Cotton is a natural fibre and is therefore inherently more environmentally friendly than synthetic fibres, like polyester, which are made of petroleum, and regenerated fibres, like viscose, which are produced using chemically intensive methods. For most of history, cotton was considered a hardy, drought-resistant crop and was grown easily using environmentally friendly methods. However, in the 1800s, industrial methods began to be applied to its planting, and while these initially resulted in higher yields, they also led to a loss of biodiversity, soil degradation and sickness among farm workers - a toxic cocktail that led to cotton being labelled the world's 'dirtiest' crop.
Today, cotton accounts for around 35% of world fibre, but only 1% of it is organically grown. The organic approach to farming is radically different from the conventional approach. From a philosophical perspective, the organic approach views the environment as a living community rather than just a resource, and by working with the relationships within that community rather than against them, it aims to ensure the long-term health of soils and ecosystems, as well as cotton yields. From a more concrete perspective, one of the key differences between organic and conventional farming is that while conventionally grown cotton tends to be grown as a monocrop, organic cotton is grown alongside a range of other crops, such as lentils, rice and soy beans. This creates a biodiverse ecosystem, which reduces the likelihood of pest outbreaks, thus decreasing the need for pesticides. When pests do become a problem, farmers use natural methods of control, such as manure and neem oil, and plant 'sacrificial crops' which attract pests away from the cotton. Instead of using petroleum-based fertiliser, farmers enrich the soil with manure and compost, and plant legumes, which add nitrogen to the soil naturally. There is also an emphasis on employing rainwater harvesting techniques in order to reduce the amount of groundwater used for irrigation.
Organic production offers many benefits to farmers, such as a healthy work environment and food security from the growing of food crops alongside cotton. While short-term yields can be lower than with conventionally grown cotton, farmers benefit financially from the lower input costs and a small premium. In the longer term, they benefit from the security of livelihood provided by healthy soils.
A key obstacle to organic farming's uptake is the lack of a reliable market for organic crops. The premium received by organic cotton farmers is quite low and there is still relatively little demand from consumers. By purchasing organic cotton, consumers can help organic farmers in their quest to transform cotton production into a financially and environmentally sustainable livelihood.
Read about our visit to the organic cotton farmers who make our bed linen collection here.
For further information on organic cotton, see the Cottoned On website, a joint project by GOTS and the Soil Association.