FAQs

1.Does organic cotton continue to be important to you after your change from 'Organic' Exchange to 'Textile' Exchange?

Absolutely yes! Organic will continue to be our signature program.

Cotton growing accounts for some of the biggest impacts in textile production. Growing cotton organically holds the key to significantly reducing negative impacts (such as human exposure to and ecological damage by pesticides, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity) and furthermore contributing a positive impact on the environment and the people who grow it. That's why we will continue to promote organic cotton as the solution to issues in cotton production.

In saying that, we are a 'bigger tent' these days and we fully endorse the increasing number of initiatives aimed at improving mainstream cotton production through reducing inputs and through farmer education. Addressing the 99 percent of cotton farming that is currently 'conventional' is key to a change 'at scale'. We hope that some of these efforts will serve as a “pathway” to fully organic production of cotton.

Textile Exchange is working closely with Fairtrade International and IFOAM to better understand and support the recognition of a formal 'cost of production' figure since this is the weakest point in trading organic cotton.

2. How significant is the impact of cotton growing compared to other stages of the cotton textile lifecycle?

Production, processing and product use are the most significant. With latest research ranking 'product use' or 'product care' such as washing, drying, and ironing, to have the biggest carbon contribution. 

The use of agrichemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) makes conventional cotton growing one of the most significant 'phases' in terms of environmental impacts in the life-cycle of textiles. (Note: life-cycle includes: production and processing, distribution, use, end of life).

According to the European Commission, textile production and processing contributes the most significant environmental impacts in a textile's life-cycle. Production and processing shares first place with product use (washing, ironing, etc). The production of conventional cotton is predominant in its impact on indicators such as climate change. Due to its large share in the textiles market and the nature of its production and particularly the high fertiliser use compared to other fibres, cotton is the main contributor to eutrophication. (Ref: Environmental Improvements Potential of Textiles (IMPRO Textiles) European Commission, Joint Research Centre – Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, report presented March 2011). This study recommended a reduction in agrichemical use as one if its top 5 improvement options.

3. Our company is concerned about water and climate change. How does growing cotton organically help?

Growing cotton organically ticks the box for both water saving and climate change adaptation and resilience.

Research suggests that the growing of cotton has one of the biggest environmental impacts when it comes to the lifecycle of textiles (along with 'use' and 'disposal'). If your company is concerned about water use and climate change then procuring organic cotton means you are most likely reducing your carbon and water footprint. For a start the mjority (> 75 %) of organic cotton is produced on rainfed farms.

Conventional cotton farming increases the potential of ground water and surface water contamination due to the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Over-use of water, particularly via irrigation, draws on local water supply creating competition, and in the worst cases severe land degradation such as soil salinisation.

Organic farming systems use biological inputs such as compost and green manure to build up the humus layer of the soil. This layer provides the nutrients for crop growth but also acts as a carbon sink and a water trap. Approximately, 70-80 percent of organic cotton is grown under rain-fed conditions i.e not using irrigation. Field research suggests organic soils may hold up to 50 percent more water than conventional soils (T. Bandel, Soil & More, 2010).

Further, if the farmer practices low-tillage farming techniques the carbon loss potential is around 20 percent better than conventional soils; with a compensation potential by carbon sequestration sitting between 40-70 % (early findings from the FAO, United Nations 2010).

Organic agriculture contributes to the mitigation of climate change by avoiding energy intensive mineral fertilizers and therefore minimizing the emission of the green house gas N20 from fields, and greater sequestration of CO2 by soil organic matter. Organic agriculture is also proven to be more adaptive to extreme weather events than conventional monoculture agriculture.

4. Why should cotton be grown organically? Is it going to be better for me, like organic food?

It is better for you as a global citizen, though the benefits may not be so immediate as with organic food.

In respect to the health of the end user, there are studies that show that chemical residues do remain in garments. There are also studies showing that people with hyper-sensitivity to chemicals are less likely to suffer from related health problems if clothing, bedding and other textiles are made from organic fibers (and manufactured without the use of synthetic dyes, etc). It is usually a preference for organic cotton that motivates people to choose organic. Market studies reveal that parents opt for organic cotton products for their babies both for the safety and as an expression of larger global concerns.

Growing cotton organically is going to benefit the grower. Because organic agriculture does not permit the use of toxic and persistent chemicals there are fewer occupational health hazards for farmers and risk of accidental poisoning of family members. There is likely to be an increase of farmers’ income due to organic price premiums and reduced input costs.

