Organic cotton, the cleaner and greener alternative to conventional cotton, has rapidly grown in popularity over the past decade. But it still has its critics. Compared to the flaws of other materials heavily used in fashion, is it fair to hate organic cotton?
The widely spread statistics about organic cotton are not entirely accurate.
The most common rebuttal against cotton, specifically organic cotton, is that it takes a lot of water to grow. This is not entirely accurate. Different amounts of water are used depending on region, crop variety, and farming techniques used. It is impossible to come up with a numerical statistic that encompasses all cotton-growing worldwide. Nonetheless, short, catchy generalizations are used all the time when discussing materials in sustainable fashion. Upon a closer look, you will find that organic cotton can actually grow exclusively with collected rainwater, even in arid regions. Elizabeth Cline wrote about this in a piece for Another Tomorrow Magazine. This passage from that article sums up cotton's bad reputation with water.
"I carried a swirl of preconceptions about organic cotton down with me to Texas. The first is that cotton is water-thirsty. (It's one I've personally circulated in my book, The Conscious Closet, and in my reporting for publications such as The New York Times.) That theory fell apart as soon as I stepped foot onto Carl Pepper's expansive farm, where he's able to grow one bale of cotton an acre on rainwater alone in a good year. As it turns out, the cotton plant is very drought-tolerant, which is why most of the farms south of desert-like Lubbock are covered in the stuff. If we're comparing it to polyester, a fossil fuel fabric, cotton is water-thirsty—but that's because it's a plant. And plants, like people, require water to survive, making this a fairly uninteresting if not moot point."
Organic cotton has the ability to be better than it already is.
As Elizabeth Cline discovered, some farms are operating better than the statistics suggest they can. That is one of the benefits of natural materials over synthetics. Natural materials can be as environmentally-friendly as a farmer wants them to be. Synthetics can only improve to a certain point considering their relation to the fossil fuel, chemicals, and waste industries. Recycled polyester, for example, has flaws that can't be remedied. It is not biodegradable, it can only be recycled so many times while maintaining its structure, and it sheds microplastics. Those are flaws that will always exist to some degree with synthetic materials. Natural materials, on the other hand, can be altered and improved to be increasingly sustainable. Organic cotton can be grown with less water than previously thought. Farming practices like crop rotation can create soil that absorbs more carbon than it has in the past. Dyes and chemicals can be altered to be less toxic, making fibers like cotton better for our health and the planet. And when all the known sustainability initiatives have been implemented with natural materials, newer, more innovative initiatives can be created thanks to research bodies like Evolved by Nature. Organic cotton can be infinitely better if we will it to be; that cannot be said about every fabric.
Organic cotton has a bright future even with its current reputation.
With more brands embracing sustainability, organic cotton is having its moment in the spotlight. While operational changes are difficult and costly to implement, material changes are easy and relatively affordable. Switching from conventional cotton to organic cotton is an easy way for brands to begin their sustainability journey. Hence, so many big-name fast fashion brands and luxury labels have set out goals to source their natural materials from organic or low-toxic farms. Over time rising demand for organic cotton will result in more farms ditching the chemicals for cleaner practices. So whether or not organic cotton is the perfect solution at the moment, it will still be a preferable alternative in the future.
The Bottom Line:
Statistics taken out of context and the inability to see the impact that individual farms can have led to the idea that organic cotton is a flawed material. In reality, organic cotton is a decent alternative to the conventional crop or synthetics, and it will only get better with innovation
The Controversy Over Cotton (Another Tomorrow)