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What is organic cotton?

/ Words: Melanie van Berkel

/ Category: Materials

/ Published: January 2022

What is organic cotton?

Since a few years we spot it more and more in the labels of several fashion brands: made of organic cotton. At Teym we use organic cotton as well. But what is organic cotton? What is the difference between cotton we’ve known for years and organic cotton? Organic sounds green, but is it as sustainable as it sounds? In this blog we’ll explain the advantages of organic cotton and why we’ve chosen to use it.

The production of cotton – from cotton field to shop

The most cotton plantations are situated in the United States, China and India. Together with other cotton producing countries 32,7 million hectares of cottonseed (as big as the total surface of India) is grown. Therefore, it’s safe to say the production of cotton has an enormous impact on the local flora and fauna. 

After the cotton plant bloomed, fruits are starting to arise. As soon as the fruits are ripe, they pop open and you can see the well-known white bolls for the first time. So cotton is basically a type of fruit. The production process starts with gathering the cotton bolls, which they press into enormous cotton bales afterwards. These bales are mostly mixtures of cotton from cotton producers from different countries – sometimes it consists of cotton from hundreds up to thousands different cotton farmers. After arriving at the weaving mills, the bales go into a machine which weaves the cotton into massive cloths. These cloths are grey and they have a stiff structure. By using heat and chemicals (which are often needed for the production of cotton) the cloths become soft and white. Traditionally it’s a labor-intensive process. However, it’s an almost entirely automatized process nowadays. Nevertheless, the real work hasn’t started yet. The real handwork starts after this phase, when the cloths are used for the production of clothing.

Consequences of (organic) cotton for our climate

Harvesting cotton, whether  it’s produced organic or not, can have many harmful consequences for our climate. One kilogram of usable cotton normally needs 10.000 liters of water. This means about 2700 liters of water is needed for the production of one T-Shirt – or 8500 liters of water for your pair of jeans. This is the quantity of water you normally drink in 3 years. However, there are differences: cotton from China needs around 6.000 liters of water per kilogram while Indian cotton needs around 22.500 liters of water per kilogram. This, among other things, depends on the techniques they use and the local climate – in India the irrigation water evaporates faster than in China. Is the irrigation system not working properly in the area where the cotton is grown? This often has a massive influence on the climate and the local population, such as dried-up rivers and lakes.

Not only the water usage has an enormous impact on the climate. The cotton plant is also very sensitive to diseases. To lessen the chance of diseases the producers of conventional cotton often use (chemical) pesticides. To make harvesting conventional cotton easier, chemicals are used to cause defoliation. These chemicals are harmful for the climate as well as for the people who work with them.

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What is organic cotton?

An alternative for regular cotton is the more and more used organic cotton. Unlike regular cotton they only use natural resources for the production of organic cotton instead of chemical pesticides. By using garlic blend and pheromones unwanted insects are caught and scared away. They don’t use genetically modified plants anymore and they change between lands and crops so they won’t exploit the soil. This lessens the chance for diseases and a monotone eco-system.

The water usage still is a challenging problem. A regular cotton plant produces way more fabric per (genetically modified) plant, so to produce the same quantity of fibers in an organic way you need more plants, soil and water. Nevertheless, it is proved that organic cotton has more advantages than regular cotton. It diminishes greenhouse gas emissions, acidification of the atmosphere, soil erosion, usage of non-renewable energy and usage of surface and groundwater (Textile Exchange, 2014). It is a lot healthier for the farmers and manufacturers to work with organic cotton as well.

Only 15% of the cotton is produced in a sustainable way in comparison to 85% of the regular cotton. 1.3% of this 15% carries a ‘fair trade’ label (Textile Exchange, 2017) Among other brands, H&M, Levi’s, Nike and Ikea promised to use nothing but organic cotton by 2025.

How do you know if your cotton is organic?

Often you can see if your garment is made of organic cotton yourself. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is an international qualification mark – including in Europa determined rules – which demands certain requirements when it comes to the production of cotton and clothes. The qualification mark expects that the production of the organic cotton, of course, doesn’t consist of chemical pesticides, genetically modified organisms and fertilizers. They also demand that the garments won’t shrink, discolor or wear out much. Don’t worry, they haven’t forgotten the manufacturers. The GOTS certification also includes requirements for decent working conditions, fair wages and fair trading prices.

Besides the GOTS certification there’s a sprawl of other quality marks. Be careful of the so-called greenwashing – you think you’re doing a good job by buying a ‘sustainable’ item, but in reality, they don’t guarantee anything.

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Organic cotton – why do we use it?

Teym strives for a complete wardrobe that is produced as sustainable as possible. We only use GOTS- certified cotton for the production of The T-Shirt and The Sweatsuit. With this method we diminish the number of used pesticides and we can guarantee our manufacturers have better working conditions. At Teym we don’t only consider our raw materials when we are talking about a sustainable wardrobe. We also think of the people who are working with our products and how long the item will be used. Together with our manufacturers, we usually produce our own cotton. This is how we are able to guarantee the quality and lifespan of our timeless and classic products. 

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