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What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think of cotton? The t-shirt you’re wearing, your favourite denim jeans, fluffy clouds? In his book Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism, Steven Beckert claims that cotton is one of mankind's greatest achievements. It’s undeniable - cotton is an essential material in our society, and one that most of us couldn’t imagine living without.

What's organic cotton?

Organic cotton fabric is produced and maintained without the use of any harmful and synthetic agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides and without genetic modification. The finishing of the yarn is done in the most sustainable way possible and the production process is accessed against high certification standards.  

History of cotton

The earliest evidence of the use of cotton traces back to the Neolithic era in the Indian Subcontinent, where cotton threads have been found preserved in copper beads. Only after the invention of the cotton gin (which makes separation of fibres from seeds much easier), did it became used extensively on a larger scale. The cotton gin lowered the cost of the production and since then cotton has been the most popular natural fibre in the clothing trade, not to mention its global use in other manufacturing.

The cotton industry was the world’s most important production industry for about 900 years, between 1000 to 1900 CE, and even though it has been beaten by other industries, it still remains essential to employment and global trade.

What is cotton?

Cotton grows in tropical and subtropical climates, and is a fleecy like fibre that grows from the cotton plant. The cotton fibres form a boll, which protects the seeds, at the head of the plant. The fibre is almost pure cellulose, and can be easily blended with other yarns to create materials with varying qualities.

What can it be used for?

Today cotton is widely used in the manufacturing of textile products. The most common cotton-based textile in the world is denim, famous for of course, denim jeans. Additionally, another highly used cotton-based material is cotton terry, which is used by the homeware industry for towels.

Depending on how the yarn is woven or knitted, cotton can produce different structures for a variety of uses:

  • Cotton canvas/twill
    • used for many things from shirting to bedding
  • Cotton jersey
    • underwear, socks and most cotton t-shirts are made from cotton jersey
  • Yarn
    • used for knitting, crochet and knitwear products

On top of being popular in the textile industry, cotton is also used in book-binding, fishing nets,tents and coffee filters. Even the first paper produced in Ancient China was made of cotton cloth, which is currently enjoying a resurgence as a recycled alternative to standard paper.

How is it made?

Organic cotton can only be grown successfully if there has been a long frost-free period, plenty of sunshine and moderate rainfall to encourage growth. It usually grows on relatively heavy soil, but the soil doesn’t need to be rich with nutrients. These conditions are generally met within the seasonally dry tropics and subtropics in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, but because of the high demand, today the majority of the organic cotton is grown in areas with less rainfall that acquire water from irrigation.

The crop production for a given year usually starts soon after harvesting the preceding autumn. Cotton is naturally a perennial crop but is grown annually to help control pests. Planting time in the Northern hemisphere varies from the beginning of February to the beginning of June.

Interestingly cotton can also be nurtured to have colours other than the yellowish off-white typical of modern commercial cotton fibres. The naturally cultivated cotton can come in red, green, and several shades of brown

The fiber is most often spun into yarn or thread and used to make a soft textile which has a breathable quality, natural cooling effect and feels good on against skin.

Why organic cotton is better?

Organic cotton is grown with strict regulations. These include growing and harvesting the crop without harmful and toxic chemical pesticides, but also stretches to following methods which protect the farmland and the surrounding ecosystems.

While the certification standards may vary from country to country, these practices often involve conservation of the natural environment, giving the soil an opportunity to rest and recover after harvesting, improving water and soil quality and refraining from common farming practices such as genetic modification and the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.  

For many years, it was thought that organic cotton used more water than chemically grown cotton, but a recent study found the opposite to be true, finding that the production of an organic t-shirt saved 1,982 gallons of water in comparison to a chemically grown cotton t-shirt. Organic cotton isn’t perfect, and some of the natural pesticides which have been used in the past have been linked to diseases, but the majority of these have been removed from use or are not deemed safe to use.

In contrast, standardly grown cotton does use toxic chemicals to prevent pests and encourage growth. Standard cotton is responsible for a whole lot of the world’s pesticide use - in fact, the cotton industry (excluding organic farming), relies on an estimated 7% of the pesticides and 16% of the insecticides used globally. Chemically-grown cotton is manipulated with more fertilisers, pesticides and other synthetic products to increase the yield, year after year. These chemicals have been shown in multiple studies to be harmful; not only to the environment and nearby water sources but to the farmers who work directly with them. Studies, such as The Agricultural Health Study, have found increased rates of diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s, to name a few.

Is organic cotton better for the environment?

Organic cotton is considered better for the environment due to farmers using a small amount of natural and generally deemed non-harmful, synthetic pesticides, over chemical based pest controllers. Research has found that the process of organic cotton farming actually minimises the negative impact of cotton farming on the surrounding environment.

In addition, the Textile Exchange assessed the life cycle of organic cotton, and found that organic cotton farming is significantly more sustainable. They studied the impact of the entire cycle, from seeding to harvesting, and discovered that organic farming in comparison to conventional cotton farming, was less likely to lead to nutrient land run-off in nearby water sources, decrease ocean pH (known as acidification) and contribute to global warming.

Is organic cotton biodegradable?

Not only can organic cotton be recycled, but it can also be composted! Plants biodegrade, and being a plant, cotton breaks down back into the environment to be used by the soil and organisms living there.

Organic cotton certification

The best way to ensure your cotton is entirely organic is to only buy products which carry one of the following labels:

logo organisation requirements
Global Organic Textile Standard link
Soil Association link
Organic Content Standard link

Why organic cotton is bad?

