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What does GOTS certified 100% organic cotton really mean?

by Gaelle Guesdon 23 Feb 2022

Written by Zenda Nel
Sustainability Fashion Writer


The world is taking sustainability very seriously. Producing organic cotton at increasing rates is indicative of that commitment. This commitment can be seen in the figures of the 2021 Organic Cotton Market Report released by Textile Exchange this year: 229,280 farmers grew 249,153 tonnes of organic cotton fibre on 588,425 hectares of certified organic land in 21 countries.

Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald on Unsplash

And this trend is still evolving, with a market report released by MarketWatch predicting that the global organic cotton market will skyrocket between 2021 and 2026.

The world is moving away from conventional cotton because of its deeply negative environmental impact. Cotton is widely grown in many parts of the world. It is heavy on chemicals and water usage, with adverse consequences for the environment and the people who work to produce the crop and process it into textiles and apparel. 

Our scarce water resource is one of the biggest sustainability challenges of our times, with an estimated half a billion people worldwide not having access to enough or clean water. Instead of making sure everyone has enough clean water to drink, we grow cotton.

Consider this. It takes 2,720 litres of water to grow enough cotton to make one solitary T-shirt. That’s enough water for one person for 900 days. One pair of jeans is even thirstier, demanding 15,000 litres of water. There are many more shocking statistics, but you get the point.

Because cotton gets grown on the same land for decades in succession, the soil gets degraded, and farmers are forced to move onto new land, which leads to deforestation. Chemical use in cotton-growing, in the form of pesticides and fertilisers, also harms the soil and local streams, dams, lakes and water supplies, affecting humans, wildlife and aquatic creatures. 

Cotton production has been called the dirtiest agricultural commodity due to the fact that it uses more pesticides than any other crop.

In the light of these and many other depressing statistics related to conventional cotton farming, one would think that organic cotton is the way to go, but is it? Let’s look into the benefits of organic cotton, what it takes to earn GOTS certification, and uncover the hidden costs of organic cotton. 

The case for organic cotton

Better farming practices

Organic cotton farming uses non-toxic farming practices that avoid synthetic chemicals. This protects water, soil and air integrity, which is the basis for a sustainable crop. Organic farmers also manage pests that attack their crops, but they encourage a healthy, balanced ecosystem to achieve that. They use techniques like crop rotation and planting different cotton varieties, and encourage beneficial insects. To feed their soil and manage soil-borne diseases and pests, they rotate cotton with plants like clover and rye.

Clean dying processes 

Organic cotton is processed, dyed, and finished with methods that don’t require the use of toxic and hazardous processing chemicals. Organic dyes from natural dye sources like walnut shells, henna, horse chestnut, orange peel, pomegranate peel, thyme, and sage tea are used by some textile manufacturers.

Uses less water

According to the Soil Association, organic cotton can be grown using 91% less water than conventional cotton. In addition, Textile Exchange reports that 80% of organic cotton crops are not irrigated, with farmers depending solely on rainwater for their crops. This means that in these instances, local water resources don’t get depleted.

Produces better clothing 

Since organic cotton is not processed and dyed with harsh chemicals like azo dyes and formaldehyde, clothes made from it last longer because the cotton fibres were not damaged by any chemicals. For the same reason, the chances of skin irritation are also minimised. Clothes made from organic cotton feel particularly soft on the skin.

Positive social impact

Conventional cotton has an enormous human toll. Hand-picking conventionally grown cotton exposes farmers and their workers to toxic pesticides. Their exposure doesn’t end there as these toxins contaminate local rivers, streams and water supply systems. Drinking this water has severe health consequences, including cancer and congenital disabilities. Workers in textile factories are also exposed to hazardous chemicals. Inhalation of these chemicals has been linked to serious diseases, including long-term lung cancer. 

Organic cotton growers and their families are not exposed to hazards: neither are textile workers who work for a manufacturer that processes organic cotton according to eco-friendly methods. However, it’s important to know that organic cotton can land at a textile processing plant that doesn’t follow eco-friendly processing standards. 

