The Cotton Conundrum: organic vs conventional cotton
You could spend DAYS researching the highly controversial topic of cotton. And believe me, I HAVE. How it’s grown. How much water it requires. How much processing it requires. How much pesticides are used. How the farmers are treated. And pickers are treated. And all of these things are important topics when choosing your cotton. I know this because at least 75% of my projects use 100% cotton. So I am VERY careful about the cotton I choose. So let’s explore the cotton conundrum: organic vs conventional cotton.
What we talk about in this 6-part series:
- Sustainable crochet: what is it and why do it?
- The nemesis of sustainable crochet: yarn
- The cotton conundrum: organic vs. conventional cotton
- The slow yarn movement: an overview
- 10 tips to more sustainable crochet
- My top 10 under $10 sustainable yarns
What we’ll talk about in this article – part 3 of 6:
Conventional cotton is fraught with issues. In this article, we examine those issues and talk about alternative cotton yarn options.
- Overview of the 5 major challenges involving the production of conventional cotton
- What makes organic cotton more sustainable
- Yarn certifications and what they stand for
- Organic isn’t the only alternative…
Untangling the proverbial cotton knot
Cotton certainly has a dubious past. The cotton industry was built on the backs of almost 2 million slaves that were forced to work the American cotton fields in the 19th century. Today, cotton is the most abundantly produced natural textile. It is grown in over 80 countries and makes up 30% of global textile production. Much has been done to clean-up cotton’s reputation over the last 150 years. And after more than 30 years since the infamous jingle came out, cotton is still “the fabric of our lives.”
And it’s true – cotton certainly is an absolutely amazing fiber. It’s affordable, it’s versatile, it’s super tough, it’s natural, soft and non-irritating. Cotton is biodegradable and completely renewable in and of itself. It can be recycled and even made into paper. It is clearly understandable why cotton is so important. And way back when, organic vs conventional cotton wasn’t even on the radar.
But as with most things that make a huge amount of money, it has come at a cost. Let’s consider those costs.
After the amount of time I’ve spent reading about the topic of cotton production, I’ve run across a lot of material where I struggle with probable bias coming from the source or author. I referenced the cottonupguide.org for a lot of information I’m going to present to you. I highly recommend checking them out if you’re interested in digging deeper into the topic of cotton! They present straight forward information and are all about helping the conventional cotton industry become more sustainable.
Here are 5 major challenges involving the production of conventional cotton
- When mismanaged, cotton can use and pollute huge amounts of water
- When not grown sustainably, cotton can use a significant amount of pesticides and petroleum based fertilizers which contribute to water pollution, decreased soil fertility, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and have harmful effects on human health
- Over 60% of cotton is grown by smallholder cotton farmers in developing countries who are stuck in the cycle of poverty due to low pay and high debt; debt caused by several market factors including high input costs for seeds, pesticides and fertilizers
- Child and forced labor is still used on cotton farms in 18 countries including several of the top producer nations. Fortunately, the USA bans the import of cotton from known countries
- When mismanaged, cotton farming can lead to land clearing, soil erosion, contamination and loss of soil biodiversity
Fortunately, all of these challenges have viable solutions! There are many sustainability programs that are working towards addressing these issues and raising the standards for cotton production.
Is organic cotton the only answer?
In short, no. But it is probably the most straight forward answer to the cotton conundrum. Why? Because when you choose organic cotton you automatically know that it was grown without harmful pesticides and fertilizers which in turn leave the soil, air, water and workers free from contaminates that cause them harm. It also produces less CO2 than conventional cotton and uses far less water to grow because organic cotton farmers use more rain than irrigation. Also, organic is always non-GMO.
Although organic certainly isn’t synonymous with fair trade, trade justice and environmental justice are very intertwined. Over half of all Fair Trade Certified products imported into the USA are also organic. So buying organic vs conventional cotton means there’s a much higher chance that you’re buying something that was made by a worker that was treated fairly. Here’s a great resource from Fairtrade America that talks about how fairtrade and organic farming go hand-in-hand.
