What is organic cotton, and does it really make a difference?
Posted on July 02 2023
When you reach for your favorite organic cotton t-shirt or leggings, you might not be thinking about your personal ethos. You’re likely just looking for something clean, comfortable, and flattering to wear. It might not frequently cross your mind after the first time you purchased this item that there are a whole lot of other things intrinsically woven into that garment. Things you may find you value at a deep and personal level. We're going to focus this post on one of those things: organic cotton. Organic cotton vs cotton - the regular kind.
Choosing organic cotton clothing isn’t just some sort of virtue signaling as a sustainability-minded consumer. It brings with it a ton of real benefits and positive ripple effects, not all of which might be immediately apparent when you pull that soft cotton tee over your head and start your day.
But we think you should feel good in your clothing for reasons beyond that it accentuates your strong shoulders or lays nicely over your tummy or sets off the color of your eyes. So, let’s take a look at some of the ways you can positively affect the world around you simply by choosing organic cotton clothing.
What is organic cotton?
Before we go too far, let’s define what we mean by “organic cotton.” Just like the organic strawberries you might buy from the grocery store or that bag of organic spinach you got from your local farmer’s market, organic cotton is a crop grown in a specific way, and to a specific set of standards. Organic cotton clothing, then, is any apparel that’s been made from organically grown cotton fibers.
Not all organic cotton is created equal, though. Organic Pima cotton, the type exclusively used by Fair Indigo, is what’s known as an ELS (extra long staple) cotton. It’s significantly softer, stronger, and longer-lasting than other cottons. It’s also quite rare. There are 57 billion pounds of cotton produced each year worldwide. Pima cotton is just 2 percent of that total. When you level up to organic Pima cotton? That’s just 0.05 percent, or five bushels out of every hundred thousand. It’s precious (and delightful) stuff.
To truly earn the organic label, organic cotton must also go through a certification process. Fair Indigo’s Pima cotton is certified via the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which is the leading global standard for organic textiles. It requires adherence to the most rigorous set of criteria to achieve and retain certification. The GOTS certification behind all of Fair Indigo’s products brings with it real peace of mind that the tank top, sweater, or skirt you just purchased is a product made from top-quality organic materials.
What makes it “organic?”
Cotton or otherwise, organic crops have consistent hallmarks. Perhaps key among those is that they’re grown from GMO-free seed. You’ve likely heard the term “GMO,” but you’d be in good company if you didn’t know exactly what that meant. GMO is an acronym for “genetically modified organism.” GMOs are any living thing – plants, animals, or microorganisms – that have had their genetic material (DNA) specifically and deliberately altered in some way that doesn’t, or wouldn’t occur naturally.
When farmers use non-GMO seed, this means the seeds have been produced naturally without any sort of genetic engineering or the aid of chemicals, including synthetic pesticides. The only modification to their genetic structure is that which comes naturally over time, from careful selection and replanting of the strongest and most productive varieties. These seeds can be harder to grow, especially at commercial scale, but they’re worth the effort, since they end up stronger, more disease-resistant, and better able to thrive in adverse conditions. It’s a commitment. Organic farmers are playing the long game.
Farmers who invest in growing non-GMO crops are constantly curating their seed stock. They save seeds from the best performing crops year over year, selecting for varieties that are resilient and well-adapted to the local climate. The cycle of planting, growing, and saving creates a legacy you can hold by the handful; both literal and figurative seeds that can serve consumers and communities well for decades to come.
Farmers of organic crops also follow practices designed to maintain soil health, conserve water, and support biodiversity. All of this starts to tell the story of why choosing clothes made from organic cotton is a strong step toward sustainability, on multiple levels. Let’s go into those a bit more now.
Why choose organic cotton clothing?
The short answer is that it’s just generally a more sustainable and ethical option than clothes made from conventional cotton. That might be enough of a reason for you right there. But when you dig a bit deeper into exactly why that is, you start to see an intricate web of pretty significant ripple effects all stemming from that choice.
When you choose 100% organic cotton clothing, you’re not just getting an objectively higher-quality, softer, and more durable garment. You’re ultimately aligning with a set of values. And, as you look closer, you start to see all kinds of environmental and ethical benefits come into the mix, making that tee, or dress, or pair of leggings you purchase from Fair Indigo so much more than just another piece of clothing.