Growing organic cotton is more sustainable for small farmers than conventional cotton. Since they don’t need to spend money on pesticides and fertilisers, they have more disposable income and can afford a better standard of living. Also, no child labour or forced labour is  allowed in organic cotton production. 

Where does GOTS come into the picture?

Gots certified logo

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a global standard that ensures the organic status of textiles and textile products, from harvesting of the farmed product, to environmentally and socially responsible processing and manufacturing, including labelling. GOTS certified products have not been made with hazardous chemicals using forced labour in facilities that don’t follow strict wastewater treatment practices.

A textile product that is GOTS certified as ‘organic’ must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibres, and a product that carries the label ‘made with organic’ must contain at least 70% certified organic fibres. The certification covers the entire supply chain, from the farmed product, including the processing and manufacturing of cotton textiles and the end products. 

If you buy a GOTS certified cotton T-shirt, you can be sure that it is made from organic cotton processed in an environmentally friendly manner. 

So, you are buying products with the GOTS label, but are you buying sustainable products? It seems that the answer is not straightforward. 

Organic cotton and the issue of water consumption

It is said that growing organic cotton requires less water. Yet, Quartz reports that according to Inc., it takes 660 gallons of water for one organic cotton T-shirt compared to 290 gallons for a conventional T-shirt. 

Admittedly, organically grown cotton only depends on rainwater, but so does a large percentage of conventionally grown cotton. You will never know if an organic cotton product is made from cotton that doesn't  require any irrigation.

Organic cotton takes up more land

It has been proven that fields planted with organic crops yield less. Changing from conventional cotton to organic cotton requires more land to produce the same quantity of cotton, which may lead to encroachment on virgin land with the usual detrimental consequences for biodiversity. Part of the reason for conventional cotton’s higher efficiency is that it has been genetically modified to produce more cotton per plant. 

Rotating crops have disadvantages

Organic farmers rotate their fields with cover crops like clover and rye to increase organic soil matter and ensure healthy soil. However, while a field is planted with a cover crop, the farmer can’t use it to grow cotton. In addition, cover crops also require a financial outlay, and the farmer may not be able to fully recover the cost if that crop isn’t also profitable.

Organic cotton and the dyeing process

Tshirts cotton
Photo by Keagan Henman on Unsplash

A point that is often forgotten is the fact that natural dyes are not completely safe. According to scientists, they are ’’non-or less toxic and/or allergenic to the human body and the environment due to their fast decay in nature as compared with synthetic dyes.’’ 

In addition, there are reasons why chemicals are used in the dying processes of conventional textiles. Natural dyes are not colour-fast; they fade quickly and require a mordant to improve colour fastness. Copper sulphate, ferric sulphate, and potassium aluminium sulphate are common mordants used in organic dying. Mordants also require water to get washed out of the fabric – ten litres of water is necessary to dye 100 to 150 grams of fibre with a natural dye.

While cotton may be organic in the sense that it was produced by organic farming practices, it can still be adulterated during the dying process. 

The GOTS requirements for wet processing read:

“All chemical inputs (such as dyes, auxiliaries and process chemicals) are assessed and must meet basic requirements on toxicity and biodegradability/eliminability. The use of toxic heavy metals, formaldehyde, aromatic solvents and genetically modified organisms (GMO) is banned. There are also restrictions on the use of accessories. Raw materials, intermediates, final textile products and accessories must meet stringent limits regarding unwanted residues. Packaging material must not contain PVC. ”

What are the basic requirements? Is a certain level of toxicity acceptable? 

Natural pesticides are not necessarily environmentally friendly

While organic cotton farming doesn’t use conventional pesticides, insecticides, and fertilisers, it doesn’t mean that the products they use are not harmful to the environment. Science Daily reports that some organic pesticides can be worse for the environment than conventional pesticides since higher dosages are required compared to synthetic pesticides.

Final thoughts

Switching to organic cotton doesn’t automatically solve the environmental impact of cotton production. When you buy a piece of clothing with a GOTS certified label, the most you can be sure of is that it probably had a smaller impact on the environment than a conventional cotton one, but not that it’s an entirely sustainable product.  

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