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CONSCIOUS LIVING by DESIGN. Transform your house into a home with furniture, furnishings and accessories and find your loved ones the perfect gift. All products are at least one of the following: Organic | Ethical | Energy Efficient | Sustainable | Chemical free

What is Organic Cotton, and why should I buy it?

Organic, ethical and sustainable living

Independent blogs by Sashi Smith. Her thoughts, stories and ideas for how you can make your home more stylish, ethical, sustainable and safer for you and your family


What is Organic Cotton, and why should I buy it?

sashi smith

What is Organic Cotton?

Organic Cotton is grown from non genetically modified (GMO) plants, and without the use of any synthetic agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides or herbicides (1). For crops to be certified organic, fields must be free of chemicals for three years. Organic farming is the only style of farming where this is the case.

Trends in Cotton:

Since the 1980s the global consumption of cotton has risen dramatically; almost doubling in the last 30 years. With demand now in excess of 25 million tonnes annually, the world’s consumers buy more cotton today than ever before. The primary product manufactured from cotton is clothing, which accounts for some 60% of the world’s total cotton production, with a further 35% used to make home furnishings. While the bulk of such products originate from Asia, the majority are sold to consumers in the developed world, with North America alone responsible for 25% of global household cotton product consumption, and Europe accounting for a further 20% (7).

But is there anything wrong with conventional cotton? Photo: APP Photo: APP

Let’s first look at how conventional cotton is produced. Cotton is one of the top four GMO crops produced in the world (5) and conventionally grown cotton, uses approximately 11% of pesticides globally and 24% of insecticides globally. However, only 2.4% of the worlds arable land area is used for cotton, making it one of the most chemical intensive and dirty crops in the world (2).


Pesticides are known to cause millions of acute poisoning cases per year, of which at least one million require hospitalization. Pesticides are used globally with 8 of the top 10 pesticides most commonly used on U.S. conventionally produced cotton classified as moderately to highly hazardous by the World Health Organization (5). Between one and three agricultural workers per every 100 worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning and there around 20,000 fatalities each year (4). The fatality rate is much higher in developing countries due to poorer health and safety standards and treatment facilities. The total health impact of pesticide exposure is probably much greater than these figures suggest. The symptoms of pesticide poisoning, which may involve a skin rash or mild gastroenteritis, are frequently similar to other health problems, so the link to pesticides may go undetected. Children are more susceptible than adults to pesticides for several reasons, for one they consume more water and food kilo for kilo, than adults therefore pesticides can have a more pronounced toxic effect.

REDUCE THE Impact oF COTTON FARMING On the environment (2):

Studies in the USA showed that agriculture is the main source of impact on fresh water eco-systems. It showed that about 72% of assessed rivers and 56% of assessed lakes are impacted mainly by agriculture. Furthermore, agriculture is also cited as a primary cause of ground water pollution with nitrate as the principal contaminant, followed by pesticides (US-EPA, 1994). Even when pesticides are properly applied according to the technical instructions, impacts on ecosystems are still possible. In 1995 an investigation into a case of fish-death in the USA showed that contaminated run-off from fields resulted in the death of more than 240,000 fish along a 25 km stretch of a river in the State of Alabama (PANUPS 1996). In contrast with pesticides, fertilisers are not directly toxic but instead alter the nutrient system and in consequence the species composition of a specific ecosystem. Their most dramatic effect is eutrophication of a freshwater body – an explosive growth of algae which causes disruption to the biological equilibrium, including killing fish.

