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ORGANIC COTTON: ITS HISTORY AND BENEFITS

R4 CLOTHING LTD | July 2021 | 9 min read

SUMMARY:

Whilst cotton has been nicknamed ‘white gold’ or a ‘cash crop’ and acts as the lynchpin to many economies, people are becoming increasingly aware of cotton’s role as a villain in achieving sustainability. Organic cotton production systems, are trying to mitigate these disruptive environmental impacts by growing cotton without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides, as well as aiming to value the people that farm it. 

This story provides a brief introduction to the history of organic cotton and how its textiles are produced before delving into its widespread benefits and the consequent inevitable growth in organic cotton usage.

HISTORY

There is much uncertainty to where the first cotton cloth originated. The earliest evidence of the use of cotton traces back to the Neolithic era in the Indian Subcontinent, where cotton threads have been found preserved in copper beads. Archaeologists have found evidence that people in India and in Central and South America were weaving cotton into fabric over 4,000 years ago. They were grown without the use of any pesticides or fertilizers, and this technique continued throughout the warmer regions in Asia and America by the end of the 16th century. Only after the invention of the cotton gin during the Industrial Revolution (which made the separation of fibres from seeds easier), did it become used extensively on a larger scale. The invention of the spinning machine and cotton gin was a great help to cotton manufacturing and lowered the cost of the production. From that point, cotton had become the most sought out natural fibre in both the clothing trade and manufacturing.

HOW IS ORGANIC COTTON MADE?

The first stage of the process is planting the cotton seed. Once the cotton plant has grown cotton farmers will then pick the cotton by hand. During the production and growth of organic cotton, no pesticides or chemical fertilizers are used. Farmers, instead, use a rich compost and remove the pests by hand. Then, it undergoes a cotton ginning process, i.e., a generic term used to imply the complete process in effectively turning cotton bolls into fibres. The cotton balls are picked and delivered directly to the ginning factory by truck. This is where the cotton is fed into the ginning machine that separates the cotton fibres from the seedpods to efficiently remove any dirt, stems, leaves and linters. Next, cotton goes through a spinning process in which fibres pass through the carding machine that separates the fibres to become yarn. During this process, the cotton is thoroughly cleaned through a rigorous cleaning process. Once the cotton has been transformed into a knitted cotton fabric it is then put on a truck to be taken to the dyeing factories. 

ORGANIC COTTON CERTIFICATION?

Organic cotton certification tracks the identity and use of organise cotton through a series of certificates; they are revealing the fashion of which the cotton is grown. There are three main types:

  1. Farm certificates ensure that the cotton produced meets organic farming standards, e.g., for cotton to be certified organic, it must also be grown in soil that has been free of prohibited substances for at least three years prior to harvest....

  2. Scope certificate ensures that the company is qualified to produce organic cotton

  3. Transaction certificate tracks the organic cotton from one hand to another, e.g. the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification, for example, is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres and requires producers to go through rigorous checking processes at every point of the supply chain before receiving certification.

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ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS

REDUCE WATER POLLUTION: Toxic chemicals used in conventional cotton production are polluting waters, reducing water quality, and have real knock-off effects (e.g., biodiversity). Alternatively, organic production of cotton avoids this and utilises less water. An average sized t- shirt saves over 1,982 gallons of water compared to the results of chemically grown cotton...

 

ZERO-USE CHEMICALS: Cotton is notorious for being one of the world’s most chemically intensive crops. Conventional cotton production soaks up 16-25% of the total pesticides produced worldwide, even though the crop itself only covers about 2.5% of the world’s total agricultural land. Organic cotton reduces this statistic.

 

DECREASED ENERGY DEMAND: A life cycle analysis for organic cotton found that energy demand, (calculated on a per yield basis), was 62% lower than that of conventional cotton. The total global warming potential of organic cotton was inspected and found to be 46% lower than that of conventional cotton.

INCREASE BIODIVERSITY: Finally, a large body of literature suggests that organic farming systems can play a role in biodiversity conservation. Common organic farming practices benefit a wide range of organisms. Compared to conventional farms, organic farms generally support a greater diversity of carabid beetles, earthworms, bees and other native pollinators, soil microbes and fungi, and small rodents.

ECONOMIC BENEFITS

DIVERSE CROPS: Diverse crops also provide value by increasing diversity below ground, resulting in a more resilient soil. This induces a positive multiplier effect if you consider that a stronger soil, leads to a bounty with longevity.

 

IT’S TRENDING: According to the Organic Trade Association’s 2012 Organic Industry Survey, organic fibre sales in the United States grew by 17.1 percent over the previous year and reached

$708 million. Thus, the popularisation of organic fibre products and their appearance in more mainstream outlets, means that the economic benefits have just started...

CHEAPER: Organic cotton is cheaper than genetically modified seeds as they are more expensive to buy and need chemicals to make non-organic cotton resistant to pests and diseases. The absence of chemicals negates the use of storage facilities which increases farming costs too.

HUMAN BENEFITS

HEALTH: According to the Pesticide Action Network UK, “cotton crops cover 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but use 6% of the world’s pesticides, more than any other single major crop.” There is an overwhelming amount of research exposing higher incidents of serious diseases and development problems from exposure to agricultural chemicals...

 

EMPLOYMENT OPPPORTUNITIES: As it is already grown in over 20 countries worldwide, e.g., India, Syria, and Brazil, it opens a whole new employment sector and initiates a greater conversation in sustainability...

FEMALE EMPOWERMENT: 97% organic cotton producer groups encourage women participation. With organic cotton industry’s ability to diversify and provide additional income, it subsequently adds to individual’s overall sense of security. Therefore, these local-scale benefits mean great developments being made on a macro-scale - towards the SDG’s! It’s a step in the right direction for a brighter future...