Cotton is a natural plant fiber that people have been growing for over 5000 years. The industrial revolution caused a huge boom in cotton production and manufacturing. This was because of inventions like the carding machine, the spinning mule, and  the cotton gin. Cotton has served various purposes for a long time, demonstrating its versatility. People are always discovering novel applications for cotton (Corbman, Textiles: Fiber to Fabric, 1983, 246).

Organic Cotton is a sustainable and biodegradable option. The organic movement began as a response to the risks of intensive agriculture. It focuses on working with nature to promote health and fertility on farms. Organic farming avoids synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers rely on natural processes like nitrogen-fixing plants and crop rotation. This method aims to benefit the environment, animal welfare, and human health. Protecting the environment and people's health are some of the main benefits of organic cotton.

When producing organic cotton fabric, the whole process of making cotton fabric is taken into consideration. Steps include growing cotton, harvesting, de-seeding, cleaning, spinning, weaving, and sewing the final product. This is to ensure that what goes into, in our case, the organic cotton bed sheets and other organic bedding items is not harmful to the environment, people and other living things.


One of the reasons why organic cotton has become popular and a good alternative to conventional cotton is climate change. Climate change is a problem that almost everyone agrees it's a serious threat to the whole world. Governments worldwide are under pressure to come up with strong plans to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Organic cotton and farming in general are unique in this crisis because they contribute to the problem and suffer from it. But there's also hope that agriculture can be part of the solution.

Most people agree that organic cotton is better for the environment compared to regular cotton. To understand why, we should look at the environmental problems linked to regular cotton, like using a lot of water and relying on synthetic chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. Organic cotton is seen as a greener choice because it uses less water than regular cotton. It also uses natural processes like nitrogen-fixing plants and crop rotation. These natural methods aim to benefit the environment, animals, and people.


Is organic cotton better than conventional cotton? For example, are organic cotton sheets better than non organic sheets? If yes, why?

1| Reduced Greenhouse Emissions When Growing Cotton Organically

Conventional cotton production employs harmful chemicals, including pesticides and insecticides, impacting ecosystems and water supplies. Some chemicals may even end up in the cotton itself. Additionally, environmentally unsafe dyes used in production pose risks if flushed into waterways.

As stated by the Soil Association, when it comes to climate change, organic cotton appears to outperform conventionally grown cotton. Organic cotton shows significantly lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The available data makes it clear that organic cotton stands out in terms of climate performance and various other factors. 

The same Soil Association states that organic farming has the potential to offset global warming through mitigation and sequestration. Mitigation involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding manufactured fertilizers and pesticides. Organic systems derive nitrogen from plants, resulting in 34-51% lower nitrogen input compared to non-organic systems. Sequestration involves storing carbon in soils, and organic farming, with practices like green manures and crop residue return, can sequester up to 450kg more atmospheric carbon per hectare than non-organic farming. Organic farming is also more resilient to climate challenges, offering a sustainable and long-term solution.

A study on Preference of the Eco-friendly Fabric-Organic Cotton and Bamboo by Smriti Agarwal", discusses various eco-friendly fibers, including organic cotton. The article mentions that organic cotton is a sustainable material that is grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, contributing to health and environmental benefits. Overall, organic agriculture protects people and the planet by reducing exposure to toxic chemicals. Unlike conventional cotton agriculture, which uses a substantial portion of pesticides globally.

2| Organic Cotton Uses Less Water Than Conventional Cotton

When talking about water, there is blue water, green water, and grey water. Blue water exists in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Green water refers to the water present in the soil for plants and soil microorganisms. Plants absorb this water through their roots, use it, and release it back into the atmosphere through transpiration. And lastly, grey water is water that has been used before and may contain some impurities. It undergoes treatment and is then discharged. Thus, nature provides blue and green water, humans generate and reuse grey water to supplement blue and green waters.

Conventional cotton production, predominantly reliant on irrigation, consumes vast amounts of water. One study assessed the water footprint of worldwide cotton consumption, examining the impact of consuming cotton products on water resources in cotton-producing countries. The study, conducted for the period 1997–2001, distinguishes between different types of water use and pollution associated with cotton production and processing. The findings reveal that global cotton consumption requires 256 Gm3 (gram per cubic meter) of water per year, with significant impacts on blue water, green water, and dilution water (The water footprint of cotton consumption: An assessment of the impact of worldwide consumption of cotton products on the water resources in the cotton producing countries, by Chapagain, et al, Nov. 2005).

Chemicals used in growing cotton and the water used are connected. So much water used in the global cotton industry is for getting rid of pollutants from these chemicals. As the world's population grows and we use more resources, getting clean water is going to be a bigger problem. Climate change is making the planet warmer, and this, combined with the way we use water, is a serious issue. 