THE Aral Sea:


One of the planets worst environmental disasters can be directly linked to cotton production. The Aral Sea up until the 1960s was the world’s fourth largest inland body of water, covering some 26,000 square miles—an area larger than the state of West Virginia. It straddles Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and for thousands of years was fed by two major rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Having no outflow, the sea’s water level was maintained through a natural balance between inflow and evaporation. Things changed after the Uzbek S.S.R. became part of the fledgling Soviet empire in the early 1920s and Stalin decided to turn his Central Asian republics into giant cotton plantations. But the arid climate in this part of the world is ill suited to growing such a thirsty crop, and the Soviets undertook one of the most ambitious engineering projects in world history, hand-digging thousands of miles of irrigation canals to channel the water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya into the surrounding desert. By 2007, it had declined to 10% of its original size, splitting into four lakes – the North Aral Sea, the eastern and western basins of the once far larger South Aral Sea, and one smaller lake between the North and South Aral Seas. By 2009, the southeastern lake had disappeared and the southwestern lake had retreated to a thin strip at the extreme west of the former southern sea; in subsequent years, occasional water flows have led to the southeastern lake sometimes being replenished to a small degree. Satellite images taken by NASA in August 2014 revealed that for the first time in modern history the eastern basin of the Aral Sea had completely dried up. The eastern basin is now called the Aralkum desert. (6)

NASA. Collage by Producercunningham. - 1989: aral sea 1989 250m File:Aralsea tmo 2014231 lrg.jpg

NASA. Collage by Producercunningham. - 1989: aral sea 1989 250m File:Aralsea tmo 2014231 lrg.jpg

The ecosystems of the Aral Sea and the river deltas feeding into it have been nearly destroyed, not least because of the much higher salinity. When the Aral was healthy, the water was brackish, with a salinity level of 10 grams per litre (the world’s oceans range from 33 to 37 grams per litre). Today the salinity exceeds 110 grams per litre, making it deadly to every species of fish and the only living creature left in the sea is a type of brine shrimp. In its heyday the Aral Sea fishing industry employed some 40,000 and reportedly produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union's entire fish catch, has been devastated, and former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards. The receding sea has left huge plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals – in part due to pesticides and fertilizer runoff – which are picked up and carried away by the wind as toxic dust and spread to the surrounding area.

File:The Aral sea is drying up. Bay of Zhalanash, Ship Cemetery, Aralsk, Kazakhstan.jpg

File:The Aral sea is drying up. Bay of Zhalanash, Ship Cemetery, Aralsk, Kazakhstan.jpg

The cotton harvests in Uzbekistan continue today. Each fall about two million of Uzbekistan’s 29 million citizens “volunteer” to pick millions of bushels of the nation’s cotton crop. The country virtually shuts down while government employees, schoolchildren, teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, and even senior citizens are bused to the fields to reap their daily quota. “Uzbekistan is one of the only places we know of in the world where forced labour is actually organized and enforced by the government, and the president himself is acting as a trafficker in chief,” said Steve Swerdlow, director of the Central Asia bureau of Human Rights Watch. Besides toxic levels of sodium chloride, the dust is laced with pesticides such as DDT, hexachlorocyclohexane, toxaphene, and phosalone—all known carcinogens. The chemicals have worked their way into every level of the food chain. Today Karakalpakstan registers esophageal cancer rates 25 times as high as the world average. Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis is a major problem, and respiratory diseases, cancers, birth defects, and immunological disorders are widespread.


Processing of cotton also typically replies on toxic and hazardous chemicals. Most of these chemicals, such as heavy metals, formaldehyde, azo dyes, benzidine or chlorine bleach, cause environmental pollution by the mills’ waste water and many can be found as residues in the finished product. A 2004 study conducted by researchers at the Technical University of Lódz, in Poland, has shown that hazardous pesticides applied during cotton production can also be detected in cotton clothing (7). Some of them affect consumers’ health and are suspected of causing allergies, eczema or cancer (PAN UK, 2006).

Over the past two decades, many improvements have been made: chemicals are increasingly recycled or replaced by safer alternatives, and waste water is treated so as to reduce pollution. However, these improvements mainly concern processing mills in rich countries, and sub-standard environmental practices are common in developing countries, where most cotton products are manufactured. Common problems for workers in textile processing factories include: Low wages, long working hours, health risks due to a lack of safety precautions and appropriate equipment and child labour e.g. Uzbekistan (8)

REDUCE THE HEALTH IMPACT OF Cotton in the food chain:

You may not know but 65% of conventional cotton production also ends up in our food chain. Cotton by-products, which are generated from manufacturing non-food cotton products, commonly known as “Gin Trash”, consists of cotton seed, stalk, leaves, burrs, twigs, etc. The “Gin Trash” is sold to food companies to undergo further processing to create cotton seed oil, additional additives and fillers in processed foods for livestock feed, and soil compost mix (5). Data compiled by FAO/WHO show the potential for pesticides to contaminate both refined cottonseed oil and cottonseed derivatives fed to animals. The full extent of this is not yet understood and further research is required.

