What is organic cotton?

Organic cotton is cotton that is produced, and certified, according to organic agricultural standards. Its production sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people by using natural processes rather than artificial inputs. Importantly, organic cotton farming does not allow the use of toxic chemicals or GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Instead, it combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote a good quality of life for all involved.


The cotton fiber market was estimated at 21.07 million MT in 2016 (ICAC). The preferred cotton segment which is made up of Organic, Fair Trade, CmiA, BCI, REEL, Cleaner Cotton, and e3 makes up approximately 15 percent (3.2 million MT) of total cotton fiber production (excluding recycled cotton). This is a significant increase from nine percent of the cotton market share in 2015.

The two factors that contributed to this shift were: firstly the reduction in the overall cotton fiber production, from 26 million MT in 2015 to 21 million MT in 2016; and secondly preferred cotton fiber production increased from 2.2 to 3.2 million MT between 2015 and 2016.


Total: 18 countries / Top 7 Countries = 97%

In 2015/16, total organic cotton fiber production amounted to 107,980 mt. There were 18 organic cotton-producing countries in 2015/16. While the number of producing countries remains the same as 2014/15, Colombia, Ethiopia, and Madagascar were replaced by Thailand and Pakistan.

The top seven countries – India, China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Tajikistan, the US, and Tanzania – account for 97 percent of total production.

Overall, production decreased by 4 percent. The primary reduction came from India, the fall was offset by an increase in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.



The journey of organic cotton starts with securing untreated, natural (non-GMO)  seeds. These seeds are often hard to come by and this can be a real issue for farmers. Once the seed is secured, the land needs to be prepared and the seed was sown. It takes approximately 60 to 70 days from planting until the first flower appears, and boils appear 50 to 70 days after bloom. The growth cycle of the cotton plant lasts for approximately 5-6 months. During this time, soil fertility, water, pests, and weeds need to be managed. 45 days after boils appear, the cotton boil will begin to naturally split open along the boils’ segments. Once the cotton boil is fully dried and fluffed, it is ready for harvesting.



The general process of transforming seed cotton from the farm into the final garment includes ginning, spinning, weaving/knitting, dyeing, finishing, cutting, and sewing. Organic certification ensures that the cotton passing through each stage of the manufacturing process is tracked.



Organic cotton certification is carried out at two levels:

  1. Produced according to the IFOAM Principles of Organic Agriculture and certified to the IFOAM Family of standards at the farm level, and
  2. Certified to either the Organic Content Standard (OCS) or the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) from fiber to product. OCS provides third-party assurance that the organic content in your clothes can be traced back to the source, while GOTS traces the organic content in your clothes and ensures that it is processed socially and sustainably.

Organic Cotton is the best eco-friendly fibers

Like all organic products, organic cotton was harvested without the use of GMOs, pesticides, insecticides, or other chemicals that could harm the environment. Global expertise is already well developed to gin, spin, and knit cotton.

Organic cotton plays a complementary role with other eco-friendly fibers with which it is often blended.

The fabric has the same quality as conventional cotton but does not a negative impact on the environment. Organic cotton addresses most of the environmental challenges which conventional cotton production faces. Only 0.7% of global cotton production is organic.

It is grown from non-GMO seeds and without the use of pesticides, insecticides, or fertilizer. Unlike conventional cotton, organic farmers use ancestral farming methods, including crop rotation, mixed farming, or no-till farming to preserve the soil. Organic cotton uses up to 71% less water than conventional cotton according to some sources.

Organic cotton farmers are not exposed to harmful substances.

Several organizations have established certifications for organic cotton such as GOTS, USDA-NOP, Organic Content Standards, IVN, and Naturland. Certification is the only proof that a product is truly organic.

cotton boll 441


Organic cotton is grown in the USA. It can be locally grown and transformed.


  • No transformation. Just ginning (removing the seeds from the fibers)
  • Affordable price.
  • Well-developed expertise.
  • Biodegradable.
  • Locally grown.


  • Can need irrigation water.
  • Very demanding on the soil.
  • Must be certified.
  • Susceptible to pests and diseases (hence the extensive use of chemicals to grow non-organic cotton). There is always a risk of losing the crop or getting a lower yield.


What is Cotton Fiber?

Cotton is a natural fiber that when woven or knitted produces a soft, strong fabric that is breathable, absorbent, and washable. Old cotton can also be recycled to make new yarn and garments.

Cotton comes from the fluffy fibers – known as ‘bolls’ – that surround the seeds of the cotton plant. The fibers are de-seeded using a cotton gin, cleaned, carded (to align the fibers), spun into cotton yarn, and woven into the fabric.

This process involves several locations – from harvesting in cotton fields, cleaning and compressing the cotton lint into bales at gin yards, to shipping the bales to textile mills for spinning and weaving or knitting. The yarn or fabric produced may then be dyed, printed, or finished before being sent to garment manufacturers.

