Organic Cotton is often discussed as an eco-friendly fiber because it has a minimal impact when it comes to polluting earth's resources. Organic cotton is produced without the use of toxic pesticides, insecticides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For many, organic cotton could also be considered ethical cotton - due to the way it impacts the life of the farmer. In many ways, organic cotton is a better method for farmers to use than conventional methods.
One of the most obvious ways by which organic cotton positively impacts the life of a farmer is the absence of harmful insecticides and pesticides in organic cotton farming. This protects both the farmers' lives and the surrounding environment. (Cottoned On) In developing countries, there are up to 20,000 deaths each year caused by pesticide poisoning. Pesticide residue can be found in nearby lakes, rivers, and waterways, as well as foods, farm animals and breast milk. Each year, over 10,000 US farmers die from cancer caused by these chemicals. The agrichemicals are particularly harmful to young children who can develop debilitating neurodevelopmental effects. (Dietz)
Organic farmers also have less risk of accidental poisoning or suicide by poisoning. (Benefits of Organic) In Mali, some villagers who were unable to read or interpret pesticide warning signs drank water from empty pesticide containers, resulting in fatalities. (Siegle p141) In India in 2008, there were 10,797 suicides (about 70% of all suicides in India) in the area of the Cotton Bowl - Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. (Siegle p142) These deaths can be attributed to the debt and despair that Indian farmers face due to low cotton yields with the direct cause being ingesting the pesticide of their trade.
Organic cotton uses natural fertilizer rather than synthetic, therefore the surrounding bodies of water are not polluted and the drinking water is kept safe and clean. Organic cotton has been shown to have a 98% lower impact on water pollution than conventional cotton. (Cottoned On) Additionally some methods of organic farming, such as rainfed farming, use less water than conventional cotton. The "Revitalizing Rainfed Agriculture Network" in India helps to educate farmers on the benefits of investing in soil organic matter and soil fertility to maximize production under rainfed conditions. (Organic Agriculture & Water Use)
Organic farmers grow a variety of crops in order to ward off pests and to maintain fertile, healthy soil. Using the traditional farming methods of crop rotation, farmers are able to fix nitrogen into the soil. (Siegle p264) Healthy soil can be used as a 'carbon sink' removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Growing food and other crops in additional to cotton helps organic farmers to insure against climate variability and crop failure. (Cottoned On)
In most cases organic farming will be more profitable to farmers than conventional farming. The profitability depends on the farming method used and the location of the farm. Various countries can have drastically different yields of cotton. For example, India has lower yields per hectare than most other countries. Lucy Siegle states, "The average cotton farm in Punjab yields just 180kg per hectare. By contrast in Pakistan is 1,867 kg per hectare, and in China the figure is 3,878." (Siegle p139) There are, however, quite a few examples of how organic farming has the potential to be more profitable for cotton farmers.
To start, organic cotton has lower external inputs so that farmers are not going into debt. Farmers can work within their limits and their environment because these are locally available. (Cottoned On)
Secondly, in addition to contributing to healthy soil, diversifying crops can help farmers as a kind of agricultural insurance. For example, if one crop fails, they still have another to feed their family or to sell as secondary income. Growing extra crops helps farmers to insure against variances in market demand. (Cottoned On)
Finally, organic farmers receive a 20% premium on their goods for going organic, making it a worthwhile investment. (Siegle p264) To be clear, it is a time-consuming investment. To completely transition to organic and remove any trace of agrichemicals from the soil takes about three years. In the meantime however, there are opportunities for farmers to receive other premiums for "transitional" or "pre-organic" cotton. (Siegle p266) Better Cotton Initiative is an organization that works with cotton farmers in their unique environment to assist in making strides towards going organic and growing cotton in a more sustainable way. The premiums that farmers receive for their organic cotton affords them the ability to feed and educate their children, dig wells, afford healthcare and a place to store their goods.
Whether ecology or ethics influence your purchasing decisions, organic cotton can satisfy any green goddess' desire to shop more mindfully.
by Marie Heffernan
“Have You Cottoned On Yet? The organic cotton initiative” Cottoned On. Web. March 8, 2019. http://cottonedon.org
“Benefits of Organic” The Farm Hub Organic by Choice. Textile Exchange. Web. March 8, 2019. http://farmhub.textileexchange.org/learning-zone/all-about-organic-cotton/benefits-of-organic
“Organic Agriculture and Water Use” The Farm Hub Organic by Choice. Textile Exchange. Web. March 8, 2019. http://farmhub.textileexchange.org/learning-zone/all-about-organic-cotton/environmental-impacts/-water
Dietz, David. “Protecting Our Planet and Protecting Ourselves: The Importance of Organic Cotton.” Huffington Post. September 10, 2013. Web. March 8, 2019. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-dietz/organic-cotton-sustainable-fashion_b_3562788.html
Siegle, Lucy. To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World? London: Fourth Estate. 2011.
“2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge, First Annual Report 2018.” Textile Exchange. 2019. PDF. March 8, 2019.