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What is organic cotton and why is it important?

December 6, 2017 | Supplycompass
What is organic cotton and why is it important?

What is organic cotton?

Organic cotton (sometimes referred to as natural cotton) is rapidly gaining market traction, particularly in fashion and home products. There are strict certification requirements for the use of organic cotton labels, and these requirements generate many social, ecological and economic benefits.

Here’s a look at how organic cotton is produced, labelled, and the associated benefits.

Production Process

From seed preparation to product manufacturing, organic cotton is handled very differently from conventional cotton. Unlike conventional cotton, organic cotton means:

  • Seeds are not genetically modified, and are not treated with fungicides or insecticides;
  • Crop rotation retains soil moisture and integrity, instead of synthetic fertilizers and continual irrigation which leads to nutrient depletion and erosion;
  • Native insects and trap crops control pests, instead of carcinogenic pesticides;
  • Crops are harvested with temperature or water management, instead of toxic defoliators;
  • Fabric quality processing is performed with non toxic processes;
  • Hydrogen peroxide is used for whitening, instead of chlorine bleaching;
  • Warm water and soda ash are used for finishing scour, instead of synthetic chemical treatments;
  • Natural or non-toxic dyes are used instead of high heat, heavy metals, and sulphur.

Labelling

The most recognized certifiable standard for organic textiles is GOTS (the Global Organic Textile Standard). Technically a quality assurance certification, GOTS criteria are comprehensive; requiring all chemical inputs at any production phase to meet rigorous environmental and toxicological standards, and any wet-treatment units must have a functional wastewater treatment plant. Additionally, all manufacturing facilities involved in production are inspected for compliance to social criteria. One of two GOTS labels can be obtained, requiring a minimum of 70% or 95% organic fibers respectively.

Two other recognized organic textile certifications come from the OCS (Organic Content Standard). The ‘OCS 100’ label requires a minimum of 95% organic contents, and the ‘OCS Blended’ only requires a minimum of 5% organic contents. The OCS labels are far less comprehensive than GOTS labels, as they don’t have considerations for environmental or social issues during processing.

Benefits

Organic cotton has a robust value proposition across the triple bottom line. When produced in compliance to GOTS criteria, organic cotton can offer the following interconnected benefits.

Environmental benefits:
  • Massively reduced water and energy consumption
  • Minimised acidification of land and water from fertilisers
  • Elimination of toxic chemical contamination
  • Reduced carbon emissions
Social benefits:
  • Improved soil and ecosystem health for farmers
  • Reduced worker exposure to carcinogens and toxins
  • Less mechanical treatment increases local employment
  • More effort towards ethical employment and production
Economic benefits:
  • Heightened crop value for farmers
  • Protection of natural capital (soil integrity) ensures long term stability
  • Cost savings on energy, fertilisers, and pesticides
  • Increased product value and image for brands & retailers

The importance of organic cotton goes beyond lists of benefits and quality assurance; organic textile market growth indicates an increasing awareness of both producer and consumer responsibility. Overall, the rise of true organic cotton is a necessary shift towards a sustainable apparel market.

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