There are a few things to consider when working with or buying organic cotton.
First, if a farmer was originally growing cotton with conventional chemical methods and has decided to make the switch to organic, then the process will take a minimum of three years. This is because the soil that’s been treated with chemicals needs to go through a cleansing process to ensure that all the chemicals are removed before it can be certified organic.
When it comes to buying as a consumer, it’s helpful to be aware of the possible shrinkage that can occur when washing, due to not being treated with chemicals. Then there’s also the issue with cost, which can often be high. This is due to the laborious and lengthy farming methods in conflict with the relatively small demand for organic cotton. 

Organic cotton vs cotton

There is a long list of benefits to organic cotton vs regular cotton.

Beginning at the life cycle of cotton, organic cotton farming is healthier for the crop, the soil, the farmers and the environment. Organic cotton is grown in soil that is nutrient dense, this is because farmers rotate the crops across different fields, allowing the soil to replenish and repair. Additionally, the use of synthetic pesticides is reduced or eliminated completely, in favour of natural or safe alternatives. In order to control weed growth, farmers also manually tend to the soil.  

In contrast, regular cotton is kept in the same field and the soil is subjected to years and years of chemicals and crop growth, resulting in nutrient-depleted, thirsty soil that requires extra water. To add to this, regular cotton is also grown with the use of genetic modification, and continues to require more and more chemical pesticides and fertilisers, as well as dangerous herbicides to kill off any weeds.

Organic cotton is soft and luxurious against the skin. This is in large part thanks to the harvesting process - to deal with demand, chemically grown cotton is picked by machine and this can result in damaged fibres, on the other hand, organic cotton is always hand-picked, and this preserves the quality and integrity of the fibres, resulting in long, strong fibres that feel soft and gentle. 

Once crops are harvested, conventional cotton is treated with even more chemicals. Bleach, dyes and other harsh compounds are used in the manufacturing process and are known to cause harm to workers as well as to consumers’ skin, whereas organic cotton is manufactured with natural and skin-friendly alternatives. 

Organic cotton is also much more durable vs non organic cotton, and is also hypoallergenic.

Once crops are harvested, conventional cotton is treated with even more chemicals. Bleach, dyes and other harsh compounds are used in the manufacturing process and are known to cause harm to workers as well as to consumers’ skin, whereas organic cotton is manufactured with natural and skin-friendly alternatives.  

Organic cotton vs bamboo

There are many benefits of both cotton and bamboo, but there are a few things to consider with both.

  • Bamboo Pros
    • Up to four times more absorbent
    • Consumers tend to feel that bamboo is softer than cotton
    • The bamboo family includes some of the fastest-growing crops in the world
  • Cotton Pros
    • Cotton holds its shape better than bamboo, as bamboo has a tendency to shrink more
    • Organic cotton can truly be organic, from start to finish, thanks to strict regulations throughout the entire process
  • Bamboo Cons
    • Bamboo needs to be chemically treated to be made into its common and usable fabric form of rayon and is therefore not 100% organic or sustainable
  • Cotton Cons
    • Cotton requires much more water than bamboo

Care: How to wash organic cotton

To maintain the softness and durability of your cotton, wash your products inside out with similar colours using a mild-regular washing detergent, it’s also worth not exceeding 30°C on the first wash. Once washed, reshape whilst damp and only use a low heat if you tumble dry, though air dry is always better! If needed, most cotton can be ironed on a medium temp.  

Can you iron organic cotton?

When it comes to ironing cotton, it’s best to proceed with caution by testing a small and hidden area or starting on a low heat.

Because of the lack of chemicals, organic cotton can sometimes burn on a higher setting. However, it often depends on the thickness of the fabric; thin cotton may of course be more delicate whereas thicker cotton should be able to handle a higher heat and may indeed require it.  

Patterns can also be vulnerable to heat; screen-printed patterns may melt, so test first!

Can you dye organic cotton?

If you buy GOTS certified organic cotton, it should be strongly regulated.

Why organic cotton matters?

With scientists warning us that we only have 12 years to prevent catastrophic climate change; choosing and increasing organic farming of cotton over chemically grown cotton is essential for our environment. Organic cotton farming is kinder to the environment and farmers, uses less water and puts out less harmful chemicals in its manufacturing process.

Why organic cotton clothing?

By now you’ll be familiar with all the ways that organic cotton is better for the environment - but there’s more! Organic cotton farming actually has a lower carbon footprint, thanks to a minimised need for energy and fuel from machinery. Of course, organic cotton farming also means that nearby rivers and water sources are left clean and unpolluted, and the local environment is preserved and protected. 

Organic cotton clothing is also safer - for the environment, workers and those who wear it. The ethical and environmental standards and regulations ensure that those who come in contact with the cotton, whether working with it or wearing it, are protected. This takes a significant mental, emotional and physical strain off the farmers, who need to make a living like everyone else, but may also be aware of the health risks associated with chemical farming. 

The lack of chemicals also allows those with skin sensitivities to freely wear organic cotton without any allergic reactions - and may even keep medical costs down as a result! And of course, it’s softer and more durable, so is not only a pleasure to wear for everyone who buys organic clothing, but it’s also better value and helps to educate and spread awareness. 

Is organic cotton really better?

Yes! In fact, the Textile Exchange has labelled organic cotton as a ‘preferred fibre’. The Textile Exchange have defined a ‘preferred fibre’ as “ecologically and/or socially progressive which has been selected because it has more sustainable properties in comparison to other options”. You can find out more about this here. 

Is organic cotton softer

Absolutely! The harvesting process of organic cotton is the key to capturing fluffy cloud like cotton, by hand picking their crops, farmers are preserving the fibres’ quality, strength and texture. The manufacture of organic cotton also avoids the use of harsh chemicals, that can strip the softness as well as the durability of the material. 

We’ve tested some of the best quality cotton fabrics to ensure their softness and durability and all of our cotton pieces are GOTS certified.