So, here are some reasons why you might choose organic vs. conventional cotton:
Organic cotton is better for the planet
As previously noted, organic cotton is generally much more sustainable than conventional cotton. Organic farming practices use no synthetic chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides. This greatly mitigates, if not completely eliminates, harmful effects on local habitats, farmland, or the people who live in and around areas of organic cotton production. It generally uses less water, preserves soil quality, and promotes biodiversity. The production of organic cotton requires less energy and, as a result, releases fewer greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide) than the production of conventional cotton. Keep reading; we’ll expand on some of these things below.
Organic cotton farming uses no toxic pesticides
Producing cotton conventionally requires a lot of chemical intervention in the form of highly toxic pesticides. Cotton occupies only 3 percent of the world’s farmland, but it consumes a staggering 25 percent of all pesticides. And cotton pesticides tend to be stronger than those used on food crops. They can cause serious and lasting (if not permanent) damage to farmland and adjacent ecosystems, harming wildlife and affecting biodiversity. This creates an imbalance and leaves those habitats susceptible to rapid, unpredictable, and often devastating biological events with “butterfly effects” that can extend far beyond the initial area of pesticide use.
Organic cotton isn’t left to the mercy of pests, though. It just takes different thinking, sometimes a bit of ingenuity, and a long-term view. Fair Indigo grows its cotton in Peru, on two family farms in Pisco and Chiclayo. Peru is widely regarded as the best place on earth to grow cotton. It is especially perfect for growing Pima cotton. Fair Indigo’s cotton is grown entirely without the use of pesticides, using techniques borrowed directly from the Incas, like crop rotation for soil health, natural irrigation, and intercropping.
Never heard of intercropping? You’re not alone, but it’s one of those ingenious methods organic farmers use for pest control. Here’s an example: Corn is a natural pesticide for organic cotton. Not the corn itself, but what the presence of the corn triggers to happen. Farmers on Fair Indigo’s cotton farms plant one stalk of corn at both ends of each row of cotton, kind of like the end aisle displays you might see at the grocery store. The corn attracts exactly the right insects to prey on cotton pests, keeping them under control. It’s a thoughtful and effective approach, completely natural, with zero negative side effects (other than maybe for those cotton pests).
It keeps people in local communities safer and healthier
All those pesticides used in conventional cotton farming aren’t just nasty to bugs. Ongoing exposure puts farm workers and cotton processors in real physical danger. Just by showing up to work and trying to make a living, they’re inhaling, touching, and ingesting these pesticides, which can lead to chronic health conditions, if not acute poisoning and sometimes death.
But the human effects don’t stop there. The pesticides inevitably run off the crops and leach into groundwater, rivers, and lakes, getting into local water supplies and endangering people in nearby communities, many of whom may already be facing hardship. Most of these people may never set foot on a cotton farm, or even know they’re in the vicinity of one. But the chemicals don’t care; their harm is indiscriminate.
Organic cotton keeps soil fertile and can prevent deforestation
The cultivation of organic cotton improves the fertility of the soil, raising levels of helpful nutrients and preventing soil erosion. Chemical-free agricultural land tends to stay fertile much longer than land that’s subjected to conventional farming practices. This means that organic cotton farmers generally have a longer commodity life cycle for their crops than conventional cotton farmers can expect, with farmland that can stay viable for significantly more growing seasons. Conversely, those “big hammer” pesticides used in conventional cotton farming often end up sterilizing the soil, which can lead to deforestation in the search for fresh farmland.
Organic cotton farming practices protect workers from exploitation and abuse
Organic farmers want their farms to be successful and profitable, but they’re usually equally protective of the human lives who participate in the agricultural process, taking deliberate steps to prevent forced or child labor, and ensure ethical working conditions.
Conventional cotton farming is much more susceptible to ethical black marks. One frequently cited example is Uzbekistan in the mid 2000s. In 2005, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) conducted an investigation of Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. They discovered significant exploitation and numerous rights abuses, including the forced labor of tens of thousands of children. Thankfully, in this particular situation, a 2021 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that the systematic and systemic use of child labor and forced labor in the Uzbek cotton industry had largely come to an end. But that’s just one example, and conventional cotton farming has far fewer, if any, protections built in for the humans who work to make the crop possible.
