- ABOUT ORGANIC COTTON
- ORGANIC COTTON AND THE ENVIRONMENT
- ORGANIC COTTON FARMERS
- ORGANIC COTTON FARMING PRACTICES
- ORGANIC COTTON MARKET
- STANDARDS & CERTIFICATION
Organic cotton is cotton that is produced, and certified, according to organic agricultural standards. Of most importance is the fact that organic practices prohibit the use of ‘agrichemicals’ (artificial pesticides and fertilizers) along with genetically modified (GM) seed. Instead, organic cotton is grown as part of a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and locally adapted inputs in place of chemical inputs which can have an adverse effects on the farmer and the environment. Organic cotton production combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.
Based on data from the 2014/15 growing season, a total of 112,488 mt of organic cotton fiber was produced by 19 countries. This is compared to 23.9 million mt of “conventional” cotton – meaning that, at present, approximately 0.43% of global cotton production is organic.
There is no evidence of a health benefit in wearing/using textiles made with organic cotton. However, there are significant differences between organic and conventional cotton when it comes to how the cotton is grown (without toxic or persistent chemicals) – which impacts our land, water and the farmers who grow the cotton.
There are a number of other cotton sustainability initiatives, each with a slightly different approach, geography and focus area. For example, Fairtrade prioritizes trade, organizational structures and community development; Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) focuses on livelihood improvement in Africa; and the Better Cotton Initiative aims to make the mainstream better. A more detailed description of some of the other cotton sustainability initiatives can be found in Textile Exchange’s annual Organic Cotton Market Report.
In conventional cotton production, synthetic inputs (such as pesticides and fertilizers) are used to maximize yields and to manage pests, weeds and disease. These inputs are prohibited in organic production and, instead, farmers use a variety of natural techniques. These most commonly include, but are by no means limited to; crop rotation, intercropping, minimum tillage, animal and green manures, composting, and biodynamic herbal or mineral powders.
Organic farmers use their knowledge of the local ecology to carefully plan their natural pest management strategy. For instance, this might involve the planting of ‘trap’ crops that attract pests away from the main crop, or the application of natural pesticides such as neem. Another method is to promote natural enemies of cotton pests (such as birds, ladybirds, beetles, spiders, parasitic wasps, bugs and ants) by providing suitable habitats for them. Building a healthy soil also helps avoid outbreaks of pests or disease.
Crop rotation and intercropping are important practices in organic cotton production for many reasons, including the reduction of weeds. Changing the crop grown in each field annually to a crop with a different growing pattern, as well as planting weed-suppressive cover crops instead of leaving land bare, all helps to minimize the build-up of weeds.
There are a number of methods used by organic cotton farmers to improve and maintain soil fertility, including: crop rotation, intercropping, vermiculture & liquid manure, cover cropping, animal manure, composting, green (plant) manure, mineral powders, and reduced tillage.
Cotton is relatively drought tolerant however it still requires a lot of water. Furthermore, cotton is highly vulnerable to pest attack in certain geographies and climates. In conventional systems it is therefore treated with large quantities of chemical pesticides and irrigation water. A Life Cycle Assessment showed that by producing cotton organically, negative impacts on the environment are drastically reduced.
Results of a recent Life Cycle Assessment of organic cotton reveal that water consumption of organic cotton is 91% lower than that of conventional cotton (182m3/1000kg fiber as opposed to 2,120m3 ) . This is because organic cotton receives relatively little irrigation, relying predominantly on natural rainfall. Organic cotton can also be a more efficient user of water since farmers focus on building higher levels of organic matter in their soils. Research shows that soils with high organic content can hold up to 30% more water.
Organic cotton production uses significantly less fossil fuels than conventional production. The results of a recent Life Cycle Assessment of organic cotton revealed that its carbon dioxide equivalence (CO2 equiv.) emissions are an average of 46% less than the CO2 equivalent emissions of conventional cotton production. This is primarily the result of the restricted use of chemical inputs in organic production, along with the fact that the vast majority of organic cotton is produced by small-scale farmers in developing countries who farm by hand instead of using fuel-hungry machinery and irrigation systems.
When organic cotton production and markets are working well there is a positive impact on livelihoods:
- It improves the food security of farmers – in order to improve soil health and deter pests, organic cotton farmers grow an average of 6-8 food crops alongside cotton, providing a direct source of fresh, organic food.
- It improves the food security of local communities – organic cotton farmers often sell their surplus food produce at local markets, improving the quantity, quality and variety of food available to the local community.
