Cotton is known as “the fabric of our lives”. It´s a loved and universal fiber which is used for bedsheets, bath towels, clothes and more. However, not all cotton is the same. Cotton is a natural fiber which is, in general, better than chemical fibers like polyester that don´t biodegrade. Organic cotton is as the name suggests, better than non-organic cotton which has been used for centuries. Organic cotton is not a perfect solution in the sustainable fabric universe but it is better and purer than the “conventional cotton”, as it is often referred to. So, let´s dive in.
Cotton is made from the natural and robust fibers of cotton plants. A 100% cotton shirt uses 300g of cotton depending on the size. Cotton feels soft and is absorbent.
Cotton plants are from the tropics and need a lot of water. But cotton can´t be harvested in rainy areas because the cotton wools would get full of water and would be ruined before you could harvest it. Therefore cotton is cultivated in dry areas like India, China or Uzbekistan.
I found a lot of articles that claim organic cotton farms use less water and have more efficient water systems. But this is shady as I found out when I emailed Elke Hortmeyer from the Bremer Cotton Exchange.
A German press download from the Bremen Cotton Exchange from March 2019 states that the latest worldwide studies conducted by the scientific department of the Washington-based International Cotton Secretariat (ICAC) show that on average only 1,214 liters of water from artificial irrigation is needed worldwide to produce one kilogram of ginned cotton. To put this in percentage, only 300g of cotton is needed for a 100% cotton shirt depending on the size. This means that “41.3 percent of the total cotton production does not require artificial irrigation.” 4
In many articles, I have also found that more money is invested in expensive droplets or furrow irrigation to water the cotton plant in organic cotton farming that can save up to 40% of water.
The German press download of the Bremen Cotton Exchange goes on, saying that in recent years cotton producers in many countries have been using modern irrigation systems, which has led to an enormous increase in the effectiveness of water use. “It is now possible to produce considerably more cotton with less water.” 4
At this point I was really confused. While many sources throughout the internet claim cotton to be a thirsty and dirty plant but the Bremen Cotton Exchange, that has existed since 1872, addresses different facts. Therefore I wrote an email to Elke Hortmeyer from the Bremer Cotton Exchange who is the author of the press download and asked for more explanations. I specifically asked her if organic cotton is irrigated in a more environmentally friendly and efficient way leading to less water waste, or if the new irrigation systems are already being used for “conventional cotton” also.
This was her answer:
“There is both rain irrigation and artificial irrigation in cotton. It is true that the yields in cotton cultivation are higher if the cotton is irrigated in a targeted manner. A higher yield is important for the farmer because it is more economically attractive. However, some regions also have sufficient rainfall, so that the yields are at least satisfactory. Here too, it makes no difference whether organic or conventional. Other areas, especially in developing countries, do not have the possibility of artificial irrigation and are dependent on rainfall and must hope that it falls sufficiently. Modern, economical irrigation systems go hand in hand with agricultural progress, the training of farmers, their level of education and the technical level of agriculture in the country. In Israel, the USA or Australia, water is handled highly efficiently, e. g. recycled water is used, this also exists in Pakistan. India, the largest production country in the world, has contact with Israel to improve its own methods. But all this has nothing to do with whether or not organic farming is used.”
She also tells me that because the share of organic cotton on the world market is only 0.7%, it is hard to get clear and verifiable statements but she would doubt articles that describe organic cotton as more water-saving. After all the interesting insights Elke Hortmeyer gave me, I am very careful with claims that organic cotton needs less water which doesn´t withdraw the other benefits of organic cotton.
What percentage of cotton is organic?
Roughly 75 percent of all worldwide garments are supposedly made from cotton. For example, half of the clothes sold in the UK are made from cotton. 2
Organic cotton represents so far only 0.7% of all cotton that is produced. Nevertheless, organic cotton production has increased by 56% in 2017-2018 according to the Organic Cotton Market Research from 2019. 1
One reason is also that for the same amount of farming, conventionally grown cotton has 20% higher yield. The variety of organic cotton is therefore not as high as the 99.3% of conventionally grown cotton, but due to customer's demand, this will positively change in the next years.
1 Eco Textile News, 15 November 2019
2 Cotton on: the staggering potential of switching to organic clothes, 1st of October 2019
3 Textile Exchange, THE LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT OF ORGANIC COTTON FIBER SUMMARY OF FINDINGS, 2014
4 Bremer Baumwollbörse: BAUMWOLLE UND WASSER: KEINE DURSTIGE PFLANZE, 21st of March 2019