What's the Difference Between Organic and Non-Organic Cotton?

By: Gerald Nash
Cover Image for What's the Difference Between Organic and Non-Organic Cotton?
Source: @marianne_krohn on Unsplash

Cotton is a natural material very often used in textiles. Because it's naturally occurring, we rightly assume that all cotton is organic. Let's discuss why that may not always be the case.

Modern day cotton harvesting can be labeled two ways: organic or non-organic. Organic and non-organic don't refer to the cotton itself, though. They refer to the means by which the cotton is grown, maintained, and harvested.

Non-Organic Cotton

Non-organic cotton is produced by conventional means and is the most common type of cotton today. The plants themselves are genetically modified, and the seeds are often treated with fungicides and insecticides to minimize the risk of the plant dying early in its life cycle due to infection. The seeds are then planted in soil that's been treated with synthetic fertilizers. These fertilizers not only provide the cotton plant with ideal conditions but also remove weeds that could stunt the plant's growth.

As the plant grows, it's treated with chemicals that remove its leaves so that its energy can be directed toward the flower, which is what's harvested.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is produced by more traditional means. The plants are typically natural and not genetically modified. The soil it grows in usually isn't fertilized with synthetic chemicals, rather with natural fertilizers like compost. Crop rotation helps keep the soil ridden of weeds and full of nutrients when cotton is in season.

As organic cotton grows, leaves are removed by freeze drying the plant so that the energy can go to the flower.

Is Organic Better For The Environment?

That's tough to answer. Both types of cotton have their own tradeoffs with respect to sustainability. Non-organic cotton's synthetic fertilizers and chemicals are often toxic. And, the fact that non-organic cotton isn't usually rotated with other crops across seasons means that the soil withers away and loses quality over time.

While organic cotton's environmental impacts don't seem as bad as that of non-organic cotton, organic cotton requires much more land and water.

To Sum It Up

Organic and non-organic cotton aren't necessarily the same thing. The "organicness" doesn't refer to the cotton; it refers to the means by with the cotton is produced. Non-organic cotton is made with GMO seeds, synthetic chemicals, and harsh soil treatment, but it yields more cotton. Organic cotton is made with natural seeds, natural fertilizers, and crop rotation. It results in less cotton and requires more water and land to produce, but no harsh chemicals are involved and the soil quality is well kept.

Curious about the environmental impact of materials you wear? Be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter!