Textiles made from organic cotton are trendy. More and more people are opting for clothes that not only look good – but also protect the environment at the same time. But what exactly is organic cotton? How is organic cotton certified and does an organic cotton T-shirt create better working conditions? We clarify and answer the most important questions about organic cotton.
What is organic cotton?
Organic cotton is produced according to the guidelines of organic farming. In contrast to conventional cotton cultivation, the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers is prohibited. Organic cotton is grown alternately with other types of plants. These diverse crop rotations help maintain natural soil fertility. This also reduces the susceptibility to plant diseases and pests. Sowing other plants at the same time also avoids unnecessary use of pesticides. In East Africa, for example, sunflowers are planted around the cotton fields, which attract a major pest of cotton. Instead of artificial fertilizers, the farmers use manure and compost. This increases the humus content of the soil, which can store more water and CO2. In addition, the susceptibility to erosion is reduced.
Organic cotton is harvested by hand.
Chemical defoliants (such as the plant poison Roundup from the US agricultural company Monsanto) to facilitate machine harvesting are not used. The use of genetically modified plants is also prohibited. Buying a single t-shirt made from organic cotton saves around seven square meters of cultivation area from pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Although it is now grown in over 20 countries, organic cotton has only a negligibly small share of the world market at 1 percent.
Difference to conventional cotton
Cotton accounts for a quarter of the global insecticide market, plus 10% of the global pesticide market.
The use of genetically modified cotton varieties is being promoted in the USA and China . Such varieties are used there on more than 50% of the areas. In addition, a lot of chemical-synthetic fertilizers are used in conventional cotton . Organic cotton is grown without chemical-synthetic fertilizers and without pesticides .
Genetically modified seeds may not be used. A crop rotation (ie the organic cotton is grown alternately with other crops) the soil fertility is maintained or even improved. Fertilizing with manure and compost also contributes to this. By not using pesticides, farmers’ health improves and the impact on the environment is dramatically reduced . Since the ripe cotton bolls are picked by hand and without the use of defoliants, the groundwater is protected from contamination with pesticides.
The soil fertility is maintained through organic cultivation, the yields remain stable. The prescribed crop rotation gives smallholders the opportunity to market other organic products and thus make themselves more independent of cotton. Thanks to savings on fertilizers and pesticides, a higher price for cotton, the proceeds from catch crops and an organic premium, even smallholders are able to live without loans. And that although the yield of organic cotton is lower.
Who gets the organic certificate?
Whether food or textiles: The terms “ organic ”, “ eco ” and “from controlled organic cultivation ” are legally protected. Not everyone is allowed to call themselves organic – and those who want to be certified must adhere to the strict guidelines of organic farming.
The independent certification body checks compliance with the guidelines once a year. The production and the entire flow of goods of every certified organic company are then carefully examined. Even a minor violation of the guidelines can lead to the loss of the certificate.
Smallholders also often form communities. These usually have an internal system for quality control and compliance with organic guidelines.
What is the price of an organic t-shirt from organic farming?
The world market price for organic cotton is higher than for conventional cotton because it is only grown in small quantities and controls and training for farmers are included. The processing of organic textiles is really more expensive . Dyeing with natural dyes, for example, costs around 2 euros per kilogram of textile – chemical dyeing only 60 cents. Environmental and social standards in processing, the usually more time-consuming processes and the more expensive marketing mean that an item of clothing made from organic cotton is ultimately usually more expensive than a conventional one.
Cotton is kind to the skin and is easy to process. The simple processing option (both the spinnability of the fibers and the dyeing) is an important reason why cotton has become so popular compared to other natural fibers.
Is an organic cotton T-shirt completely organic?
No. The organic certificate refers exclusively to the organic cultivation of cotton. It has no influence on the production standards of the textile industry and does not control what happens when the cotton is further processed.
Nevertheless, a 100% environmentally friendly T-shirt made of organic cotton is of course possible. Pay attention to the corresponding test seals and certificates. These guarantee that the textile is completely free of harmful chemicals, solvents, azo dyes or heavy metals.
Is organic cotton always fair trade?
Unfortunately, no. The organic certificate does not guarantee fair or socially responsible working conditions. But organic cotton is a good alternative, especially for farmers outside of fair trade. Because: Compared to conventional agriculture, the working conditions for growing organic cotton are better and more sustainable:
- Organic cotton guarantees sustainable land use
- Small farmers do not have to use chemicals or pesticides that are harmful to the environment or health
- Instead of expensive and toxic fertilizers, compost and manure are used
- Smallholders can expand their organic stocks and grow other organic products
- With organic cotton, farmers achieve up to 20% higher profit margins and earn more
And because organic cotton is becoming more and more popular, more and more farmers and farmers prefer organic cultivation.
Are there alternatives to organic cotton t-shirts?
Yes, there are many alternatives. Because cotton is a demanding plant and cannot be grown everywhere: Cotton needs warm temperatures all year round, good soil, lots of water and even more sunshine. That is why there are now many manufacturers who produce recycling T-shirts, for example from the fibers of recycled PET bottles.