Just a Cotton-Pickin’ Minute!

Hope for organic cotton

Non-Organic Cotton Deserves its Bad Rap.

A 60-second explanation of why buying organic cotton in the UK transforms and saves lives the world over.

Non-organic cotton is widely considered to be the world’s dirtiest crop[1]. Although it only uses about 2.5% of the world’s farmland, it disproportionately uses around 16% of the world’s insecticides[2] (pro rata, this is about 6.5 times the normal use of insecticides for crops).  Many of those insecticides kill bees[3] and fish[4]. Yet a range of insects, pathogenic fungi, bacteria, viruses and nematodes can account for damaging up to 60% of cotton crops so traditionally those insecticides have been deemed indispensable.[5] And this is before we touch on the use of similarly-worrying herbicides to keep down weeds. Yet alternative eco-friendly approaches, compared to growing non-organic cotton, are becoming increasingly apparent and popular[6].

Meanwhile, growing organic cotton can make an extraordinary contribution to halting the surfeit of greenhouse gases (or GHGs) that have begun to play havoc with our weather. Those GHGs include water vapor (H₂O), carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH₄), nitrous oxide (N₂O) and ozone (O₃). We need some of them to stop the world from having an average temperature of minus 18°C. But since the 1970s scientists have shown with computer models that, if we have too many GHGs, a surfeit of them can trigger a cycle that’s difficult to stop. Even those early models, using archaic devices, have recently been shown to have accurately predicted what we’re experiencing now, largely a consequence of the 2nd and 3rd worlds producing GHGs in the process of catching up with the 1st world[7]. So it is likely that projections of global warming based on results generated by today’s state-of-the-art supercomputers will ultimately prove to be chillingly (if that’s the word) accurate.

So What’s the Difference?

Organic cotton is cultivated without fertilizers and pesticides. The Soil Association has documented how it grows more slowly and yields are around 15% lower, but its fibres are stronger, its impact on global warming is significantly under half of that of its non-organic counterpart, and the costs are almost 40% lower[8]. So, on the balance, organic cotton is more profitable for farmers than non-organic cotton. Also, health wise, organic methods are better for the local flora and fauna including subsistence food-crops and the farmers themselves. That’s important because cotton farmers run 100 million households, often in deprived 3rd world countries such as India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (though other big producers include China, Brazil, Turkey, the USA, Australia and Burkina Faso[9]). These are countries with poor health services and little in the way of governmental support, so living a healthy lifestyle there is even more vital than to those of us who inhabit the 1st world.

In the UK We Have Apparently Endless Water. But Others are Struggling. And Cotton is a, or the, Culprit.

There is potentially a huge saving in water if farmers shift to growing organic cotton. And water is important because it takes between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of it[10] (that’s between 10 and 20 metric tons) to grow just 1 kg of cotton (around what you need to make a single pair of jeans). To put this in perspective, Coca-Cola has been in tremendous trouble in places such as India and Pakistan where it has been forced to build desalination plants that produce its own water because it takes 8 litres of water to create 1 litre of its drinks. In the scheme of things non-organic cotton is a much bigger culprit than Sprite or Coca-Cola. Yet local farmers, unlike huge multinational corporations, cannot build desalination plants!

This is a major consideration when there is significant evidence to suggest that the wettest parts of the world are getting wetter and the driest are getting dryer[11]. Since cotton is grown in many of the driest countries, countries that are already experiencing falling water-tables that make it increasingly-impossible to cultivate crops in some regions, any frugality with water is helpful. Organic cotton offers some of the answers. It needs to. As the Guardian reported in 2015 (and not much has changed since then), ‘The water consumed to grow India’s cotton exports in 2013 would be enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year[12].

Is Organic Cotton Making Inroads?

Organic cotton is still only accounting for less than 1% of all that’s grown. But attitudes to it, like attitudes to the environment and the food we eat, are changing at a pace. Demand for organic cotton is growing at nearly 70% a year by some accounts and, even though that’s from a small base, consumers are looking for certified textiles. This is where brands like Strawberry & Cream currently lead the way in organic cotton awareness.


Whichever way you cut it, organic cotton has a lot to recommend it over its ecologically-irresponsible counterpart. So you ought to pick it. Then you’ll be cool in every sense!

[1] www.soilassociation.org/press-centre/press-releases/cool-cotton-how-to-reduce-the-climate-change-impact-of-the-world-s-dirtiest-crop/

[2] www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/consumption/clothing/environmental-impact-of-cotton-production

[3] www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-18/bee-loses-due-to-chemical-use-by-cotton-industry-keeper-says/8276130

[4] www.nwf.org/en/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2006/Cotton-and-Pesticides

[5] http://encyclopedia.uia.org/en/problem/135349

[6] www.pan-uk.org/cotton/

[7] www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2019/12/04/simplest-climate-models-run-decades-ago-accurately-projected-global-warming/

[8] www.soilassociation.org/media/18947/cool-cotton-soil-association-report-2015.pdf

[9] www.countriesnow.com/top-ten-cotton-producing-countries-in-the-world/

[10] www.aestheticstories.com/cotton-vs-organic-cotton/

[11] www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161212084456.htm

[12] www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/20/cost-cotton-water-challenged-india-world-water-day