"Organic" has been the buzzword of significance over the past decade in the food industry, and while it hasn't gained popularity in the fashion industry as quickly, it's on its way to becoming a mainstay, thanks in no small part to the rise of organic cotton.
It's opportune to be on the right side of history, and with responsibly grown cotton expected to soon represent 20 percent of the global crop, that history will be made sooner rather than later. With that in mind, let's commence a quick FAQ on the topic: Organic Cotton 101.
Put simply, organic cotton is any variation of the crop grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. This is typically done by replacing fertilizers with natural composts and rotating crops more frequently. Weeds are abated with innovative machinery or hand labor, and the matured crop is usually harvested by hand. Because harmful chemicals are absent, this makes the work safe for laborers.
Organic cotton > traditional cotton
Cotton is a highly chemical intensive crop. Conventionally grown cotton uses:
• 3% of the world's arable land
• 10% of all agricultural chemicals
• 25% of all insecticides
This is significant because cotton makes up 50 percent of the world's fiber needs. With 29 million tons produced annually around the world, cotton is among the most powerful cash crops in the world. A widespread shift from traditional to organic cotton would have major impacts due to the sheer size of the cotton industry. As it currently stands, traditional cotton consumes more chemical pesticides than any other crop.
Where it's produced
Currently, the leading producers of organic cotton are Turkey, Syria, Tanzania, Brazil, India, the U.S. and Australia. A promising sign for organic cotton is that it has succeeded in both more and less developed nations.
The largest producer of traditional cotton is China. Unfortunately, China's organic cotton production has remained stagnant for the past decade. Unlocking the key to increasing organic cotton growth in China is a high priority for proponents of the crop.
Despite a recent drop-off, the Textile Exchange (a nonprofit organization focused on sustainable practices) reports the organic cotton market is stabilizing and making incremental progress. An estimated 71 percent of retailers plan to increase their use of organic cotton going forward.
The 10 leading retail users of organic cotton by volume are: C&A, H&M, Nike, Puma, Coop Swiss, Anvil, William-Sonoma, Inditex, Carrefour and Target. As a whole, organic cotton costs 30 percent more than conventional, but at retail outlets like H&M, the price difference between an organic and regular shirt is negligible. In terms of non-clothing users, Swedish furniture retailer IKEA is a leader.
Effect on ecosystems
The prevalent approach to growing traditional cotton, or most any traditional crop, is to eradicate any pests that pose a threat to the crop. With organic cotton, a healthy balance of pests and their natural predators is encouraged. Organic cotton farmers utilize trap crops planted near their cotton to lure pests away (this also provides a habitat for natural predators of cotton pests, which are beneficial).
Quenching cotton's thirst
Cotton -- traditional or organic -- is among the thirstiest crops. Cotton production accounts for 2.6% of the global water footprint, and while organic cotton doesn't completely reduce need for water, it helps. Organic cotton farmers working as a part of the Better Cotton Fast Track Program in Mali, Pakistan and India use 20 percent less water than their traditionally farming peers.
Organic cotton isn't yet everywhere, but that day is coming soon. When considering the apparel industry is responsible for approximately 10 percent of the global carbon footprint, any way to reduce the environmental impact of our clothing should be taken seriously.