Wondering If You Should Jump On the Organic Cotton Train?
The surprising reasons why it might not be the best bang for your buck when it comes to buying organics
If you've made the move to try and purchase organic products for the betterment of your health and the environment, you've probably heard of a slew of things that you can purchase that are organic - kale, apples, cereal, even cotton. We recommend a simple way to prioritize your organic produce purchases, but how does cotton fit into this? Is it worth the extra dollars? Clothes, sheets, towels, baby blankets, and all the other things around the house that are made from cotton can add up quickly. You might be thinking about organic, but aren't so sure. Well, we've weighed the pros and cons for you below to make an informed decision.
Reasons to Buy Organic Cotton
- No synthetic chemicals: Cotton is considered a food crop, so in the United States it is regulated by the USDA and must follow strict guidelines. By definition, all pesticides need to be biologically based (a.k.a. no synthetic chemicals) and the product can't contain any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (1).
- Protecting farm workers, local communities, and the environment from pesticides: Growing cotton requires a LOT of pesticides and they can easily contaminate the air or water through wind and runoff, harming the environment (6). The main pesticides that are used during cotton production include Fluometuron, Acetamiprid, and Glyphosate. Just to give you an example of just how bad these pesticides can be, Fluometuron can mess with reproduction and fetal development, while Glyphosate is largely believed to cause cancer (12). It won't come as a surprise then when you hear that some workers miss out on earning wages for up to 50 days, just from the negative health effects of constantly being exposed to these pesticides (12). For most cotton producing countries, there is limited personal protective equipment which increases the amount of pesticides that the workers are exposed to (12). This ends up harming the workers and their families' health (12).
- Helping conserve water: Many companies that produce organic cotton also adhere to more sustainable agricultural practices including water conservation, which helps A TON, as cotton requires a lot of water to grow (2).
- Avoiding pesticide residues in conventional cotton (9, 10): Scientists have found pesticide residues on conventionally grown cotton. However, we have to note that this study detected pesticide residues through a highly intensive laboratory process. There are no studies indicating that this would happen through normal wash, wear, and use. One study showed that when raw cotton goes through the extensive dying, processing, and finishing stages to become fabric, pesticide residues are actually removed (11).
Reasons to Pass on Organic Cotton
- Chemicals in the manufacturing process: Unfortunately, a USDA organic certification of cotton doesn't include the dyeing process, which is one of the most water intensive-steps (8). In addition, during the dyeing process, heavy metals, dyestuff, polymers and plasticizers are used to create the qualities in a fabric that we're used to (think eye-catching colors and fabrics SO soft you could use it as a blanket) (13, 14). These toxic chemicals can cause cancer or are known endocrine disruptors, posing a hazard to factory workers and surrounding communities. In some cases, consumers might even be at risk as some dyes that are used have a tendency to bind to skin (13). Take it from us to ALWAYS wash your new clothing before wearing! Check out more information below on the certified GOTS label if you want more assurances on dyes, in addition to just organic cotton.
- Using more land: While organic farms tend to use more sustainable practices, in general, more land is needed to produce the same organic crop compared to a conventionally grown crop. However, studies show limited evidence that organic cotton yields are less than conventionally grown cotton (4).
- Not a significant source of exposure: Pesticide residues in cotton products haven't been shown to be a significant source of exposure. You're much more likely to be exposed through food, so you might want to prioritize organic at the grocery store if you're on a budget.
- Puts a larger dent in your wallet: Unfortunately, since organic cotton takes more time and land to produce, as well as uses more labor, it is more expensive (7). Products made from organic cotton will usually cost more than the same products made of regular cotton (7).
For the avid organic cotton connoisseur
If you're really invested in purchasing organic cotton, the best thing to do is purchase products that carry a GOTS label, a certified textile standard. This standard covers the whole cotton production process (growing, processing, dyeing) all the way until the product reaches the store for you to buy! A textile product carrying the GOTS label contains a minimum of 95 percent certified organic fibers AND covers environmental, social and human toxicity criteria that is not included in USDA regulation (5).
- Attallah, Emad & Abdelwahed, Mahmoud. (2017). Monitoring of Pesticide Residues in some Cotton Products in Egypt using GC-MS/MS and LC-MS/MS. Middle East Journal of Applied Sciences. 07. 102-109.