Organic cotton farming proves to have environmental benefits, yet still lacks popularity among cotton farmers and businesses

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By Kennedi Hewitt, Ava Borskey, Connor Fallon and Grace Springer

When the cold weather comes around and people start searching for their most durable and fashionable heavy coats, brands such as Patagonia and Everlane are among the best rated clothing brands worn. However, in addition to being top manufactures for outdoor wear, Patagonia and Everlane are also renowned for their sustainable and transparent production practices, zero waste initiatives and environmental activism. Furthermore, they are celebrated for their commitment to using organic cotton over conventionally grown cotton. 

Organic cotton is often advertised as a cleaner and more sustainable material in the fashion industry. Like other organic crops, it’s grown without the use of pesticides, insecticides or genetically modified organisms. Despite being a rarity in the U.S., demand for organic cotton over regular cotton has increased from consumers and environmentalists. Regular cotton is typically grown using larger amounts of pesticides and other toxic chemicals than are used in the production of other crops.  

Cotton, the second most popular material used to manufacture clothing, is often at the center of the sustainability debate. Cotton LEADS, an American and Australian partnership dedicated to helping cotton industries implement more sustainable cotton growing practices, states that cotton is not a water-intensive crop and that approximately 60% of the cotton produced in the U.S. was grown without water irrigation. The organization also claims that with the help of pest management systems and biotechnology, cotton growers have been able to reduce their use of insecticides by 50% since the 1980s. 

In regards to cotton’s carbon footprint, the organization says that cotton releases “approximately 300 pounds of carbon equivalent emissions per acre.” Even with this “small greenhouse gas footprint,” cotton producers have been able to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 30% since the 1980s.   

Cotton’s impact on the climate does not go unnoticed by cotton farmers and ginners. Many cotton companies specifically state their sustainability initiatives, such as water irrigation and pesticide use, on their website. Cotton also possesses the ability to sequester carbon, and due to conservation practices and innovations, such as conservation tillage, farmers have been able to make the amount of carbon stored nearly equal to the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.  

Lowering cotton’s carbon footprint continues to be an ongoing effort. Dr. Kater Hake, vice president of Agricultural and Environmental Research at Cotton Incorporated, says that the cotton industry has an aggressive goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions even further — by 39%. 

Despite the supposed environmental friendliness of cotton, clothing companies and consumers alike have begun to produce and demand more clothing articles made from organic cotton versus ordinary cotton. 

“Organic cotton has been around for decades. It’s just now the consumer is demanding it a little bit more, and in fashion, we listen to the customer,” said Mindy Paradise, part-time instructor at the School of Fashion at Kent State University (KSU).   

Compared to ordinary cotton, organic cotton uses significantly less water and toxic chemicals like pesticides and insecticides during the growing process. According to a study conducted by Textile Exchange, farmers who grew organic cotton in 2015 potentially saved 218 billion liters of water and 92.5 million kilograms of carbon dioxide that otherwise would have been emitted into the atmosphere. 

However, according to Arielle Crawford, founder of the New-York based sustainable fashion brand “ARIELLE,” only 1% of cotton exported by the U.S. is organic. Crawford wants consumers to be more wary of their environmental impact when purchasing clothing.  

A model wearing Arielle’s Awake Tee poses with a branch of cotton. The Awake Tee is made with 100% GOTS certified domestic organic cotton, which is produced without toxic pesticides, bleaches or dyes. Courtesy of Arielle.

“We look at our fridges like whole foods, and then our closets are like fast food . . . no one reads the content labels like we do the nutrition labels, and it’s the same thing. It has the same effect on people as far as everyone in the supply chain, as well as on the planet,” says Crawford. 

The sustainable qualities of organic cotton make it appealing to environmentalists, but experts warn that the transition will be difficult for cotton farmers and businesses due to the large investment. 

Bob Hatmacher, a cooperative extension specialist with the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, says that growing organic cotton is not always economically feasible for farmers. “The problem in the marketplace with a lot of the organic crops, but particularly is true in cotton, is if the price in the marketplace is not high enough to cover your risk as a grower, then you have much less incentive to try it organically,” says Hatmacher. 

In the U.S. there are many pests and insects that feed on cotton, making organic cotton growing a challenge for farmers around the country. Hatmacher says that farmers around the globe have been working on pest management solutions. 

One such solution is the UC Integrated Pest Management strategy, a process that strives to help farmers accurately identify which pest is attacking their crops and provide a safe solution to removing the targeted pest. According to Hatmacher, this allows for a cleaner use of pesticides so that farmers will not have to release various toxic chemicals all over their crops. 

However, Crawford says that it is important to think about the long-term benefits of organic agriculture rather than any immediate shortcomings. “Organic agriculture is this way of investing into the future and trusting that we have enough if we continue to sort of steward the land and turn it over in a way that is an investment,” she said. 

“Given a choice to use fewer pesticides and do organic production, a lot of growers would at least be willing to give it a try and even devote a fair portion of their time to learning how to do it effectively,” says Hatmacher, “but if the price adjustment that the market is willing to pay is just not ever there, then their incentive to jump in that direction is much more limited.” 

Similarly, Crawford recognizes that sustainable fashion is often criticized on how expensive products and materials are. Brands such as Synergy, an organic cotton-based clothing brand, sells T-shirts that often exceed $100. Patagonia, while known for their breathable and lightweight outdoors wear, also has a reputation of selling relatively expensive jackets and shirts. 

“No surprise that if you want companies to have environmentally better business practices, you have to pay for it,” said Paradise. “Businesses need to find a way to still be profitable and still give the customer what they want, and it is clear that they are demanding that they want more sustainable practices.” 

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