Written by Ivory King
Shopping for our kids’ clothes can be fun, but we also have to weigh so many choices. It often feels like we are making existential decisions based solely on the mysterious logos on t-shirt hang tags. Price, durability and feel are big factors in making choices, but if we are familiar with the concepts of organic clothing and their benefits, these become important factors as well. But exactly how is organic cotton different from normal cotton?
Organic cotton vs cotton
The apparel industry’s demand for cotton creates an enormous environmental impact - it takes a huge amount of pesticides and water to grow, and causes a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In order to make one t-shirt (about one pound of cotton), ⅓ pound of pesticides is used. If you imagine all the shirts you own right now, let alone all of the shirts you will own over the course of a lifetime, those pounds of pesticides add up. While most of them are removed in the manufacturing process, they have to go somewhere - they get absorbed by the air, the water supply where they are grown, and some of the remainder runs into our local water supply when we wash our new clothes.
These pesticides make up a significant amount of what is used around the world. In the US, cotton ranks third in pesticide use, accounting for 38 million pounds in 2014. In India, one of the top global producers of cotton, over half of total pesticides are used in cotton production. But the benefits of organic farming and processing are causing the practice to grow. Bigger brands are able to buy large volumes of organic cotton, creating more access for customers to organic clothing, and consumer awareness is also creating more demand.
Organic cotton certifications
Chemicals such as herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers are all subject to local regulations and the needs of the land and farmers. There can be a stark difference between what substances are allowed to be used on crops depending on the country, and also the strain of cotton being planted. Even the term “organic” can have different meanings depending on what certification a farmer, textile mill or apparel label is applying for. So it is helpful to know what different labelling requirements and certification criteria are when we see their logos on websites or in the store.
In the US, we see the USDA Organic certification, though mostly on food products. There is also the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which certifies the factories and mills that art & eden sources from. USDA Organic certifies only the fiber according to agricultural guidelines, but GOTS takes an all-inclusive approach. Under this standard, growing, manufacturing and finishing processes all have their own set of guidelines, while farms, facilities and workers have safety, consent and workplace guarantees.
The other label that we use at Art and Eden is the Textile Exchange’s Organic Content Standard. OCS is a labeling system that creates transparency for the integrity and organic fiber content present in the garment. The label either carries a “OCS 100” logo for products that contain at least 95 percent organic material, or an “OCS blended” logo that displays how much of the product is organic.
Organic cotton means no GMOs
In addition to avoiding dangerous chemicals in the various stages of garment creation, organic also means that crop seeds are free from genetic modification. Most of the cotton from the main grower countries - China, India and the US - is from GMO seed. These crops are developed by huge agricultural corporations and marketed as pest- and herbicide-resistant.
Monsanto’s Bt-cotton, named after the toxin that the plant was modified to create within itself, is poisonous to a common cotton pest, the bollworm. It was widely adopted in India in 2002 when the local government used public funds to market Bt in local newspapers, but several years later the worms became resistant to the toxin. This led to crop failure and devastating losses for the local farmers - with no hope of compensation from Monsanto.
To further complicate the GMO discussion, many modified seeds have what is called terminator technology. In traditional farming, when farmers buy seeds, it’s an initial investment, and they harvest the crop along with seeds that are grown with the plant. This is what happens in nature - plants create the next generation of plants after growing the leaves, flowers and fruit that they are genetically programmed to grow. But with many modified plants, they do not grow seeds that the farmer can collect and sow - so farmers must go back to the corporation every time they need to grow a new crop. This creates a power dynamic that gives agri-corporations enormous control over farmers, and increases profits for them as well.
Buying organic cotton makes a difference
Organic clothing makes an impact not just on our families - though we avoid potentially hazardous chemicals and materials when we do. Putting our dollars towards organic tells big brands and bio-agriculture corporations that sustainable, responsible practices are important. This creates a positive, cascading effect that encompasses farmers, factory workers, and their families.