Organic Cotton vs Cotton

Cotton Plant

Just as we’ve seen organic food show up on grocery shelves, the interest in organic products has extended into your local yarn store. The yarn industry has not contributed as greatly to the environmental and human labour issues that have plagued textile production and the fashion industry. Today, the hand knitting yarn industry consists of many regional and local growers, farmers, mills and microspinneries, as well as fair trade cooperatives that provide us with a vastly superior range of yarns from which to choose. 

The majority of hand knitting yarns are composed of natural fibers, which are typically more sustainable than the ones in fabrics used in the manufacture of clothing and other textiles. The most popular hand knitting yarn is wool. Wool accounts for a small percentage of global textile production (1% in 2017). Although cotton is not as popular with knitters for a variety of reasons, it’s the most widely produced natural fiber for textiles, and because of conventional cotton’s negative environmental impact, it has seen the most growth in organic production. Let’s look at the differences between conventionally grown cotton and organic cotton.

What is cotton?

Cellulose fibers occur naturally in plants. Cotton fibers are the soft, downy fibers growing around the seed pod or “boll” of the cotton plant. Cotton grows best in warm, humid climates in areas like Egypt, India, China, South America and in the southern United States. Cotton is classified according to its fiber or staple length, grade (colour or brightness), and fineness. The fiber length is most important to the quality of the cotton. The longer the staple as in Egyptian, Sea Island and Pima, the better the fiber properties. These types of cotton are very soft. As well as being able to be grown organically, cotton can be genetically engineered to produce coloured cotton without the use of dyes. 

Even though organic cotton is better for the environment, it represents a small percentage of world cotton production. Stats for 2018 from the Textile Exchange show that approximately 10% of the cotton sourced globally was organic. However, there was a 56% global growth in organic cotton production in 2017/18, which is a very good sign for continued growth in organic cotton farming.

Conventional Cotton

  • GMO modified seeds are used to build resistance to bugs. 
  • often requires pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers (petroleum based), which disturb the ecological balance of the soil, and can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Pesticides used to control weeds in cotton fields account for more than 25% of all those used in farming. These chemicals also impact the health of farmers and workers, and can cause serious diseases.
  • tends to be grown repeatedly in the same soil, degrading soil quality. Conventional cotton tends to be heavily irrigated, resulting in water wastage and the removal of important nutrients required for healthy crops. It is a bit of a myth that cotton is a “thirsty” crop. Cotton is actually a desert crop with a deep root system, and uses less water than rice, soybeans, maize, and other vegetable crops. The key sustainability issues are typically with management practices, water depletion (irrigated cotton) and water pollution. These issues are dictated by geographic-specific circumstances such as access to water, mindset, and access to technology.  
  • heavy metals, chlorine and chemicals used to dye cotton are toxic. There is the potential for residue from these chemicals to remain in a manufactured product after washing, which can lead to skin rashes.
  • machine picking of cotton is common which can affect the purity of the fibers. Fiber waste, breakage of long staples, and loss reduces the quality of the cotton.
  • conventional cotton production leaves a human footprint. The challenges of cotton farming include poor working conditions, child labour, forced labour, health issues and low incomes for farmers, and gender inequality holds back development in communities.

Organic Cotton

  • no pesticides. Insects are used to control pests so there is little contamination of water sources. Weeding is done by hand, hoeing, and other cultivation processes.
  • crops are rotated. Organic cotton requires less irrigation, reducing water wastage and protects the eco-system. Using better regenerative practices like crop rotation and composting restores soil, and even sequestrates carbon from the atmosphere.
  • uses safer alternatives to chemical dyes and whiteners including natural and water based dyes, and hydrogen peroxide for whitening. No residual finishes are left in products; better for the skin and hypoallergenic.
  • uses natural seeds.
  • usually softer, because the cotton fibers are hand-picked. This maintains fiber quality, and improves durability and longevity. 
  • safer environments for farmers and workers. Cotton farmed sustainably can give farmers and workers decent incomes and improve livelihoods.

Organic cotton is much better for the environment than conventional cotton, and has made its way into hand knitting yarn collections. You can feel comfortable knowing that there are organic cotton yarns available in the market with superior quality for that perfect project.