What Is Organic Cotton?

By Laura Moffat
What Is Organic Cotton?

According to the USDA website “Organic farming is a production system that excludes the use of synthetically produced fertilizers, biocides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives such as antibiotics and growth hormones.” But what does that actually mean, and how does it relate to organic cotton? Let’s break it down…


The plants used to grow organic cotton are not genetically modified. Have you heard of the company Monsanto? Basically, they are the biggest producers of genetically modified (GM) seeds. GM seeds are bred to have certain desirable traits like using water more efficiently, increased crop yield, or be more resistant to pests or weeds. These attributes sound great…so what’s the downside?


GM seeds have only been around in their current state for about 20 years, but so far concerns include; increased allergy rates, decreased biodiversity, and the potential emergence of new diseases. And as you can see in the graph above, GM crops are being planted more and more. In fact, according to Eileen Fisher, 94% of US short staple cotton is GM. 


The fields used for organic farming are not sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers, and the land has to be free of them for at least three years. This time allows the soil to remove the chemicals and pesticides from the land so the cotton is free from potentially harmful chemicals.  


Typically organic cotton is grown in countries such as India, China, Turkey, Egypt and the USA. In 2014-2015 the top three countries that had certified land to grow organics were Australia, Argentina and the USA, while the top three counties who were organic farmers were India, Uganda and Mexico! The 2014-2015 growing season produced 654,118 soccer fields worth of organic cotton BUT that equates to only 1% of all cotton production worldwide. 


Some of the benefits of organic cotton include; but are not limited to preventing water contamination and pollution because harmful pesticides are not used. Farmers growing organic cotton often plant "trap crops" nearby their cotton crops that attract cotton crop pests. So instead of spraying their fields with pesticides, the trap crops attract the pests and steer them away from the cotton. Organic farmers create biodiversity by farmers using crop rotation instead of planting the same crop over and over again, also know as a monocrop. 

There is no denying it, cotton is a very water intensive crop. In fact, it takes 2,700 liters of waterto make a conventional cotton t-shirt. So conserving and maximizing the water usage when growing cotton is crucial! By using sustainable practices like crop rotation, the soil can retain more moisture. As a result, organic cotton needs less water than conventional cotton. According to the website aboutorganiccotton.org, organic cotton uses 71% less water and 62% less energy than conventional cotton. 

Factories that process the organic cotton plants also have to undergo strict certification processes in order to handle organic cotton. Because of these certification processes you can be rest assured that the workers at these factories are being treated fairly and the waste created in the process is safe. Since organic cotton isn't grown using pesticides, the materials the factory workers are handling are safer for their health. 

By hey, what about that traditional stuff? Traditional cotton definitely has its benefits too. Especially since the organic cotton market is still growing! Today, if you use traditional cotton, finished goods are often available in more colors and varieties. The price of traditional cotton is also lower than organic cotton. Good ol' supply and demand! However, as the demand for organic cotton increases, the supply should increase, thus lowering the price of goods and creating designers with more options for apparel, textiles and home goods. Hopefully the organic cotton market will see a similar uptick in demand as organic foods. 


There are lots of certification programs for organic cotton around the world; and they provide certification for different things regarding the organic parts of your garment. For example, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certifies that the organic content in your clothing and that the organic cotton was processed socially and sustainably. Where as, Organic Content Standard (OCS) tells the consumer that the organic content of your clothing is traceable all the way back to its source. 


Luckily for you, more and more brands are incorporating organics into their collections. As a consumer, you can use your buying power to support brands that use and promote organic cotton. Patagonia is a great option for sustainable outdoor gear. They've been using all organic cotton since 1996. Another great brand for organics is Eileen Fisher. They started the initiative VISION2020, to move to 100% organic by the year 2020.  These brands will help build the infrastructure needed to push the industry to change and create more affordable options for emerging brands buying organic cotton in smaller quantities. So support them to show you care.

Patagonia Logo property of Patagonia

Patagonia Logo property of Patagonia

Organics are important, but be sure to also look at the brand holistically before making a purchase. For example, H&M was the second leading purchasers of organic cotton, but the pressure they put on the industry and the environment by promoting excessive consumption through fast fashion outweighs the positives of increased use of organics.

Photo by Parker Burchfield on Unsplash

Photo by Parker Burchfield on Unsplash

Also, be an educated consumer. Check out the care label on your products to see what is in the clothing you are wearing. Many times you may not know what the content is in your new favorite shirt! Perhaps it is even made from 100% organic cotton!

Wondering what options Kirrin Finch has in Organic Cotton? Well, you are in luck. We have an entire line of "eco-oxfords" that are all 100% organic cotton, short sleeve options for those hot summer days and we even make a t-shirt that is 50% Organic Cotton and 50% Rpet. (Rpet=recycled plastic bottles). So regardless of the occasion, Kirrin Finch has something organic you can wear!

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