We are all well aware of the organic farming movement in the UK - producing pesticide-free food, whilst ensuring good soil quality for future crop production, and allowing a wide variety of wildlife to flourish. But why is organic cotton so important, when we don't actually eat the cotton, we just wear it?
Most people's perception is that because cotton is "grown", it must be environmentally friendly, especially when compared to synthetic fibres such as polyester. Unfortunately, things are much more complicated than that. Conventional cotton farming uses high levels of pesticide, and especially requires high use of the insecticides that are more acutely toxic to humans. To get an idea of the amounts used, one estimate is that cotton farming uses 16% of all the world's insecticides whilst accounting for 2.5% of agricultural land used. (Refs 2 & 3)
This heavy use of the toxic insecticides leads to poisonings and deaths among farm workers and their families. Not just a few poisonings, but millions each year (one source says up to 77 million poisonings per year) (ref 2). The poisonings happen by a variety of methods: accidental mis-handling, insufficient protective clothing, insufficient education in safe use of pesticides or just living and working in close proximity to the chemicals. Obviously it isn't just the farmers who are at risk, but their children and the rest of their families.
"The frequency of poisoning amongst Indian farmers is so high because most farmers spray manually without protective clothing. (ref 1)"
One very big change over the last 10 years has been the change to genetically modified seeds. The majority of cotton plants grown in the world are now genetically modified. Depending on your personal attitude towards GM farming, this has either improved the picture a little by reducing the amount of pesticide used, or it has increased the threat to the environment and our health. If you are interested in the impact of GM cotton read the section below.
Cotton is farmed in both developed and developing countries. In the developing world, cotton tends to be grown by small scale formers - a farmer with one or a small number of fields, growing little else but cotton on the same fields every year (when grown conventionally).
For cotton to be classed as organic, the cotton plants are grown without the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides or any genetic modifications to the seeds. This means that organic cotton farming is not an easy lifestyle - the farmers have to work hard. All weeds have to removed by mechanical means, often by hand-hoeing.
Over and above this, one of the main differences in farming style is that organic cotton farmers grow a variety of crops, not just cotton. They grow this variety in order to rotate the land, keeping soils fertile and stopping pests from "living" in the same place, year after year. These other crops either provide food for the family or can be sold at market.
The farmers need a good deal of knowledge in how to keep pests at bay by various means. They will grow other plants in and around the cotton plants to attract the pests away from the cotton. They can introduce "good bugs" to eat the pests, they will use traps, and they will use many of the methods that were used to grow cotton before widespread use of pesticides. Having good, fertile soil gives the plants a good start in life. This also reduces the amount of water required, as the soil will naturally hold on to more.
Organic farming doesn't mean working against science, there is a lot of scientific input involved in modern organic farming. However, this science involves working with nature, rather than with the use of artificial chemicals. Currently, about 1% of the entire worldwide cotton production is organic.
Why Choose Organic Cotton?
All of the organic cotton clothes we sell are made from ringspun combed cotton. This is the best grade of spun cotton you will find in the t-shirt and promotional garment industry - meaning your clothes will be soft to the touch and very comfortable to wear.
The main two brands we sell for organic cotton garments are the Sol's brand and the BabyBugz range for babies. The Westford Mill brand also carry various organic cotton bags. All are available from our Extended Range Catalogue.
For explanation of Oeko Tex 100 (OE100), OCS and GOTS certification systems of organic cotton see the section below called "Certification Schemes for Organic Cotton".
There are various different schemes for making sure the consumer is confident that their cotton has been organically produced. Some of these have different scopes.
These are the scheme that ensures that the cotton leaving the farm is 100% organic. It can then be processed (spun, dyed, made into garments) using standard methods. The schemes enable medium/large brands to sell clothing made from 100% organic cotton at reasonably similar prices to garments made from conventional cotton.
It doesn't give a "total solution", for example, the dyes used will be not be organic, but it means that the "main boxes are ticked" for most people who choose organic cotton. The very big positive with this scheme is that it provides a much bigger market for the organic cotton farmers to sell their cotton into.
This is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including cotton. It ensures that the cotton is grown organically, and then it also covers the processing of the cotton right to the finished garment. It also covers social controls, eg employee working conditions, for the entire supply chain.
You could say that this certification method gives the "pure" organic product. Prices will obviously be higher for these garments, but you can be sure that any garments bought are to the very highest of environmental and social standards.
The BabyBugz brand garments, in our Extended Range Catalogue, are made to this level of certification.
Genetically modified cotton seeds have been commercially available on a wide scale since the early 2000's and have been the dominant way of growing cotton since 2007/2008. The genetic modifications aim to protect the cotton plants against the worst insect pest, in this case the bollworm, so that farmers can use less insecticides on their crops.
However, GM cotton plants still require pesticides. Currently, GM grown cotton crops use 50% of the pesticides that would have been used for conventionally grown non-GM cotton crops. But half of a huge amount of pesticide is still a lot of pesticide. Pesticide poisonings amongst farm workers have similarly reduced, but there are still a massive number of pesticide poisonings, especially in developing countries. In India, the number of poisonings has reduced by 88% since the introduction of GM cotton. Even so, on average, each farmer is still poisoned once every 5.5 years.(Ref 1)
The first instance of the bollworm (the main target pest of the genetic modification) becoming resistant to the one of the toxins in the GM crops in India was found in 2009. This shows that GM crops, at their best, are no more than a useful tool against the long term battle against pests.
The effects of the change to GM do not stop at the levels of pesticides used. Of equal importance are the effects of there being very few suppliers of GM seeds, especially in the developing world. These are often the same suppliers of the pesticides, so a very small numbers of huge companies currently have great power over many millions of cotton farmers.
More information on the benefits of organic cotton farming (go to the bottom of this page for some really good information tables) (from textileexchange.org).
How organic cotton is grown (from textileexchange.org)
Ref 1. http://fundacion-antama.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/BackgroundReport_BT_Cotton.pdf
Ref 2. http://www.cottonedon.org/Portals/1/Briefing.pdf
Ref 3. https://www.icac.org/seep/documents/reports/2010_interpretative_summary.pdf
Cotton boll photo from : http://farmhub.textileexchange.org/learning-zone/learning-journey/growing-cotton
Printing and embroidery on the garments is not certified as organic.