Organic cotton vs regular cotton – what are the differences, and which one is better if you are looking to buy a product with cotton in it?
In this comparison guide, we’ve looked to provide answers to those questions.
Let’s take a look at the two.
Summary: Organic Cotton vs Regular Cotton – Which Is Better?
The best way of answering that question is with another question – is it important to you to know how the cotton you buy is grown/harvested, produced and the impact it has on the environment, humans and wildlife?
If not, regular cotton is a better option.
With most regular cotton, you don’t know how it is grown and produced. You may pay a lower price for regular cotton – but it’s possible the environment, other humans or animals had to pay a price that you don’t see as the buyer (especially when you consider potential subsidies given to conventional cotton).
On the other hand, certified organic cotton can give you an idea of the criteria cotton has had to pass in it’s growing and production process in order to get to you – the consumer.
This criteria might involve environmental, social, quality requirements be met in order to obtain certification.
You have a level of certainty with what you are buying (i.e. knowing in some way how it was grown and produced).
Organic Cotton vs Regular Cotton – What Are The Major Differences?
There’s two major differences:
- Synthetic vs Natural Chemicals – Organic cotton stays away from synthetic chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers, and also in the production process (bleaches, dyes etc) – instead using more natural/organic farming resources, and organic production processes. Regular cotton in particular is known to be one of the dirtiest crops in terms of pesticide use in the world, and is responsible for a lot of water pollution through the use of chemicals in the production process
- GMO/Bt vs Natural Cotton Seeds – Organic cotton uses natural cotton seeds over the GMO/Bt cotton seeds used by regular cotton
Organic Cotton vs Regular Cotton – Are There Any Other Differences?
Apart from the main two differences, there are many other differences between organic cotton and regular cotton – mainly with how the cotton is grown/harvested, and then produced in production facilities.
You can read more about those differences in this guide on the pros and cons of organic cotton.
If we had to summarise those differences over different areas, some of them might be (this list is not full list):
- Water Use – compared to most crops, cotton in general uses a lot of water. Some sources say organic cotton uses less water than regular cotton. Something you have to consider with regular cotton is that even if the cotton needs less water to grow, you still have to consider the water that is lost through water pollution due to pesticide use, and toxic chemicals in the production process. Also, consider that a country like India (at this point in time) uses about double the global average of water to produce the same 1kg of cotton Western countries might. So, country and location plays a part too.
- Carbon Footprint & Energy Use – various sources say organic fibres have a smaller carbon footprint than regular fibres over the life cycle of growing and producing the fibre into a final product.
- Land Use – many sources say regular cotton has a better yield than organic cotton. A better yield means you can grow more cotton on less land.
- Overall Pollution – organic cotton probably causes less water, land and air pollution than regular cotton. Synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and production chemicals can be responsible for a range of environmental issues like water contamination, acidification, eutrophication, decreasing air quality, climate change, soil contamination and more.
- Impact On Wildlife – organic cotton is probably less harmful to wildlife because it pollutes ecosystems less.
- Use Of GMOs – some people see GMO use with regular cotton as risky, while some see it as beneficial. GMOs definitely have benefits – such as decreasing the amount of pesticides regular cotton needs, decreasing the amount of water regular cotton needs, making cotton seeds more drought resistant, making greater yields, and increasing revenue. But, some worry they decrease crop and plant biodiversity, and can create super pests which become resistant to pest control.
- Safety/Health For Farm Workers, & Owners – one of the big issues in developing countries is that pesticides can be very harmful to cotton workers’ health. Organic cotton may be safer for cotton farmers and workers who are at risk of breathing in and coming into contact with pesticides
- Working Conditions For Farm Workers, & Owners – certified organic cotton can also be Fairtrade cotton which makes for better and fairer working conditions for cotton farmers and workers. Regular cotton may not enforce fair and reasonable working conditions for those who grow and produce the cotton products we use.
- Revenue & Profitability – several sources say regular cotton produces more revenue and profitability with less land and greater yields.
- Time & Effort Efficiency To Grow & Produce – several sources say regular cotton requires less time and is more efficient to grow and harvest.
- Quality of the cotton – some people say organic cotton is softer and better quality because the fibres from organic cotton seeds are longer. This can depend on the length of the growing seasons though, and where the cotton is grown.
- Price of the cotton for the consumer – regular cotton is heavily subsidised in some countries which can contribute to a lower price. In general, organic cotton might be more expensive than regular cotton to buy – some of this can also be because of the increased time needed and lower yield efficiency of growing organic cotton.