I spoke about the following certifications in part 2 of our series – the nemesis of sustainable crochet: yarn. But we’re still talking about yarn and it definitely applies to the cotton conundrum, so I’m going to talk about them again here in case you missed it before. Finding cotton yarns with any of these certifications is one powerful way to ensure you’re buying sustainable cotton.
GOTS certified yarn
Look for yarn that is GOTS certified. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers. I highly respect this certification because it’s requirements are extensive – beginning with the harvesting of the raw materials, and continuing through the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, trading and distribution of the textiles. You can read the entire 33 page standard manual here.
Personally, I sort of consider the GOTS certification the golden ticket to choosing sustainable cotton yarn. It basically takes all the issues with conventional cotton and solves them. Well, I guess it doesn’t SOLVE them, but it assures you that the cotton yarn you’re about to buy wasn’t a culprit in any of the major challenges above.
OEKO-TEX certified yarn
OEKO-TEX consists of 17 independent research and test institutes in Europe and Japan who work together to develop test methods for the textile and leather industry. Their goal is to create trust in textiles through increased product safety, sustainable production and transparency. They have several different certifications that a textile can achieve.
Their most well known certification is their OEKO-TEX STANDARD 100 which means that the textile has been tested for harmful substances and is harmless for human health. In my opinion, that’s a start, but certainly doesn’t hit the mark for me when it comes to choosing a fully sustainable cotton yarn.
I’m more impressed by their OEKO-TEX MADE IN GREEN certification which not only assures that the textile is made of materials that have been tested for harmful substances, but also assures that the yarn has been manufactured in environmentally friendly facilities under safe and socially responsible working conditions. Also, that the supply chain is traceable and transparent. Check, check and check.
Fair Trade Certified
The principles surrounding fair trade ensure that the people and the planet are put first. The Fair Trade certification means the yarn supplier meets standards regarding safe working conditions, environmental protection, and sustainable livelihoods.
Unfortunately, you’ll be hard-pressed to find easily accessible sustainable yarn suppliers that are registered as Fair Trade certified. They are out there, but I’m not going to lie – for me, it just isn’t practical. And practical crochet is my thing. I want to provide you with options that are sustainable AND accessible.
Fair trade in its own right, however, is a model that can be followed even without the official certification process. And you can definitely find sustainable yarn suppliers that are committed to the principles surrounding fair trade.
Recycled Cotton Yarn
Recycled cotton is another impressive option for sustainable and eco-friendly yarn. It is made of post-industrial or post-consumer cotton waste. Cotton recycling uses an eco-conscious production process as well. It conserves resources, saves water, doesn’t involve harmful substances and reduces carbon dioxide emissions. Recycled cotton is usually made out of textile articles that were bound for the landfill so it also reduces waste!
Put a little elbow grease into it…
You can also research the companies themselves. Many sustainable yarn companies place a high emphasis on where they source their yarn, how workers are treated and how the yarn is processed, but may not officially hold certifications.
Think about walking down the aisles of your local farmers market. Most of the home-grown products don’t have tags or fancy certifications, but are excellent in every regard. Send emails, ask questions, get to know the companies that you are “voting” for with your dollar. Brand trust.
The moral of the yarn story is…
Know where it’s coming from and how it was produced. Sustainable yarns include yarns that are natural, biodegradable, non-toxic and sourced ethically. If you’re willing to do the research, you can easily find companies that are producing eco-friendly and sustainable yarn. Don’t worry if you don’t have time – I will serve you up several of them in part 6 of this series when I give you my top 10 under $10 sustainable yarns (hint: several of them are cotton!).
I have agonized over the moment of finding THE PERFECT color I need for a project and faced with the fact that it isn’t an eco-friendly or sustainable yarn. I have clicked the “add to cart” button. But then I think about the people and I think about the land. No yarn is perfect enough to disregard the worker, the animal or the land that was used to produce it. Not one.
Whew! We’re half way through the series and we’ve just wrapped up the final battle scene starring conventional vs organic cotton! Now, we get to turn a corner and spend the next 3 articles talking about encouraging, fun, thought-provoking, accessible ways to sustainable crochet forever!
Coming up in part 4 of this series: “from crafter to craftivist: an overview of the slow yarn movement”.
Next Time | Part 4 – the slow yarn movement: an overview