What TF Is ‘Organic Cotton’?

What TF Is ‘Organic Cotton’?

Highsnobiety has joined forces with the New Standard Institute (NSI) on an editorial series that aims to help us all become more informed about the clothing we buy. The findings below are all based on research conducted by NSI. 

“Organic cotton,” does anyone know what it really means? Much like “your invoice has been received” the term is borderline meaningless, but it sounds good right? The “organic” prefix suggests that the cotton was harvested in a utopian field of wind turbines, solar panels, and farmers with health-care and a 401K. But is that actually the case?

There are so many buzzwords bouncing around the topic of  “sustainable” fashion that it’s almost impossible to tell what’s legit and what isn’t. Is organic cotton better than normal cotton? How is organic classified? How, when most brands can’t trace their supply chain, can they be sure they’re using organic cotton? Is that something you can even gauge from reading a label?

In reality, the term “organic cotton” just makes our greenwashing needle twitch. For that reason, we linked up with the New Standard Institute, who helped us break the buzzword down so that you know what you’re buying and — critically — so the brands know you’re aware, too, and will hopefully stop trying to pull the eco-friendly wool over your eyes with bullshit marketing lingo.

So, first things first.

The NSI recommends making it a mental habit to refrain from equating “organic” with “more sustainable.” According to the government-regulated standard, organic means “generally grown without synthetic additives or pesticides and is not genetically modified, it also incorporates practices to improve soil health.”

In addition to the “organic” label, there is also the “GOTS” — Global Organic Textile Standard — certification, which is worth looking out for it you want to apply your growing environmental concern to your fashion habit. For a piece of clothing to receive the GOTS tag, it requires a far more stringent set of criteria, including fiber composition, prohibition of environmentally hazardous substances, as well as confirmation that these practices were met at every level of the (rather long and complicated) fabric supply chain.

Truthfully, the only way to improve the sustainability of a raw material would be to consume less of it, everything else is simply an attempt to mitigate its environmental impact. With that in mind, here’s how we’re ending the debate of organic cotton vs cotton.

Most of the world’s cotton is grown in the US, China, and India, where it needs a lot of water to grow (duh). For countries that struggle with water scarcity, it’s less than ideal for limited water supplies to be redirected to cotton farms where it will be made into throwaway political merch, while a person nearby desperately needs it.

According to NSI, half of the world’s cotton gets its water from rainfall — the other half is watered through irrigation (like watering plants), which is where the environmental concerns in terms of water usage lie. This is largely because “the organic standard does not regulate water use directly,” meaning that cotton that’s guzzling water can still be labeled as organic.

The main upside to using organic cotton as far as water usage is concerned is that it does help improve the quality of the soil, which in turn allows for higher water absorption. However, due to the generally lower yields of organic cotton, these findings are inconclusive. 

Verdict: Organic cotton can’t be said to use less water.

So, organic farming scores a point because it has been found to produce fewer greenhouse gases than conventional farming when measured by land area. Therefore, organic cotton is having less impact on the environment, right?


As it goes, organic farming has been shown to produce a smaller yield than non-organic farming. When these differences in yield are taken into account, some studies have suggested that organic farming (all, not just cotton) produces more greenhouse gas emissions per output. The NSI tells us that more research is needed before it can be conclusively decided that organic cotton farming has a lower climate impact than the alternative. 

Verdict: Organic cotton can’t be said to have a better impact on the climate.

Conventional (aka non-organic) cotton farming uses a large amount of potentially dangerous chemicals for the farmers. One is glysophate, a widely used herbicide that the World Health Organization deemed a “probable carcinogen.” In other words, it can cause cancer. (For context, in our interview with Indian brand Oshadi Collective, founder Nishanth Chopra spoke of how his hometown Tamil Nadu, a textile hub, has one of the highest infertility rates in India and “every 13th person has cancer.)

In terms of chemical runoff and water pollution is also an issue, organic farming is much better — it doesn’t use synthetic pesticides and therefore chemicals don’t run into local water.

Verdict: Organic cotton is better than conventional cotton farming with regard to the chemicals used. However, the organic label only applies to the farming and growing of the cotton, it does not account for what happens after the farm. For example, various other harmful chemicals can be used in the dyeing or textile process and still be given an “organic cotton” label.

Soil that is farmed with organic practices has higher organic content and improved soil structure. In layman’s terms, the soil appears lush and dark brown and full of little chunks, you know, how soil is supposed to look. Good soil health improves reduces soil erosion (which causes a loss of fertile land, increased pollution, and declines in wildlife).

Verdict: Organic cotton means the soil it was grown in is healthier than non-conventional soil. Nice.

Picking cotton is a laborious process, but the organic standard doesn’t consider the labor conditions involved in its production at all. Essentially, your cotton could be picked by impoverished children and still be classified as organic.

Verdict: Organic cotton doesn’t promise any better labor conditions than standard cotton.

Overall conclusion? Per the NSI: “There are some important benefits to organic production over conventional cotton production, specifically with regards to soil health and reduced water pollution. However, this is far from meaning that the organic standard is without impact. Organic cotton still has negative impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and water pollution. The standard itself also has no bearing on the chemical, climate or labor impact in other stages of textile and clothing production.”

As we said before, it’s not the most positive information — but knowledge is power and hopefully, this equips us all with the ability to read through the BS.

What would you like us to decode next?

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