These days, environmental and social impacts are as important as quality of product. This recognition is considered good business, and good for business. Further, consumer choice is moving beyond immediate gratification to an act of conscious, responsible choice, and so it is with fibre as well as food.

5. Where does organic cotton come from?

Organic cotton is currently grown in 23 countries. India is currently growing over 3/4 of the worlds organic cotton.

Most production is taking place in India, Syria, China, Turkey, Texas USA, Tanzania and Uganda; although countries in West Africa, Latin America and the Middle East are also well-established organic cotton producers. Some organic cotton producers are also certified to Fairtrade standards (where Fairtrade certification is possible); particularly in West Africa and Central-South East Asia.

To find out more take a look at Growing Regions in our Learning Zone.

6. How much organic cotton is grown in the world – compared to conventional cotton?

In 2010, at a little over 241,000 meric tonnes (mt), organic cotton was 1.1 percent of the 22 million mt of cotton produced.

Historically, organic cotton began as the initiative of social entrepreneurs, farmers and NGOs responding to problems of misuse and overuse of pesticides and to social problems caused by production practices, low prices and farmer debt.

Since the 1980s there has been a steady increase in the availability of certified organic cotton textiles. Around five years ago, organic cotton production started to expand significantly but still only made up 0.1 percent of total global cotton fiber production. Five years on and organic cotton now represents over 1 percent of global production. This is a growth of over 500 percent since 2005.

Growth rates are expected to continue. Organic cotton production will continue to increase as the proven sustainability benefits become even better understood and more widespread, input prices continue to grow as oil availability peaks and climate change becomes more prominent. The benefits are not only recognised by the agricultural community but also by the textile industry. Organic cotton is an integral part of sustainable procurement strategies and CSR agendas for many brands and retailers globally; particularly in the West but increasingly in emerging economies all over the world. Another driver is the ethical consumer driving change through product choice.

7. Organic is such a niche product - how do we address issues in cotton at scale?

Yes, in terms of market share, organic cotton is niche. But it doesn't have to be.

The majority of conventional cotton farmers are heavily dependent upon companies providing them with seed, fertilizer and pesticide. This is not sustainable and things are changing slowly. An awareness of dwindling fossil fuels, climate change and soil loss is drawing farmers towards less input dependent modes of production. But it cannot simply be reducing inputs; knowledge of agro ecological systems is critical to sustainable farming in the 21st century.

Organic agriculture holds the key to the future of farming. The technique behind certified organic cotton production can most definitely be brought to scale. By reducing the amount of artificial inputs AND increasing biological inputs such as composting, green manure and crop rotation, yields can be maintained.

Considering that a significant amount of the worlds cotton is grown by small scale farmers in developing countries (on 2- 8 ha) there is no reason why organic or 'agro ecological' i.e. not-certified organic cotton can't be the norm - and be brought to scale.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that organisations such as Pesticide Action Network (PAN), CottonConnect, the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and many local extension service providers are working closely with 'mainstream' cotton producers, helping them make the transition to a lower impact way of farming. From here it's not such a large jump to organic!

8. Should I worry if a product claim is backed up by certification or not?

Yes.

There are many stages in textile production from the organic farms to the final product, and you want to be sure that you are in fact buying cotton that is from farms that have been certified organic. If you see a product claim to be organic, look and make sure there is valid certification supporting this (for more information on certification go to the Industry Integrity section of our Learning Zone).

Certification is mutually beneficial for everyone involved in an organic cotton supply chain to ensure integrity in processing and labelling. Transparency of process and visibility of farmers allows society to better appreciate the origins of a piece of clothing. It helps consumers make informed choices about the products they wish to buy, and contribute to the ecological and socio-economic impacts of organic by buying organic.

Product certification is important in the market today, and will only grow in the future.

9. What are the standards for organic cotton?

To start with we need to distinguish between 'farm' standards and 'processing' standards.

Organic Farm Standards are the required standards stipulating how organic cotton must be grown to qualify as 'organic'. There are national laws governing organic agriculture production and sales. To sell an organic product the fiber must meet formally recognized standards such as the EEC standard for Europe, the USDA NOP for the USA and the NPOP for India.

Voluntary Processing Standards are when a 3rd party verifies the inputs and outputs of a facility to ensure the organic cotton content and proper handling while turning cotton fiber into apparel and other textile products.