- It improves farmers’ net profit – despite yields sometimes being lower in organic farming, the dramatic reduction in farmers’ outgoings (from no longer having to buy expensive farm chemicals and seed), in addition to the higher price they usually receive for organic cotton, mean that small-scale organic cotton farmers’ net profits are comparable and often higher than in conventional systems. If farmers can manage without borrowing from moneylenders, or taking out loans at the beginning of the season, they are much better off.
- It improves farmers’ financial security – organic cotton farmers produce a variety of crops alongside cotton, spreading financial risk by providing multiple income streams. The higher resilience of organic crops in extreme weather events (such as drought and floods) also contributes to food or financial security.
- It gives power back to the farmer – organic cotton farmers usually produce their own organic inputs, meaning they are no longer tied into contracts with large corporations that often lead farmers into debt.
- It improves the health and safety of farmers and their families, since they are no longer exposed to the toxic chemicals usually applied to conventional cotton fields. This also reduces healthcare bills, allowing this money to be spent on other needs.
Organic cotton promotes the food security of both farmer households and their communities. It improves food security for households since its production requires farmers to grow a number of food crops alongside cotton (to improve the soil and deter pests), providing them with a direct source of fresh, organic food. It also improves the food security of local communities since organic cotton farmers usually sell their surplus food crops on local markets – improving local food availability, quality and variety.
Brands and retailers marketing products as organic should be willing and able to provide proof of any product claims. Standards, verified by an independent third-party, are often the best way to provide that proof. There are a number of standards to support a number of claims. The Organic Content Standard (OCS) can be used to support organic content claims, and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the most widely used standard to support comprehensive organic product claims from farm to finished garment.
Click here for more information on standards and certification.
Figures for 2014/15 reveal that over 92.16% of global organic cotton production stems from just five countries. India is by far the largest producer, accounting for 66.90% of global production. China is second largest global producer, accounting for 11.69% of production, followed by Turkey at 6.49%, Kyrgyzstan at 4.93% and the USA at 2.16%.
The remaining 7.84% is produced by Egypt (1.91%), Tanzania (1.91%), Burkina Faso (0.95%), Tajikistan (0.89%), Uganda (0.71%), Peru (0.49%), Mali (0.47%), Benin (0.34%), Ethiopia (0.13%), Brazil (0.02%), Israel (0.01%), Senegal (0.01%), Madagascar (0.004%), Columbia (0.001%).
In terms of supply, organic cotton is currently at a critical juncture; up to 2009 there was steep growth, with farmers planting large amounts of organic cotton. However, when the economic crisis hit, sustainability initiatives were also hit hard. In addition, cotton in general is experiencing competition from other crops.
After seeing a 10 percent rise in production of organic cotton in 2013/14, 2014/15 saw a slight downturn of 3.8 percent. However, production looks set to increase again in 2017/18 when a number of in-conversion programs in India reach certification.
Demand for organic cotton is without doubt growing and more and more brands have made commitments to use 100 percent organic cotton. This growth in demand will create opportunities to improve organic cotton supply chains, and incentivize farmers to increase production.
The main challenges at the moment are:
- Lack of seed availability: as GM cotton production spreads rapidly across the globe, investment in, and production of, organic and non-GM cottonseed is in serious decline. However, awareness of this issue is growing and investment is beginning to return.
- Mis-match between supply and demand: although demand is increasing for organic cotton as awareness of its benefits grow, the general supply trend has seen a decline in recent years, with 2015 registering a reduction of 3.8%.One of the factors limiting production is the seed issue, described above, but there are also issues in the supply chain that mean farmers are sometimes unable to sell their organic cotton for the price it deserves due to ineffective market linkages. However, new business models are being implemented through collaborations between big and small brands to develop strategies around organic cotton, so the situation looks set to improve.
The top 10 organic cotton retailers in 2015 are: 1.C&A, 2.H&M, 3.Tchibo, 4.Inditex, 5.Nike, 6.Decathlon, 7.Carrefour, 8.Lindex, 9.Williams-Sonoma and 10.Stanley & Stella.
Refer to the Organic Cotton Market Report 2016 League Table.
It’s not that organic cotton “costs more” it’s that conventional cotton “costs too little” because it does not cover all its true costs. Health and environmental costs are often externalized meaning neither the consumer nor the retailer ‘pays’ for them, the farmer and the environment does. When a fair price is paid, it makes a huge difference to producers and only a small difference to the consumer.