Cotton is a natural fibre that comes from the fluffy fibres - known as ‘bolls’ - that surround the seeds of the cotton plant. It produces a soft, smooth fabric that is perfect for many uses, but is particularly good for household textiles such as bed linen and towels. Cotton’s softness and versatility have meant that today it is the most-used natural fibre in the world. This popularity has brought economic benefits to the farmers that grow it, most of whom are in low-income countries, but it has also created environmental problems.
Cotton is not an inherently unsustainable crop. For most of its history, cotton was a hardy, drought-resistant crop that grew easily using environmentally friendly methods. However, in the 1800s, intensive cultivation methods were introduced, such as the use of chemical inputs and large amounts of irrigation. This led to a decline in soil fertility and biodiversity, severe levels of water stress, and serious illnesses among farm workers - a toxic cocktail that led to cotton being labelled the world's 'dirtiest' crop.
Today, the environmental damage caused by intensive cotton production is leading more and more farmers to adopt an organic approach. Organic farming avoids the use of chemical inputs and relies primarily on rainwater rather than irrigation. In place of pesticides, farmers use natural methods of control, such as 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 long 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.