Caring for farm workers is a critical value for organic cotton producers to have, not just because it’s the right mindset to begin with, but because growing and harvesting cotton is really hard work. While some varieties of cotton can be effectively machine-harvested, Pima cotton, like that exclusively used by Fair Indigo, requires that farmers weed and harvest completely by hand, because machines partially destroy the extra-long fibers that make it so special. It is truly a labor of love.
Fair Indigo’s cotton farms represent a master class in old-school farming techniques, there are no machines, no rerouting of water supplies, no diesel engine tractors; everything is planted and harvested by hand. While it’s undoubtedly hard work, especially under the hot sun of harvest time, Fair Indigo and its partners in Peru are committed to taking excellent care of every worker involved in the cultivating, planting, and harvesting process.
It requires less water to produce (sometimes)
People who tout the benefits of organic cotton usually note that it uses less water to grow than conventional cotton. While cotton is known as the “thirstiest crop,” organic cotton is “less thirsty,” using roughly 10 percent of the water required to grow regular cotton. Proponents note that organic cotton production often uses a more sustainable kind of water called “green water.” which is sourced from rainwater rather than irrigation. Water gained via irrigation is termed “blue water,” and comes from lakes, streams, glaciers and snow. Many organic operations practice “dryland production” without irrigation, or use technologies to reduce water use, such as drip irrigation.
But, there are also some who contend that growing organic cotton actually requires more water than conventional cotton, with the implication being that this negates some of the benefits of choosing organic.
Without debating the finer points of each argument, the fact remains that water use is a key issue in growing cotton. The water consumption consideration is especially important considering most cotton is grown in drought-prone areas, which can add significant additional stress on the water supply in regions that are already vulnerable.
All that said, we feel good at Fair Indigo about the relationship we have with water as one of the most critical inputs to the premium cotton that goes into your clothing. Fair Indigo’s cotton farms are 100 percent irrigated from natural snowmelt in the Peruvian Andes, making it one of the more gentle and sustainable examples you’ll find with regard to water consumption.
Your clothes are safer for you to wear
When you put on a conventional cotton garment, you’re also potentially wearing an awful lot of chemicals left over from the manufacturing of the material. Although washing releases some of the chemicals (into the water supply system, where they still do damage), many of these toxic chemicals remain in the cotton fibers for an indeterminate period of time.
The chemical cocktail that might be lingering in that fast-fashion tee can include pesticides, chlorine bleach, VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and other solvents, PFCs (Perfluorinated Chemicals), and ammonia. Many of these materials are implicated in causing cancer. Others cause asthma and other respiratory problems. Yet others can cause reproductive issues and damage lungs, eyes, and other organs.
This is yet another place where certification matters. Even organically produced cotton can be processed and dyed with toxic chemicals. Fair Indigo does use dyes, but they are safe and gentle, and adhere to the GOTS certification requirements. You can feel confident that every item you purchase from Fair Indigo is completely free from toxic chemicals.
Organic cotton makes an objectively better piece of clothing
Even if you put all the other benefits aside (which is hard, because there are a lot), it’s just objectively true that clothes made with organic cotton, like the 100% organic Pima cotton that goes into every Fair Indigo garment, are almost always of higher quality, and are ultimately more enjoyable to wear, than those made from conventional cotton.
From the strong, high-quality fibers of the cotton itself, to the care and attention used in the production of the garments, organic cotton clothes are an investment worth making into a sustainable wardrobe. And yes, it’s an investment. You will pay a bit more for this level of quality than you would stocking up on the disposable and poorly made clothes offered by huge fast fashion brands.
But, just like organic farmers, you’re playing the long game as a consumer, too. And you’ll find that you really don’t mind paying a bit more. It quickly becomes clear, when you choose Fair Indigo’s organic Pima cotton clothing, it’s a stone-cold guarantee you’re getting a better, stronger, more durable, softer, safer, and more comfortable product, every time. You’ll find every organic cotton tee, every dress, every pair of joggers will turn into those workhorse pieces that you’ll reach for time and time again, serving you tirelessly for years after truckloads of tattered fast-fashion scraps have been relegated to the dustbin of history.
Guest contributor & Fair Indigo fan