields relentlessly with excessive amounts of pesticides. This not only damages the purity and integrity of the material but deteriorates the land and soil of the fields and surrounding areas which can be harmful to nearby communities and water sources.
These pesticides that damage the quality and nutrients of the plant can also have serious health risks, not only to farmers, but also consumers. In organic farming, insects are used instead of pesticides to protect crops against bugs. This method ensures your favourite t-shirt is kept completely chemical-free, making it safer for your skin as well as for harvesters. Soil is kept healthier by consistent rotation and, in combination with giving traditional agrochemicals a skip, allows more natural nutrients to be retained. The environment also benefits exponentially, with natural farming methods reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 46%.
SHOP ORGANIC COTTON
While cottons’ rep for emissions is bad enough, it is no secret that it holds the unenviable title as the world’s thirstiest crop. Irrigated heavily (partially to balance out the impact of pesticides), the resulting water wastage is drastic. To make one single t-shirt can take up to 2,700 liters of water – this alone is shocking but even worse so when the vast majority of cotton is grown in water-scarce countries. Using organic methods, farmers work with nature and largely rely on rain-water to feed their crops, this eco-friendly practice has been shown to reduce water consumption by 91%.
However shocking the social and environmental implications of traditional cotton are, we know how difficult it can be to relate these stats to the pieces hanging in your wardrobe. So, on a more tangible note, you know that pile in the back of your wardrobe of unworn clothing – abandoned due to the hard and uncomfortable nature of the material and the irritating feeling against your skin? This is the result of rapid, machine-picked traditional cotton that leaves short and broken fibers. In comparison, organic cotton is entirely handpicked to maintain and preserve the purity of the strands, making clothing that is softer and more durable due to long and unbroken fibers.
But is organic cotton actually sustainable? Well, it is not quite so black and white. Organic cotton is increasingly becoming one of the most accessible options in sustainable consumerism and whilst it may not be completely impact-free, it is undoubtably a more conscious choice than its conventional counterpart. Choosing organic means you will be supporting small-scale farms, more water-efficient processes and less environmentally damaging methods. While there are various arguments surrounding the true comparability of conventional to organic (due to the latter’s smaller yield, and many other complex narratives), as consumers when we choose organic we can be sure that we are at least making a small step forward for our planet, our wardrobe and those that contribute to it.
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