The Case for Organic Cotton

clothes by Brooke Cagle
Unsplash: Brooke Cagle

Gary Oldham’s family had been farming cotton in Texas for over 100 years, and in 1992, his farms were officially certified organic. At the time, the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) had just launched their organic certification program, and few people had even heard of organic cotton.

“I didn’t want to farm with chemicals because it was too expensive and it wore out the land. I didn’t want to raise my children around that,” Oldham says.

To help bolster Oldham’s business, the TDA offered him a list of potential clients interested in raw organic cotton. But one woman on the list asked for organic cotton T-shirts.

“I didn’t have a clue how to start making such a thing, but I said I would try,” Oldham says.

A few months later, he launched S.O.S. From Texas, selling organic cotton T-shirts and knit products cultivated from his certified-organic farm. “When you buy organic cotton, you’re supporting a lifestyle that benefits the land and prevents chemicals from entering the body. We need to leave something for the next generation,” he says. Since Oldham started his business, the organic industry has exploded, and organic cotton fibers are now used in everything from personal care items and home furnishings to children’s toys and all types of clothes.

Thanks to the pioneering efforts of businesses like Oldham’s, clothing giants like Nike and Gap are starting to embrace organic cotton, meaning that it soon could catch up to the popularity levels of organic food as concerned consumers learn more about its benefits.

Whenever possible, choose organic cotton products over those made of conventional cotton. You’ll preserve the health of workers and communities; keep tons of pesticides out of our air, soil, and water; and help sustain the growing popularity of this versatile, comfortable fiber.

The Problem with Conventional Cotton

Conventional cotton farming is one of the most environmentally destructive agricultural practices—harming the air, water, soil, and farmers’ health and safety. The blame for that harm lies mainly with the huge amounts of pesticides used in conventional cotton farming. Although cotton occupies three percent of the world’s farmland, it uses more than ten percent of the pesticides, a category that includes herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants.

Pesticides are most often sprayed from the air, so they spread easily to surrounding neighborhoods. Only an estimated ten percent of this flood of chemicals actually accomplish their goal. The rest are absorbed by plants, soil, air, water, and our bodies—killing wildlife and harming ecosystems. The US Fish & Wildlife Service reports that millions of fish and birds are killed every year from the legal application of pesticides.

Pesticides can also adversely affect the health of cotton workers and those living near cotton fields. The US Environmental Protection Agency has labeled seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton as “possible,” “likely,” “probable,” or “known” human carcinogens. Other pesticide-related health problems include birth defects, long-term memory loss, headaches, nausea, or problems with the nervous system, reproductive system, and immune system. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 20,000 people die each year in developing countries as a result of the chemicals sprayed on non-organic cotton and UN estimates from 2017 reach as high as 200,000 deaths. 

Protecting People and the Planet

When it comes to cotton, the solution to the pesticide problem is to go organic. Organic cotton is grown without chemical fertilizers, defoliants, pesticides, or herbicides, and from untreated, non genetically-modified seed. Farmers rotate crops to replenish and maintain the soil’s fertility, and they control pests and weeds naturally, using insect predators, traps, or botanical pesticides that are broken down quickly by oxygen and sunlight.

As a result, organic farming is healthier and safer for farmers, fieldworkers, and nearby communities. Growing cotton organically also benefits small-scale farmers who don’t have the means to buy expensive pesticides. And organic cotton farming uses significantly less water and electric power than conventional cottonfarming techniques.

Keep in mind, however, that federal organic standards only cover the raw fiber harvesting process. Once the organic cotton fiber leaves the farm, there are no federal standards in place for further processing—so your organic cotton fabrics could be treated with harmful chlorine bleaches, heavy metal dyes, and finishers containing suspected carcinogens and other toxins.

“For the consumer, the most toxic part of clothing comes from fabric treatments. Chemicals that resist flames, water, moths, stains, soil, and wrinkles have been impregnated into the fabric and are often very hard to remove through washing,” says Annie Bond, author of Home Enlightenment. The Organic Trade Association has developed voluntary organic standards that address all stages of textile processing, including bleaching, dyeing, printing, product assembly, storage and transportation, pest management, and labeling.

Of course, choosing any kind of organic cotton products over conventional cotton keeps chemicals out of the environment and protects human health. But your best option is to buy organic cotton from companies that also avoid chemical bleaches, dyes, and finishers. When you shop for organic cotton products, ask companies whether they have organic production standards in place or have committed to the OTA’s standards.

Green businesses in particular have embraced the idea of making their organic cotton products sustainable from the farm to the store. For example, Earth Creations sells organic cotton and other natural fiber clothing made with nontoxic clay dyes and no chemical bleaches or finishers. In addition, their clothing is made in the USA by factories that are monitored for worker health and safety.

“There is a right way and a wrong way to make clothes,” says Earth Creations owner Joy Maples. “Organic benefits everyone. It feels great and looks great. And it has so many long-term benefits. It sustains the whole world, not just the US."

A Growing Industry: The Giants Jump In

Signs indicate that organic cotton is poised for major growth. Years ago, organic fibers were hard to find, but now major retailers—along with innovative green businesses—are incorporating organic cotton into their products, especially clothing.

Popular outdoor gear companies Patagonia, Timberland, and Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op have used organic cotton for years. Timberland plans for all of its cotton products to be 100 percent organic by 2011.

Following in their footsteps, clothing giants Levi’s, Gap, and Nike now use organic cotton blends in some of their products. Although their organic cotton use equals less than three percent of their total cotton use, they now represent three of the largest organic cotton purchasers in the country.

In addition, eco-chic was all the rage at FutureFashion, a special show during this year’s New York Fashion Week that featured clothes made from organic fibers. Popular designers such as Diane von Furstenberg and Oscar de la Renta created clothing from organic cotton, wool, and hemp.

“The natural fibers market is following in the footsteps of organic groceries,” explains Shari Keller, owner and designer of Mehera Shaw, which uses organic cotton fabrics from India. “Organic cotton is really coming into the mainstream.”

“Even people who don’t live a green lifestyle are aware of it,” agrees Maples. “It’s in their face now.” But it’s the green companies who are leading the way in terms of sustainable practices, says Denise Hamler, Green America’s director of green business programs. “Some of the most cutting-edge initiatives in design, technology, and products are coming from Green America’s Green Business Network™ members that are featured in the National Green Pages ,” she says. 

How You Can Boost Organic Cotton

There are many things you can do to push for more organic cotton on the market.

  • Choose organic clothes: When you shop for cotton clothing for men, women, children, and babies, go organic whenever possible. Be sure to ask companies offering organic cotton if they have organic production standards in place to keep all chemicals out of their clothes. Find a list of stores in your area that sell organic cotton.
  • Look for other organic cotton products: Organic cotton isn’t just for clothes. You can find organic cotton bed and crib mattresses, towels, sheets, shopping bags, stuffed toys, cloth diapers, and other items in stores and online.
  • Support the greenest businesses offering organic cotton. More than 150 members of Green America's Green Business Network™ offer organic cotton clothing and other products.
  • Go organic for promotional items. When you or your organization or business needs promotional items like T-shirts and bags, choose those made from organic cotton. Check the “Promotional Resources” category of our National Green Pages™, or visit the OTA Web site.
  • Talk to retailers. Write letters and talk to local retailers, asking them to carry organic fiber products. If they already do, ask if they have organic production standards, as well.

“How can we not go organic?” asks Maples. “There’s shouldn’t be any other option.”