Organic cotton uses less water thus saving local communities water from the rivers and other water bodies. But, coming up with a percentage of water saved by organic cotton, is surrounded by controversial. There is a debate as to how much water is really saved when growing cotton organically.

A report titled "Cotton: A Case Study in Misinformation" published by the Transformers Foundation, challenges common beliefs about the environmental impact of cotton farming. The focus is on debunking claims that organic cotton uses 91% less water than conventional cotton.

It all started with a 2014 analysis conducted by Textile Exchange. In their Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of Organic Cotton, they concluded that organic cotton requires significantly less irrigation (91% less water than conventional  cotton). The Transformers Foundation report challenges this claim, pointing out that the comparison is flawed. The report argues that the conclusion of dramatic water savings for organic cotton is based on comparing rainfed organic fields to irrigated conventional cotton fields, which are essentially different scenarios.

The report further emphasizes that the belief that organic cotton is always rainfed while conventional cotton is irrigated has no factual basis. Cotton's irrigated water consumption, according to the report, is determined by climate and irrigation techniques rather than its organic or conventional status. The Transformers Foundation engaged in a dialogue with Textile Exchange, and the latter confirmed removing the 91% water savings claim from their website, acknowledging that comparing organic and conventional cotton in this way is misleading.

The Textile Exchange later asserted that the 91% number is correct within the context of the two specific LCA studies in their summary, but should not be extrapolated to broad claims about organic versus conventional cotton.

3| No Harsh Chemicals Means Healthy People & Healthy Skin

Is organic cotton better for skin and overall health? The answer is yes! Pesticide use in conventional cotton leads to serious health issues and sometimes even death among cotton farmers in the world's poorest countries. The pollution from pesticides is also a big worry, affecting water supplies and the food we eat, posing serious risks to both the environment and human health. 

A Cambrige University article echoed on the topic. They said numerous chemicals such as insecticides, nematicides, fungicides, herbicides, desiccants, and defoliants employed in conventional cotton farming are linked to environmental and health issues. Organic cotton cultivation provides economically feasible answers to address the majority of the environmental and health issues linked to conventional cotton production that is reliant on pesticides.

Organic cotton is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, or genetically modified organisms. Thus reducing the exposure of farmers and consumers to toxic chemicals that can cause health problems such as skin irritation, respiratory issues, or cancer. The dyes used for the organic cotton material or fabric are usually harmless to ensure that the whole production cycle is safe.

4| Organic Farming Slows Soil Degradation

Conventional cotton farming leads to permanent soil degradation. The constant demand for cotton cultivation exhausts nutrients, pushing farming into new areas, destroying natural habitats in the process.

The Rodale Institute, in their 2020 white paper on Regenerative Agriculture and the Soil Carbon Solution, highlighted that in addition to the ongoing deterioration, we are currently losing about 36 billion tons of soil annually, according to the 2017 consensus estimate from the European Commission Joint Research Centre. When practicing regenerative agriculture, no-till farming slows down the rate at which soil carbon loss and degradation take place.

5| Organic Cotton Brings Increased Financial Stability for Farmers 

Organic cotton brings increased financial stability for farmers. In one article called Organic Cotton Helps Feed the World, by The Soil Association, it was highlighted that organic cotton is grown in rotation with different crops that farmers can also sell at a premium price because they are also organic. For example, in Texas, commonly rotated crops with organic cotton include wheat, rye, and peanuts; the latter being crucial for nitrogen fixation in the soil. 

Similarly, in Benin, Africa, organic cotton farmers incorporate a variety of crops into their rotation systems alongside cotton. These include maize, yam, cassava, cowpea, peanuts, cashews, soybeans, and pigeon peas. 


Considering the overall sustainability of organic cotton involves looking beyond the benefits of organic cotton discussed above. For instance, there is a growing demand and market growth of organic cotton that would result in scaling issues.

1| Issues With Scaling Organic Cotton Production

There are issues with scaling of organic cotton production, which currently makes up less than one percent of total cotton production. Cambridge University conducted a study, “Organic cotton production may alleviate the environmental impacts of intensive conventional cotton production”. In this study they also highlighted challenges that organic cotton farmers are facing. These could frustrate other farmers and discourage them from fully embracing organic cotton.

Weeds management: The main challenges faced by organic cotton farmers are weeds, insects, and diseases. Weeds are the primary concern, leading to higher production costs in organic cotton, when compared with conventional cotton. To tackle this, organic growers employ various methods like crop rotations, tillage, hand-weeding, and organic herbicides. A study (Swezey et al., 2007) found that organic production costs were higher than conventional cotton production, mainly due to expenses related to labor costs of hand-weeding.

When researching cotton in Malawi, Africa, we were told that cotton experiences different pests and farmers consider the idea of growing organic cotton using natural pest control as very challenging compared with using pesticides. 