Views from an Organic Farmer in Africa (10):

‘We still think of him’: since Moise and Celestine Adihou’s 13-year-old son Abraham died of pesticide poisoning, they have become champions of organic farming. Photograph: Andrew Esiebo for the Guardian Andrew Esiebo/Guardian

‘We still think of him’: since Moise and Celestine Adihou’s 13-year-old son Abraham died of pesticide poisoning, they have become champions of organic farming. Photograph: Andrew Esiebo for the Guardian Andrew Esiebo/Guardian

"The first thing is my health," says Dieudonné Aifa, 50, whose 15-hectare farm near Loholohouedji, growing cotton, maize and cashews, was converted to organic farming eight years ago. "When I grew conventional cotton, I suffered from different kinds of sicknesses. My body was warm all over and stomach problems stopped me eating. Now I work very hard but at least I don't get sick." Aifa has to work far longer hours now because organic farming relies on farmers rotating their crops, which takes time, and monitoring insects.

"The chemical approach is you go in, you spray, you kill everything," says Keith Tyrell of Pesticide Action Network. "When you go organic you've got to use knowledge, be more hands-on. Farmers here are first taught what a pest is and which insects are their friends. Then they go around putting a stone in the left pocket for each pest they see, one in the right pocket for a beneficial insect. A lot of organic cotton fails because you can't just take away pesticides and hope the crops will be OK. They won't. You need intensive training." For crops to be certified organic, fields must be free of chemicals for three years during which farmers must put up with yields down by up to 50% without the benefit of the 20% premium paid for organic cotton. But with input costs reduced when they stop buying chemicals, in the areas where organic farming is successful, farmers' incomes have increased. Aifa says he makes more money now than before, "that helped me pay to send my children to school and to build a house I can rent out. We're semi-autonomous, we've been trained in many things we can do without the agent. Instead of burning the fields, now we plough them." At a public meeting in the newly opened local school, members of a women farmers' group echo his enthusiasm.  It is 20 years since Beninese agronomist Professor Davo Simplice, now 62, carried out the first African study of farming practices that would reduce environmental damage. At the time, "nobody here believed it was possible". He formed the Beninese Organisation for the Promotion of Organic Agriculture (Obepab). Since then, Obepab has trained 13,267 organic farmers and now oversees production of around 1% of Beninese cotton, which is fairly traded under the French Ecocert system. Last year President Yayi Boni suggested Benin might in future move to an all-organic cotton sector – the first country in the world to do so. For now, Simplice says his goal is 5% in 10 years.

Convinced yet that Organic Cotton is the way forward?

Given North America and Europe are the biggest demand markets for cotton, the purchasing choices we make can have a significant impact on the environment and on society globally. Please remember that "All Natural" cotton or "All Natural" fibers are not necessarily chemical or GMO free. I would advise looking out for a standard called “Global Organic Textile Standard” (GOTS). It sets criteria for all stages of production and processing along the entire textile value chain and is one of the best guarantees that your cotton product has been made in an environmentally and ethically friendly way from start to finish.


(1)         Organic Cotton. Wikipedia.

(2)      The impact of cotton on fresh water resources and eco-systems. World Wildlife Fund.

(3)      Freshwater biodiversity: importance, threats, status and conservation challenges. Wiley Library.

(4)      Childhood pesticide poisoning. World Health Organisation.

(5)      Chemical Cotton. Rodale Institute

(6)      Aral Sea. Wikipedia.

(7)      The deadly chemicals in cotton. The Environmental Justice Foundation.

(8)      Risk of cotton processing. Organic Cotton Org.

(9)      Sins of the Aral Sea. National Geographic.

(10)       Cotton Trade. Where does you’re your cotton grow? The Guardian.