Not All Organic Cotton Is The Same
When we talk about organic cotton – there are different types available on the market.
Some cotton is labelled as ‘organic’ simply as a marketing strategy by companies. You might not know what makes this cotton organic.
But, other cotton is labelled as ‘100% certified organic cotton’ or similar, and might have a certification symbol or label.
The good thing about cotton with a certified piece of cotton is you can go to the certifying body’s site and look at the criteria they require in order for cotton to be certified by them.
At the moment, one of the leading bodies for certification is GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard).
You can read more about what GOTS is, what their criteria involves and where to read more about them in this guide.
Regular vs Organic Cotton – Comparing The Growing & Production Process
As a specific example, Organic Cotton Plus have provided a helpful comparison table, comparing their organic cotton to conventional/regular cotton.
You can see some of the distinct differences between the two at each stage of the growing/harvesting and production process:
|Organic Cotton||Conventional/Regular Cotton|
|Seed Preparation||Natural, untreated GMO free seeds.||Typically treated with fungicides or insecticides. Possible GMOs.|
|Soil Preparation||Healthy soil through crop rotation. Retains moisture in soil from increased organic matter.||Synthetic fertilizers, loss of soil due to mono- crop culture, intensive irrigation.|
|Weed Control||Healthy soil creates natural balance. Beneficial insects and trap crops used.||Aerial spraying of insecticides and pesticides. Nine of the most commonly used pesticides are known cancer-causing agents.|
|Harvesting||Natural defoliation from freezing temperatures or through the use of water management.||Defoliation induced with toxic chemicals.|
|Production||Warp fibers stabilized using double-plying or nontoxic cornstarch.||Warp fibers stabilized using toxic waxes.|
|Whitening||Safe peroxide is used.||Chlorine bleaching creates toxic by-products, which are released into the environment.|
|Finishing||Soft scour in warm water with soda ash, for a pH of 7.5 to 8.||Hot water, synthetic surfactants, additional chemicals (sometimes formaldehyde).|
|Dyeing||Low-impact fiber-reactive or natural dyes with low metal and sulfur content.||High temperature containing heavy metals and sulfur.|
|Printing||Low-impact, water-based inks and/or pigments with no heavy metals.||Pigments may be petroleum based and contain heavy metals. Run-off spills into waterways, polluting streams.|
|Fair Trade||Social criteria in place to ensure safe, healthy, non-abusive, non discriminatory environment with living wages.||No social screening. Possible child or forced labor used. Facilities may be unsafe and unhealthy.|
|Marketing||Positive story can be told to differentiate you from your competitors.||None. As awareness of organic advantage expands, increased potential for negative image.|
|Price||Initial cost more expensive. Long-term advantages: priceless.||Initially cheaper. Long-term impact on environment: devastating.|
Other Notes On Organic & Regular Cotton
- Regular and organic cotton both have their pros and cons
- Regular cotton is not all bad – water efficiency is becoming better as irrigation systems and biotechnology improves, and pesticide use is decreasing on some farms due to biotechnology (seeds are becoming more pest resistant). Land use and land efficiency has also increased about 50% in the last 40 years. But, cotton is still one of the highest water usage and highest synthetic pesticide and fertilizer using crops
- Organic cotton is not all good – organic pesticides aren’t all harmless, and the organic farming method might produce lesser yields and lesser revenues and profits for farmers for the same plot of land
- The one big advantage of certified organic cotton is having some idea of how it’s grown and produced
- The future of cotton may be to combine the best parts of regular and organic cotton to create the highest net positive cotton process, instead of separating the two
- Where the cotton is grown, how it’s grown, how it’s produced – all are huge variables with cotton production that can be hard to full measure the impact of. For example, water use is not as big of an issue in cotton production if majority of water use is from rainfall compared to irrigated cotton using freshwater sources
Other Options Other Than Organic & Regular Cotton
If you don’t like the sound of either organic or regular cotton, you might keep in mind the following tips:
- Look at other sustainable fabrics (hemp, tencel, bamboo etc.)
- Look for Fairtrade products
- Consume less products in general, and buy high quality so it lasts longer
- Buy secondhand and re-use products where you can
- When you wash and dry your clothes – try to use water and energy efficient devices
All these tips can reduce your impact on humans, animals and the environment if that is your preference. They can also give you other options if price and quality of the product is important to you.