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Is organic cotton better?
Cotton is one of the most widespread and widely used plant fibers in the world. The problem is that while its cultivation accounts for "only" 2.5% of the land under cultivation, it consumes 15-20% of all pesticides worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. That's quite a lot for a fiber labeled "natural".... That's why, for some years now, there has been a more responsible way of growing cotton that involves all stages of production, from sowing to harvesting: organic cotton. But what is the difference between organic cotton and conventional cotton? And is organic automatically better?
Conventional cotton: As explained above, traditional cotton farming consumes a large proportion of the pesticides and insecticides produced worldwide. These end up in the soil and sometimes pollute irretrievably. For example, to eradicate cotton pests, farmers in the U.S. long used arsenic-based products (which is literally a poison). Not to mention synthetic and chemical fertilizers....
Organic cotton: No pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified organisms (GMOs for short) are allowed in the cultivation of organic cotton. The soil is nourished with the help of natural compost or by using dung, for example. In addition to the use of natural compost, the cultivation of organic cotton also promotes crop rotation, i.e. a chronological succession of different crops in one field. This is a natural way to obtain fertile and moist soils, especially in the long term.
Conventional cotton: Growing cotton requires astronomical amounts of water. While there are regions where water is naturally very abundant, such as in the fertile Nile Delta, in many other regions complex irrigation systems have to be set up, rarely without environmental impact... Remember the images of the ships lying in the sand of the dried up Aral Sea, now better called the ship graveyard. To give you a better idea of the enormous demand cotton has for water: 2,500 liters of water are needed to produce one T-shirt (source The Good Goods).
Organic cotton: The advantage of using fewer chemicals is not only that the environment is less polluted, because a soil that contains fewer chemicals retains water more easily and therefore requires less irrigation. The use of natural compost also reduces water consumption. Compared to growing conventional cotton, it only takes 400 liters of water to produce one organic cotton T-shirt. This corresponds to a considerable water saving of 84%.
Conventional cotton: Clearly, when pesticides and insecticides are used in abundance, often in countries with already low health standards, working conditions are less than ideal, to say the least. Regular exposure to various toxins used in traditional cotton farming has led to numerous health problems such as skin inflammation, sore throats, and in the worst cases, even fertility problems. In Mali, for example, pesticides have posed a real public health problem. The study Sustainability of Production in Cotton Growing Areas of West Africa, 2020 shows that certain pesticides used in cotton farming (some of which are banned in Europe) lead to chronic toxicity and various health problems.
Organic cotton: In any case, working conditions on organic cotton farms are better in terms of health, since organic farming does not allow the use of toxic substances. As for the other conditions, such as salaries, working hours, rest periods, etc. is a different topic, but it can generally be assumed that cotton farms that care about the environment also care about the welfare of their employees.
For a few years now we have been working on switching from conventional cotton to organic cotton. We already have a decent collection of organic cotton products such as our boxer shorts, polo shirts and socks. Of course it is more expensive in the short term to use organic cotton, but we prefer thinking long term and sustainable so we can still make beautiful clothes tomorrow.