Cross contamination: Despite organic cotton producers intentionally using non-genetically modified (GM) seeds, instances of GM contamination persist. This is due to various factors like accidental use of GM seeds, cross-pollination, and mixing during storage or transport. The Cambridge University study (mentioned above) highlights the substantial concern among organic cotton producers regarding GM contamination, particularly during seed, ginning, hauling, and the delinting process. Overall, contamination of organic cotton with GM material poses financial and logistical challenges for organic growers. This potentially leads to rejection of products, costly investigations, and a return to conventional production if contamination levels are deemed excessive.

Seed sourcing challenges: Some organic cotton farmers encounter difficulties securing non-GM, organic-compliant seed, with global concerns about its availability. Some producers emphasized the need for higher-yielding organic cotton varieties due to lower yields compared to conventional counterparts, exacerbated by weather conditions affecting organic yields. 

Climate change and market uncertainties: Changing climate conditions, such as insufficient rainfall/drought, hail, excessive rains, and early season winds, are concerning to organic cotton growers.

Actually, agriculture in general is a victim of climate change. Climate change makes agriculture vulnerable due to temperature changes, increased pests and diseases, extreme weather patterns (mentioned above), and soil salinization. It is becoming harder for farmers to jump through these hoops (The Soil Association).

2| The Recyclability and Biodegradability of Cotton in General 

While cotton can be recycled, there's a need for technological improvements to address problems like shortened fiber lengths in mechanical recycling. The conventional mechanical recycling of textiles yields products of low quality and value. This outcome can be attributed to the rigorous tearing process, which tends to reduce the length of the fibers (Lindström et al, 2020).

Is organic cotton biodegradable?: Organic cotton doesn’t create pollution like the microplastics that polyester materials shed throughout their life. At the end of its lifecycle organic cotton can biodegrade, while any kind of performance or blended material cannot.

3| Market Fairness and Accountability

Organic cotton faces competition from larger companies, hindering widespread adoption. Large companies with access to bigger credit lines are usually trusted by suppliers and given priority over small unproven startups. It's a scramble for the little organic cotton available.

In addition to organic cotton not being available to everyone, there is the problem of consumer trust. As echoed by different publications both online and in books, there are several easily identifiable standards and certifications to direct consumers to the companies and manufacturers who meet the set practices that are considered organic and sustainable. 

As important as these services are, it is equally important to point out that these certifications require fees and must be renewed almost every year. It is possible for small businesses to have best sustainable practices but because they cannot afford to pay for certifications' services, they will choose not to be certified. 

The bodies offering certifications include:

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): GOTS provides recognized certification for organic fibers. They include environmental and social criteria, with independent certification throughout the entire textile supply chain.
  • The Better Cotton Initiative: The Better Cotton Initiative offers training and development opportunities to assist farmers in adopting more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable production practices. 
  • OEKO-TEX: OEKO-TEX evaluates materials, production, and supply chains for environmental impact. Their standards cover materials, chemicals, and facilities.
  • bluesign: The bluesign criteria set standards for participating manufacturers, ensuring safer workplaces and less harmful textile products for both the environment and workers. 
  • Cradle to Cradle: The Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard provides a framework for assessing the safety, circularity, and responsibility of materials and products. It covers five key categories: material health, product circularity, clean air and climate protection, water and soil stewardship, and social fairness and fair labor practices.
  • Fair Trade: Fair Trade is like a worldwide effort to make sure that trade between countries is fair and sustainable. It's mostly focused on things like coffee, cocoa, and tea. They also work with cotton farmers. The main idea behind Fair Trade is to help small farmers and workers in poorer countries. They make sure these farmers get paid fairly, have good working conditions, and can improve their communities. It also ensures products don't harm the environment.

4| Energy Consumption and Transportation

Transporting cotton from fields to mills to its  final destination demands energy and gasoline, exacerbating sustainability challenges. Fossil fuels burned in most cotton mills add to the environmental toll. Most manufacturers of organic cotton are implementing renewable energy. The use of solar energy, for example, is proving to be popular. With regards to sustainable transportation, reducing the amount of trips to transport materials is one of the ways to reduce carbon pumped in the air. For long distance trips, choosing sea freight instead of air freight is better for the environment.


Organic cotton’s benefits are undeniable. Organic cotton can play a role in protecting our environment and fighting climate change because organic cotton production is less polluting and less wasteful than conventional cotton. 

Equally important is the elimination of harsh chemical usage in organic cotton farming. This is good for both customers who are using organic cotton fabric or material everyday, as well as farmers and factory workers handling the cotton products during the manufacturing phase. Overall, organic cotton is a healthy choice for people.

While organic cotton can't solve all the environmental problems in the textile industry, it sets a standard for change. Everyone has a role in protecting the planet from global warming. Consumers can make a positive impact by choosing sustainable textiles, and insist on responsible sourcing when purchasing clothes and home textiles such as bed sheets and table linen. 

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