6 countries produce 80% of the world’s cotton

Cotton is the world’s largest non-food crop, grown for trade by more than 80 countries. However, production is concentrated in just six – China, India, Australia, Brazil, the US, and Pakistan – that combined produce 80 percent of all cotton1.

Although the cotton plant grows wild in many dry tropical or sub-tropical areas, it is a labor-intensive crop. Optimal growth requires dry warmth, sunshine, regular irrigation, and protection from pests and weeds.

Cotton is versatile but losing market share

A highly versatile fiber, cotton can be turned into a wide range of fabrics: corduroy, denim, flannel, jersey, lawn, muslin, organdy, percale, Pima, twill, and velvet among others. It can be used alone or blended with other fibers such as polyester to improve durability, and with elastane to produce stretchy fabrics, as in stretch jeans.

Many types of apparel are made from cotton – outerwear, shirts, trousers, t-shirts, light summer clothing, lingerie, and eveningwear. It is widely used in homewares including cushions, bedding, and towels.

Despite being the most-used natural fiber, cotton has been steadily losing market share to synthetic fibers since the early 2000s. Cotton now accounts for 21 percent of total global fiber use for apparel and textiles, against 65 percent for synthetics. Annual cotton production was estimated to be between 21 million and 23 million tonnes in 20162, worth around $41 billion.

90% of cotton farmers are in low-income countries

Cotton is the economic mainstay of several low- and middle-income countries, providing work and income for around 350 million people. About 90 percent of cotton farmers are in low-income countries, cultivating smallholder plots of less than two hectares.

Hefty impacts of conventional cotton

Conventional Cotton 2

Cotton’s water consumption

The cotton trade brings economic benefits to these regions – but also serious environmental and social problems.

Water usage is among the most dramatic. More than half of global cotton production – 57 percent – takes place in areas under high or extreme water stress, according to data compiled by the World Resources Institute3.

Only 30 percent of the cotton produced comes from ‘rain-fed farming.  The rest relies on irrigation, mainly wasteful flood irrigation4.

The Aral Sea in Central Asia vividly illustrates the effects of such stress. It shrank to just 10 percent of its former volume, through drought and decades of diverting water chiefly to irrigate cotton farms5.

Cotton’s chemical usage

As well as being a thirsty crop, cotton cultivation currently uses lots of chemicals – 4 percent of all world pesticides and 10 percent of insecticides are used in cotton-growing6.

These inputs can pollute local eco-systems and drinking water supplies.

Social impacts of cotton farming

Cotton’s historic links to the slave trade are well known. In a miserable echo of that, rights groups have now documented evidence of the ongoing use of child and forced labor in cotton cultivation today, with children as young as five working in cotton fields or ginning factories in countries such as India, Egypt, and Uzbekistan7.

As a globally traded cash crop, cotton prices can fluctuate significantly. This hits poor cotton producers particularly badly, affecting their incomes, working conditions, and quality of life.

‘Preferred cotton’ offers hope

Awareness of these major drawbacks is growing, prompting several worldwide initiatives to produce cotton more sustainably and more equitably. Known as ‘preferred cotton’, these accounted for 19 percent of total world cotton output according to Textile Exchange’s 2018 reports.

Evidence suggests that more sustainable schemes offer clear environmental gains. A lifecycle analysis of organic cotton published in 20168 found that organic cotton had half the global warming potential of conventional cotton, 91 percent less use of fresh water from lakes and streams, and approximately a third of the energy demand.


Sustainable cotton

Five main initiatives exist for growing cotton using sustainable or ethically based principles – organic cotton, Fairtrade cotton, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), and the REEL Cotton program. The Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) also has a heavy focus on cotton and addresses the social and environmental aspects of cotton processing and cotton garment manufacturing.

There is a tendency to use ‘sustainable’ as an umbrella term for all cotton produced under these various schemes, and other actions that brands may pursue independently. However, each of the five programs has a different slant – depending on whether driven by ecological or social issues. For instance, amongst other things that each of the initiatives do,

  • BCI forges partnerships and works to improve the social, economic, and environmental outcomes for farmers in the cotton supply chain above that of conventional cotton;
  • organic certified cotton strictly monitors pesticide and insecticide use, and farm management using national certification criteria;
  • Fairtrade certified cotton guarantees farmers a fair minimum price for their cotton and to invest in their community;
  • CMA focuses on improving the livelihoods and sustainability of cotton-growing communities in sub-Saharan Africa;
  • REEL Cotton works on-farm sustainability, supply chain traceability, and decent working conditions.

Cotton produced under the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) dominates output for the sustainable cotton sector.

Key reports and tools:

Thirsty for Fashion, Soil Association (2019)

Is Cotton Conquering It’s Chemical Addiction? Pesticide Action Network (2017, revised 2018)

Three Free Tools To Help You Source Organic Cotton from Cotton2040 and Textile Exchange


Source from Commonobjective. co


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