As a relative newbie to the world of sustainable and ethical fashion, one of the most confusing things to me has been trying to figure out what exactly is sustainable or ethical, and what’s just a gimmick to make a company sound good. In particular, the word “organic” seems to be everywhere in the world of sustainability—but it’s often questionable what that actually means or why it’s good for the earth. So let’s break it down with one of the most common and environmentally harmful textiles: cotton.
Note: If you’re just here for a review of Synergy Organic Clothing, scroll to the end!
What is organic cotton?
Organic cotton is grown using methods that are supposed to be less harmful to the environment. This includes production systems which replenish soil fertility, use less water and less toxic pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture. Only 1% of the world’s cotton is produced organically.
Organic cotton farming attempts to address the considerable environmental concerns with conventional cotton, including the industry’s consumption of water and usage of toxic pesticides and other chemicals.
Is organic cotton more sustainable and ethical?
Like many other aspects of sustainable and ethical fashion, organic cotton isn’t a perfect solution and it’s not going to save the world on its own.
That being said, here are some of the awesome benefits of organic cotton:
- More sustainable agricultural practices: Organic cotton farming encourages production systems which replenish soil fertility and biological diversity.
- Using less toxic pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides: Conventional cotton producers use an estimated 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the world’s pesticides. The problem with these toxic chemicals is that they are often harmful to other species besides the pests (including humans), and they end up contaminating soil and water. Besides the fact that as consumers, we are exposed to pesticides in our clothing and environment, farmers are the most directly affected: the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 20,000 deaths each year are the result of pesticide poisoning in developing countries and in the U.S., up to 10,000 farmers each year die from pesticide-related cancers. Organic cotton production, on the other hand, may use pesticides, but they are generally considered to be safer than the ones used in conventional cotton farming.
And to give you the other side of the story, here are some arguments of organic cotton skeptics:
- Yield is lower, so more water is actually used: Since organic cotton doesn’t use genetically-modified plants, the crop yield is lower. This means that it may technically take more water to produce an organic t-shirt.
- Organic cotton isn’t necessarily organically dyed and finished: Dyeing and finishing is one of the most polluting and toxic steps in textile production. Just because your cotton was organically grown doesn’t mean that the dyeing and finishing process was organic, unless the garment is GOTS-certified (discussed in the next section).
The bottom line: Although organic cotton is probably better for the environment and workers just based on the fact that less toxic pesticides are used, the claim that your cotton was organically grown isn’t going to absolve your T-shirt of all its environmental sins. As conscious consumers, we should look at the holistic process of textile and garment production, including the dyeing and finishing process. I’ve linked my sources above so you can start digging into the research yourself and be a knowledgeable shopper. And as always, we should keep the core tenet of sustainable fashion in mind: Buy fewer, better things!
So…what’s a conscious consumer to do?
A great certification to look for is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which is the worldwide textile processing standard for organic fibers. Any GOTS-certified “organic” item contains at least 95% organic fibers and any GOTS-certified “made with organic” item contains at least 70% organic fibers.
GOTS also requires other environmentally-friendly and ethical labor practices, such as restrictions on toxic chemicals and materials used in production and dyeing, voluntary labor, safe working conditions, and other standards set by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Buying GOTS-certified clothing means that you can be assured that the entire process, including dyeing and finishing, was done organically—and that fair labor practices are in place.
Where can I buy GOTS-certified organic cotton clothing?
Great question! The good news is that there are many GOTS-certified brands making organic cotton clothing at a variety of price points.
Synergy Organic Clothing recently sent me a couple of items to review that I’ve styled in this post. They make GOTS-certified, super soft organic cotton clothing that feels as good as it is for the earth!
Synergy sent me their Ibiza maxi dress and boyfriend tee. The clothes are soooo soft and comfortable in this summer heat. In terms of sizing, the Ibiza dress is a bit long on my 5’2 frame and the boyfriend tee runs large because of its looser fit. Prices run a little on the higher end, but they’re having a 40% off sale right now!
(For full transparency, the Ibiza dress did come with some frayed threads on the strap, but their marketing department assured me that it’s their customer service policy to exchange damaged items.)
For a list of other organic brands, check out this post on The Good Trade (GOTS certification is noted in descriptions where applicable).
What are your thoughts on organic cotton?
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Restitch & resist,
Disclosure: Synergy provided the products I featured in this post for free, but all opinions are my own.