If we are given two products and one is labeled organic, we’re often more likely to choose organic because we’ve been conditioned to think that it must be better for us and the environment. But how great are organic products – and more specifically – how great is organic cotton?
What Does Organic Mean?
“Organic” means to be produced without chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides. It’s become one of the most long-standing marketing tools to boost sales – companies love boasting about their smaller carbon footprint and how ethically they operate. But that doesn’t mean that “organic” products are all they’re cracked up to be.
With its higher water use, lower product yield, less available organic seeds, and use of legal pesticides, organic cotton can still be harmful for not only our environment but people producing and consuming it.
290 vs. 660 Gallons of Water
One of the major drawbacks of organic cotton is the water use. It takes nearly double the amount of water to grow 1 kilogram of cotton, which is roughly enough to make one T-shirt and one pair of jeans. It takes 290 gallons to grow 1 kilogram of conventional cotton and 660 gallons of water to grow 1 kilogram of organic cotton. The larger demand for water directly and negatively impacts people who live in the areas surrounding organic farms.
Lower Product Yields
Organic yields are also smaller than conventional yields— sometimes 13-34% lower for produced crops! To keep up with demand, more and more land has to be used for farming. This leads to more deforestation and fewer trees mean more CO2 in the atmosphere.
Organic Seeds Are Hard to Come By
Organic cotton seeds are also hard to come by. When they are available, it’s difficult for farmers from developing countries (where a majority of cotton comes from) to procure them as they’re often given to textile conglomerates first. It is also costly and stressful for small farmers to make a risky investment on organic seeds and to be qualified and certified for organic farming.
20 Chemicals Are Still Used
The most obvious appeal of organic cotton is that pesticides and chemicals are not used, but is that even true? In the U.S. alone, at least 20 chemicals are commonly used on organic crops that are acceptable under U.S. organic rules – including: nicotine sulfate (toxic to warm-blooded animals) and rotenone (moderately toxic to most mammals but extremely toxic to fish).
Furthermore, according to the Hoover Institution, a study by the Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University in Israel found that “organic agriculture that relied on organic matter like composter manure resulted in significant down leaching of nitrate in groundwater.” Nitrate found in groundwater can often lead to methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome), and in adults can be associated with thyroid dysfunction and cancer.
In cases where little or no pesticides are used, the cotton is left at a greater risk to pests that can destroy the crop. This makes organic cotton a financial risk and also impacts suicide rates of Indian cotton farmers who are losing money through low cotton yields. Since 2013, almost 3,000 cotton farmers took their lives in the eastern region of Maharashtra, India.
Lastly, the desired sustainability hype behind organic cotton usually stops after the crop is picked. Organic cotton must still go through cleaning, which is often done by using toxic chemicals, making the product not truly organic in its final stages.
Which Is the Better Choice?
For these reasons, we have decided against using organic cotton for our products. We hope that this information helps you make informed decisions based on research —not powerful marketing tools—for you and your family.