Is Organic Cotton Really That Different From Regular Cotton?

The most enjoyable part about having virtual college courses has been my newfound ability to wake up late and wear sweats to school every single day. Not that I wasn’t able to do that before, but there’s something about being confined to a bedroom that makes comfortable clothing much more appealing than getting dressed up to stare at a screen.

Clothing brands are racing to adapt to the new demand of sweatpants in the apparel market and almost every retailer and wholesale brand has released a new loungewear collection in the past few months. Sustainable brands have been no exception to this as athletic wear Girlfriend Collective, basic-focused brand Everlane, and trend-driven Reformation have all been releasing their own version of sweatshirts, sweatpants, and anything else that appeals to peoples’ desire for comfort. New, innovative leisurewear brands are quickly taking off as they are creating a new niche in the apparel industry. Entireworld is a prime example of this as their website lets you scroll through dreamy color coordinated sweatsuits while listening and contributing to music that makes you feel as if you’re on a 3 month long meditation retreat in the Amazonian rainforest (Pull up their website on your laptop and turn up your volume. You won’t regret it).

Most traditional sweatpants are made up of a majority cotton fabric blend. Nike’s basic Women’s sweatpants are made of an 80% cotton 20% polyester blend, for example. In contrast to this, Entireworld offers sustainable sweatpants that are made from 85.5% organic cotton and 15.5% recycled polyester. Organic cotton and recycled polyester sounds more sustainable than just cotton and polyester, right? The answer seems to be yes, but many people have doubts about how sustainable ‘organic’ labelled products actually are in comparison with their ‘normal’ counterparts. I was curious about this too and set out to find the actual differences between organic and normal cotton.

Normal cotton is produced using a large amount of pesticides and chemicals which makes its production account for 16 percent of global insecticide releases. These pesticides are used to stop bugs from eating cotton crops but they often cause more harm than good as some of the chemicals used contain known carcinogens and are harmful to people as well as the environment. According to The World Counts, a rainwater study in a cotton producing region in Brazil concluded that the rain water contained 19 different pesticides, 12 of which are used in cotton production. If pesticides are so harmful that they are being recycled into the rainwater and poisoning people’s drinking water, why not just stop using them?

It’s not exactly as easy as that because cotton is a crop that’s prone to fungal infections and insect infestations. Organic cotton, though, is grown by using only natural fertilizers such as manure and natural, chemical free pesticides. So organic cotton isn’t exactly “pesticide free” like many people claim but due to cotton’s properties, farmers have to use some kind of technique to ward off pests.

Another significant difference between these two is organic cotton’s use of crop rotation. Crop rotation is the rotation of crops in a farm during the year based on which crops perform better in which seasons. So if soy grows better in winter, for example, and cotton grows better in summer, the farmers use this information and only grow cotton in the summer. This technique allows for more nutrient dense and healthy soil as it’s not being stripped by one plant year-round. Conventional cotton doesn’t use this method and instead attempts to grow the same quality and yield of cotton year-round, which is partially why chemicals are used so heavily to grow it.

Water usage is another huge impact of cotton. Traditional cotton requires 10,000 liters to produce 1 kilo (2.2 lbs) of cotton. It’s a known fashion fact that to make one cotton t-shirt takes 2,700 liters of water. Given this information, you might assume that organic cotton uses much less water than traditional cotton because that would be more sustainable. However, this is not exactly the case. The amount of water used to grow organic cotton is actually slightly higher than the amount used to grow traditional cotton. Because of the way organic cotton uses water, though, it is seen as less water intensive. As mentioned before, organic cotton uses crop rotation which cultivates healthier, more nutrient rich soil for the crops. This healthier soil retains water far better than the nutrient-stripped, chemical-reliant soil used to grow traditional cotton. Organic cotton also focuses on using water from natural sources, such as rainwater, rather than taking the majority from fresh groundwater reserves. And because organic cotton doesn’t use chemicals, the water that isn’t absorbed into the cotton plants or the soil is able to be recycled into drinking water without poisoning the rain like in Brazil.

Even though organic cotton is more expensive than traditional cotton and technically uses more water at the cultivation stage, it is ultimately more sustainable than traditional cotton as its production doesn’t require chemical pesticides or fertilizers and its use of crop rotation keeps the soil nutrient dense in order to hold water which results in less water usage over time.

So if you’re as lazy as me when it comes to dressing for virtual classes and want to buy more sweatpant options for the upcoming winter, try investing in slightly more expensive sweatsuits made from organic cotton. You can help out the environment and people in cotton growing regions all while taking classes (and watching Netflix on your sidebar) from your bed.

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