By Caitrin Watson
Have you ever been to a Wholefoods grocery store and noticed “conventional” strawberries sitting next to “organic” strawberries? If so, you probably noticed that the organic strawberries are more expensive. So, which do you buy?
In the fashion world, brands are facing a similar – but far more complicated – dilemma when it comes to conventional vs. sustainable (or “preferred”) cotton. Wouldn’t we all love to know our favorite pair of jeans was made from organic cotton – free from GMOs, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and toxic chemicals? Sure, but it’s probably not.
So, why aren’t more brands offering organic cotton products? And why are they usually so expensive? I will explain why, followed up with some tips of where to find organic cotton products, and how you can start building a more sustainable cotton wardrobe. Read on!
What exactly is organic cotton?
Most simply put, the term “organic” refers to plants that are produced from non-GMO seeds and are grown and processed without the use of toxic chemicals or synthetic fertilizers. But farming genetically modified plants in vast mono-crops and dousing them with synthetic fertilizers and toxic agrochemicals only became the “conventional” method of growing crops within the past century. Before these scientific discoveries, farmers grew cotton (and everything else) organically. Today, about 85% of all cotton produced today is considered conventional, and only 0.51% of cotton produced worldwide is certified organic, according to the Textile Exchange.Only 0.51% of cotton produced worldwide is certified organic. Click To Tweet
Why is organic cotton so rare?
While any farmer can choose to grow organic cotton, or use organic cotton to make their products, labeling these products presents the first layer of complication. No one can legally claim that a product is organic without a certification from an accredited third-party organization. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is the worldwide leading certification for organic textiles. In fact, there are a number of organic certifications, each with slightly different criteria. Here are a few logos you can look for:
Certifications help give consumers confidence that they are truly buying a better product, but meeting the strict standards of these certifications can be very challenging for suppliers. For example, a cotton field must be chemical-free for a minimum of three years before the cotton can be certified. If a farmer’s land has been devastated by conventional farming chemicals, it can take years before the soil regains the natural nutrients necessary to produce as much cotton as before. Organic farming also takes a lot more skill than conventional farming. In order to maintain soil health, organic farmers rotate their cotton crops throughout the year with other crops (mainly food crops) that help return nutrients to the soil. For these reasons, it is very difficult for most farmers to make the switch from conventional to organic.
From the field, cotton makes the long and complex journey to the yarn spinner, to the textile mill, to the garment factory, to the sales floor before it gets to us. Any non-organic-certified step in that supply chain can cause the cotton to lose its organic status.
Customer expect a lot more from their clothes than they do from their strawberries. Many of the features that consumers desire – bright colored dyes, chemically softened hand-feel, the acid-wash aesthetic, etc. – do not have organic alternatives. Therefore, most brands prioritize these qualities over sourcing organic cotton. And even brands that want to use organic cotton find it difficult – if not impossible – to find the qualities they need without compromising either the integrity of the product, or the integrity of the material’s organic certification. It can be extremely challenging for brands to convert from conventional to organic cotton.
What about Better Cotton?
It was out of this dilemma that another “preferred” fiber was born: BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) cotton. BCI is a non-profit organization that educates farmers on how to reduce water and chemical use, care for the soil, and protect natural habitats, while promoting decent working conditions. In return for adopting more sustainable practices, these farmers gain economic support through BCI’s members – textile mills, brands, and retailers who have committed to purchasing Better Cotton and incorporating it into their supply chains.
Unfortunately, BCI’s sustainability standards are nowhere near as strict as organic standards – farmers can still use GMO seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and agrochemicals. However, their scalable impact-reduction (as opposed to impact-elimination) approach may be the most realistic way of quickly improving the cotton industry as a whole. Think of it as cotton’s version of harm reduction techniques.
Since the organization’s founding in 2005, Better Cotton has gained 12% of total cotton market share, giving hope for a more sustainable cotton future. Because, while it is unlikely that all of it will convert to organic anytime soon, BCI is a far easier stepping stone for many of the farmers producing 17.8 million metric tons of conventional cotton globally each year (which is the equivalent of over 100 billion t-shirts). And for many brands as well, sourcing Better Cotton through a BCI membership is more feasible than trying to source all organic cotton.
Where can I buy BCI cotton?
This may leave you wondering, “If BCI cotton is so much more common than organic cotton, why haven’t I seen it out in the market?” The simple answer: BCI is not customer-facing, so you won’t find it on clothing labels. When a textile manufacturer or brand partners with BCI, they purchase BCI cotton as a percentage their total cotton consumption, and the Better Cotton gets mixed in with conventional cotton. Rather than having specific products that are “better” than others, the brand is improving their supply chain as a whole. So, even though you don’t know if a specific product is made from Better Cotton, you can still feel good buying from a company that supports this important initiative.
You can support Better Cotton by shopping brands that are BCI members. Since many top brands are already engaged in this partnership – including Adidas, American Eagle, H&M, Gap, Hugo Boss, IKEA, Inditex (which owns Zara), Levi’s, Nike, Target, and many more – you will find many stylish options at affordable prices. (Extra sustainability points if you leave an online review or email the company, mentioning your excitement about their sourcing of Better Cotton, and request more organic cotton options.)
Should I buy BCI instead of organic?
Well, no. If you really want to make a positive impact with your purchases, you should still stock up on certified organic products, which are demonstrably more sustainable than the alternative. There aren’t as many trendy items available yet, but thankfully the basics are covered!
Chemical dyes and finishes can irritate your skin, so when it comes to underwear and undershirts that you wear directly against your body on a daily basis, choosing organic cotton is better for your dermatological health, as well as the health of the planet. Online shopping makes it easy to search for “organic cotton basics” – and here are several companies that specialize in organic cotton underwear, t-shirts, hoodies, sweatpants, jeans, and more:
A few other items to look for are cotton-based home products. Your skin and conscience will thank you for investing in organic bed sheets and bath towels, which are relatively easy to find these days. Many of your local interior stores, like Crate&Barrel, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Target, carry such products. And if you don’t mind spending a few more dollars, I’d recommend checking out Boll & Branch and Coyuchi. Coyuchi even offers a towel and bed sheet subscription service, where you can pay a low monthly rate for the products, and exchange them for new ones in 6, 12, or 24 months, and Coyuchi will responsibly recycle your old bed sheets for you.
Finally, for all those new moms out there, organic baby’s clothing is also relatively easy to find. Your baby’s skin is more sensitive to irritants and chemicals than ours, and don’t forget they also have a tendency to suck on things. So many brands have started offering organic baby’s clothing, which are not only made with organic cotton fibers, but also do not contain harsh chemical dyes or other harmful substances common in many fabric production processes. Even H&M, Target, Nordstrom, and the Gap offer these products. Just make sure to look for a certified organic label to verify the claims.