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When shopping for clothes made of organic cotton, it’s important to look for labels that certify, if possible, that the entire manufacturing process is sustainable. Photo: Shutterstock

ExplainerOrganic cotton types, facts, certification and why you should buy clothes made from it

  • A sustainable fashion alternative to synthetic materials and conventional cotton, organic cotton is one way ethical shoppers can try and fight climate change
  • It’s the most sustainable way to dress in terms of raw materials used, one expert says, but spinning, weaving and dyeing still creates quite a lot of pollution

Many items of clothing end up damaging the environment in the form of microplastics. But just opting for cotton may not be the answer. We explain how to dress more sustainably.

Ethical shopping has become another way to try to fight climate change. And for those consumers that are most ecologically aware, it has long become clear that microplastics are hugely damaging to the environment.

As a result, those who try to shop ethically are increasingly opting for clothes made out of cotton. They try to avoid any sweaters, shirts and blouses made out of synthetic fibres.

But the problem with this approach is that cotton, particularly when it’s conventionally grown, can also damage the environment. One solution for the green shopper is to buy products made of organic cotton.

Clothes made from organic cotton from People Wear Organic. Photo: Instagram

We’ve taken a closer look at different clothing materials, to find out whether organic cotton really is a sustainable alternative to synthetic materials.

First of all, cotton is a renewable resource. Meanwhile crude oil is burned to produce synthetic clothing. This releases CO2, which further accelerates global warming and climate change.

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In addition, synthetic fibres are not biodegradable. “Synthetics don’t decompose and eventually become microplastics,” says Heike Hess of the International Association of Natural Textile Industry (IVN).

The association that represents manufacturers of synthetic fibre, however, naturally takes a different view. Taking all ecological aspects into account, artificial fibres are actually better for the environment than cotton, it said. Synthetic fibres relieve the pressure on agricultural land, freeing it up to grow more food, it said, adding that less water is needed to produce them.

Hess is aware of these arguments, but she says the claim that the carbon footprint of synthetic clothing is better overall can be misleading, as it usually doesn’t take the extraction of crude oil into account.

Organic cotton farmers don’t use genetically engineered seeds or fertilisers and no pesticides or chemical fertilisers. Photo: Shutterstock

When it comes to cotton, the high level of water consumption due to overused soils is indeed problematic, Hess says. In conventional cotton cultivation, the soil is often overfertilised with chemicals and becomes degraded, she explains.

Nicole Pälicke, head of People Wear Organic, a company that sells certified baby and children’s clothing made from organic cotton, agrees. Growing conventional cotton damages the soil, she says.

“Organic cotton definitely saves water because of the better soil quality,” Hess says. That’s because the soil can store water better. Farmers also plant different plants between the cotton to keep insects away, to provide more shade and to minimise erosion, she explains. This means the soil is healthier, “there’s more life in it”, Hess says.

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Another important method often used in organic cotton farming is crop rotation. Farmers also don’t use genetically engineered seeds or fertilisers and no pesticides or chemical fertilisers.

Consumers can tell whether organic cotton is the raw material used in a garment by looking for one of the following certification labels.

The Organic Cotton Standard from Textile Exchange label.

Organic Cotton Standard from Textile Exchange: This label certifies that a certain percentage of organic cotton is traceable from the field to the product. “But here it’s also not clearly defined how high the percentage has to be,” Hess says. “There are products with 100 per cent organic cotton, but the label is also awarded for a percentage of 5 per cent or more with the addition of ‘blended’.”

The Global Organic Textile Standard label.

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): Here, the entire production chain is certified, not just the raw materials. According to Hess, at least 70 per cent organic fibres are required for this certification. Products with the suffix “organic” have to consist of 95 per cent organic fibres.

This IVN label is only awarded to clothing if it is made from 100 per cent organic cotton, and it evaluates the entire production chain. “But the label is still not very common in the market,” Hess says.

There are other labels used for cotton clothing, but they don’t certify organic cotton.

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So just how sustainable are clothes made out of organic cotton?

In Hess’s view, it is the most sustainable way to dress – if you consider the raw materials used alone. At the same time, there is a major caveat: “In production, of course, quite a lot of pollution can still happen during spinning, weaving, dyeing and sewing.” Furthermore, the raw materials say nothing about whether the workers are paid fairly.

Hess concludes: “Using organic cotton as a benchmark is a good start, but it doesn’t make a sustainable garment.” So here again, it’s important to look for labels that certify, if possible, that the entire manufacturing process is sustainable.