Fiber claims - These refer to the organic fiber content of your product and track the flow from the farm through to the finished product. These claims may be backed up through the OE 100 standard or OE Blended standard or proper tracking of the organic fiber flow. (This standard does not establish criteria for substances used during processing, or deal with quality or social issues.)

Production claims - These refer to how the product was manufactured or processed, as well as the origin of the fiber. Standards such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) stipulate that chemical inputs, dyestuffs and auxiliaries must meet certain environmental and toxicological criteria.

There are additional standards for textile processing that do not require the use of organic fiber, but can be used in conjunction with the OE standards or GOTS. For example, the EU Flower eco-label for textiles and Oeko-Tex 100 have guidelines that are controlled by independent testing organizations to ensure low levels of chemical residues in end-products.

For more information we recommend the following websites:

- USDA National Organic Program
- European Economic Community Organic Standard, EEC 2092/91
- NPOP, India
- Global Organic Textile Standard
- Organic Exchange 100 and Blended standards

10. Does the quality of organic cotton differ to that of conventional cotton?

No.

The physical properties of organic cotton are the same as those of conventional cotton. Quallity issues are more likely to arise from the amount of 'trash' leaves, sticks, litter etc that remains in the harvest.

In short, the quality of organic cotton varies to the same extent that the quality of conventional cotton will vary. Cotton fiber quality (organic or otherwise) has several influencing factors such as cotton species/variety (different varieties of cotton have different characteristics), weather, location and growing conditions, environmental and climatic variables, and the expertise and resources of the growers. In short, the question is not whether it is organic or not.

Comparing conventional cotton to organic cotton: since geography and weather have such a significant impact on quality, when comparing fiber from the same geographic area quality is very similar. However, when comparing fiber from different growing regions (e.g. Egyptian cotton with Indian cotton or African cotton or Turkish cotton) there can be differences but this is the same for conventional as well as organic.

The quality of the cotton fiber is determined by three factors; the color of ginned cotton, purity (the absence of foreign matter) and quality of the ginning process, and the length/stregth of fibers. For cotton textiles, whilst it is fundamentally important that quality of the original fiber is good, quality issues can also arise during the spinning, knitting and dying phases of textile production.

11. Does the yield of organic cotton differ to that of conventional cotton?

It can do.

At one end of the spectrum organic cotton yields are lower than conventional. It is important to understand that this is not because the mode of production is less efficient, it is more likely to be socio-economic and/or phase of transition.

To start off with the easy one: converting from conventional production to organic requires between 2 to 5 years investment. Most farmers notice a dip in production as their land adapts and their skills improve to successfully grow cotton organically.

Yield will in part be influenced by a farmer’s knowledge, resources and access to support via extension services. Since many organic ‘projects’ are in resource poor areas (where organic starts off as ‘default’ rather than ‘design’) composting, rotation planting and other important organic techniques need time to get established this will certainly impact on quality and yield. However, for mature, established organic cotton farming systems, that have been using sound organic production principles, research shows that yields (volume) of organic can be higher than their conventional counterparts.

Socio-economic reasons behind low yields are more complicated. If we were to take an average yield for organic production worldwide it may come in at lower than conventional. This has a lot to do with the focus placed on improving marginalised or impoverished farmers through supporting adoption of organic (for all the obvious reasons: food security, local inputs, higher premiums at market, secondary income from rotation crops etc). So in short, much organic production is starting off at a lower point.

However, studies show that when climatic conditions are unfavourable for agriculture it is the organically grown crops that are more resilient and will result in the higher yields; another advantage in a time of climate change.

Biodynamic production in Egypt and well-established knowledge-intensive organic systems are proving to have equal if not higher yields than conventional.

12. Is the end use of organic different to conventional cotton?

In general, the end use of organic is the same as ‘non-organic’ cotton.

Textile products popularly available in organic cotton include: baby and children’s wear, men's and women’s wear, intimate wear/underwear, sportswear, bathroom and bedroom products (sheets, towels, nightwear and so on). Organic cotton can also be found in health and personal hygiene products (facial care, feminine hygiene and baby diapers, etc). Future trends could be hospital and medical applications, industrial and beyond.

As fashion designers (and students) become more aware of environmental sustainability, social issues in textile production and implications for the textile industry, more exciting and fashionable products emerge. ‘Ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ textile production is now seen as part of innovative design criteria, a 'quality' product, and is of growing importance to the consumer.