Cotton, how sustainable is it?

How Sustainable is cotton
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How sustainable is cotton?

People and the planet is at the heart of why we do what we do here at OBG. We strive to provide our customers with some of the best sustainable products available and we have come a long way from when we started back in 2009 regarding the variety of choice.   However, there are so many choices of fabrics to choose from it may seem hard to know which is best.  Today, we’re going to discuss the different types of cotton out there, including organic cotton, and explore some of their impacts on sustainability. So, the next time you see something you like but are not quite sure how good it is, you will be able to make a more informed decision.


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Cotton is the world's largest non-food crop and employs around 350 million people, mainly in lower income countries.

Cotton is a popular fabric choice due to its softness and breathability, but it is important to consider the sustainability of the different types of cotton available. Regular cotton is the least sustainable option, as it often requires large amounts of water, harmful pesticides and fertilizers, and is largely produced in developing countries with little oversight.  A regular cotton t-shirt can take up to 2,700 litres of water to make and approx. 12% of a cotton product's carbon footprint comes from the production of cotton with the balance taken up in the manufacturing, distribution and consumer use, according to the Soil Association.  If you have to buy regular cotton, then the best option with the least impact on the planet would be to buy pre-loved.  The damage is done but you will be preventing that item from ending up in landfill and maximising the natural resources and human effort that went into making that item.

GOTS Certified Organic Cotton

Seasalt Sailor T-Shirt in Falmouth Shore Crimson Chalk in GOTS Certified Organic cotton
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GOTS Certified Organic Cotton is the most sustainable type of cotton if you want to buy something new. GOTS stands for Global Organic Textile Standard, and is the strictest certification for organic textiles. It requires the use of organic fibers and prohibits the use of any toxic chemicals or dyes. GOTS Certified Cotton is also produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way.  Comparing it to regular cotton, it consumes 91% less water and  it's carbon footprint is 47% less than regular. So, the farmers work in safe conditions and are paid a fair market price and the land is not contaminated.  

Organic Cotton

Seasalt organic cotton sailor top
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Organic cotton is another sustainable option if you want to purchase something new. Organic cotton is grown without the use of any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals. It is also grown in more sustainable ways, such as crop rotation and integrated pest management.  This is not only better for the planet but safer for cotton farmers to work with.  There are fewer regulations compared to GOTS Certified cotton and this is often reflected in the price.

Organic Cotton in Conversion

Frugi Switch Snuggle Fleece in Indigo Dalmatian organic Cotton in conversion
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Organic Cotton in Conversion is another sustainable option. This type of cotton is grown without the use of any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals, but is not yet GOTS certified as it usually takes approx. three years. This type of cotton is typically grown in developing countries and is in the process of becoming GOTS certified.  It's important to support farmers in their transition to becoming GOTS Certified because the benefits are far greater for both people and the planet.

Fairtrade Cotton

65% of Fairtrade cotton farmers also hold organic certification.  The
White Stuff Addison Cotton Midi Dress in Blue Multi
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The key benefits of Fairtrade cotton are that farmers receive incomes calibrated to the cost of production and that cotton farming communities are funded and supported to implement their own development projects. Common objective.
65% of Fairtrade farmers also hold organic certification.

BCI Cotton

Circus Dress in Waves Print made from BCI Cotton
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BCI Cotton is another sustainable cotton option. BCI stands for Better Cotton Initiative and is a global non-profit organization that works to promote more sustainable cotton farming practices. BCI Cotton is grown with reduced water and chemical inputs, and supports the livelihoods of cotton farmers. 
Unlike Fairtrade and organic cotton methods, BCI uses genetically modified cotton seeds and pesticides (within an ‘Integrated Pest Management’ framework that seeks to minimise their use). It does not have a price premium for farmers.  Common Objective

Recycled Cotton

Finally, Recycled Cotton is a sustainable option that uses fabric scraps that would otherwise be thrown away and turns them into new fabric. This process requires little to no water and reduces the amount of virgin cotton needed for production.
Each type of cotton has its own unique set of pros and cons. Regular cotton is the least sustainable option, while BCI Cotton, GOTS Certified Cotton, Organic Cotton in Conversion, and Recycled Cotton are the preferred options. The processes involved in each type of cotton vary, but generally require less water, chemical inputs, and resources than regular cotton.  Knowing and acting on this information will help to reduce the 70% share of the cotton  production market that regular cotton holds and increase the demand for other preferred types.
We hope this blog post has provided you with a better understanding of the sustainable differences in cotton and the pros and cons of each type.
Thanks for reading.

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