What’s the Difference: Organic vs Old-Fashioned Cotton

Cotton is one of the world’s most popular and versatile textile but most people don’t know about the difference between organic and old-fashioned cotton separating the facts from the myths.

It is often said that it is the “fabric of our lives” since it has been widely used for over 8,000 years of human history from Egypt to China. It was widespread cotton manufacturing that kick-started the Industrial Revolution with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. Labor-intensive cotton production in European colonies in West Africa and India were eventually replaced by efficient mechanized operations in American plantations by the mid-19th century. It even played an important role in the outcome of the bloody American Civil War and even the growth of the Indian independence movement. By the early half of the 20th century, the growth in the use of synthetic fabrics like nylon, polyester and spandex has all but seem eclipsed traditional textile production. It was only when the US passed the Cotton Research and Promotion Act of 1966 that cotton made a big comeback. Today, cotton remains a major US export while China has emerged as the world’s largest producer. Its practical application has evolved from our favorite T-shirt to advanced composite material used in the aerospace industry.

The fiber of this tropical shrub is usually spun into yarn or thread and processed to form a soft, breathable textile that we all know. Although, most cotton producers have turned to mechanization and sophisticated production lines, many are still implementing age-old, labor-intensive processes to meet growing demand. In recent years, there is a growing trend towards environmentally-sustainable processes since traditional cotton production covers a substantial area of the world’s cultivated land, uses high amount of pesticides and water and requires a lot of manpower from planting crops to processing the final end product.

At the end of the day, there are ethical questions over the human and environmental cost of cotton production. Why choose organic cotton over its traditional, non-organic counterpart? What are the things to consider?

Most experts agree that cotton is considered as the world’s “dirtiest crop.” Why? It consumes up to 16% of the world’s insecticides and costs over $2 billion a year. With the wide-scale use of insecticides and pesticides, there is an environmental impact on where cotton is planted from soil contamination to air and water pollution. Not only that, there is also a significant ecological impact as well with deaths of animals due to exposure to contaminants brought about by traditional cotton production.

Unlike organic cotton farming, industrialized cotton producers use genetically-modified seeds to increase the yield at the expense of consumer safety. Crop rotation is observed so that the soil can regain its nutrients. Weeds are controlled through physical removal and not through chemical means.

With the growth of global consumption of non-organic cotton, there is also a significant correlation with the increase of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. That is 220 million tons a year, a figure that makes it even more important to increase organic cotton production as a ton of non-organic cotton fiber produces 1.8 tons of CO2. Just image how much environmental damage it causes and its overall impact to the rise of global warming. It is never too late to go for sustainable and eco-friendly processes in order to remove a significant amount of carbon footprint in the production of cotton products.

Do you know how much water is needed to produce your favorite cotton T-shirt? Believe it or not, it takes over 2,700 liters of water just to produce it. That is roughly 100 liters of your favorite drink every day in a month!

Wasting that much water for a cotton shirt is not efficient since only 3% of the Earth’s water is freshwater and only a third of that 3% we all consume. That means, we are reducing drinking water that often goes to cotton production. To put it in proper perspective, about a billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water due to poor sanitation and soil contamination. Just imagine, how much water is conserved if we cut down 10,000 liters of water just to produce a kilo of cotton fiber. Going organic will cut that water use into half or maybe more than that.

The cotton industry remains time-consuming and labor-intensive as most producers are still using traditional methods. In fact, over 100 million people are still engaged in growing cotton and over 300 million work in every aspect of the production line. However, most cotton farmers and workers live in developing countries where they earn less and work long hours in abysmal conditions. Unfavorable factors like climate change, decreasing cotton prices and tough foreign competition affect profitability, so many unscrupulous cotton producers went into the extreme of cutting the costs down. As a result, many workers have incurred unsustainable debts and forced to be trafficked as indentured slaves. We may wonder why cotton is cheap even though it involves a long, labor-intensive process — it is because someone on the other side of the world has already paid the price for it.

Going for eco-friendly cotton removes the middlemen and the vicious unfair labor practices associated with traditional cotton production.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has identified 15 most common pesticides used on cotton that has known human carcinogens like acephate, dichloropropene, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos and trifluralin. According to the World Health Organization, over 20,000 individuals die of cancer and miscarriages each year in developing countries as a result of the chemicals sprayed on conventional cotton. It is expected that most farm workers working in traditional cotton plantations around the world are likely to suffer from asthma, neurological disorders and cancer due to over exposure to hazardous pesticides.

When you buy organic cotton products, you are supporting eco-friendly and sustainable ways of cotton production thereby cutting down this health risk figures.

Most major manufacturers use the highest-grade organic cotton on its bedsheets, duvet cover and pillow cases to ensure you get that comfortable, good night sleep. The organic cotton used meets the Global Organic Textile Standard, a worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers that is independently certified by the entire textile supply chain.

Organic cotton is more comfortable to wear. There are no toxic chemicals in the fabric and that makes it hypoallergenic and not harmful to your skin. Every cotton is handpicked and sorted in order to preserve the purity of every fiber. Since it has not been treated with toxic chemicals, most major cotton products have soft, natural and hypoallergenic fibers that makes it more durable and comfortable.

Traditional cotton fibers can likely trigger skin allergies since these have chemical treatments and dyes. Leading manufacturers make sure that people suffering from allergies and other skin conditions can see dramatic improvement of their condition once they switch to their organic cotton bedsheets and pillow covers.

When you choose organic cotton, you are saving the environment, avoiding health risks brought about by toxic chemicals and other allergens, and helping sustain small, independently-owned eco-friendly cotton farms and production facilities.

Originally published in my blog on 22 October 2018.



Historian, blogger, genealogist, copywriter & video game geek. Check out my bio at bio.link/jpcanonigo.

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J.P. Canonigo

Historian, blogger, genealogist, copywriter & video game geek. Check out my bio at bio.link/jpcanonigo.