Lots of brands tout organic cotton as better for the environment than conventional cotton. But what’s the difference? Is organic cotton really that much more sustainable than conventionally grown cotton? We investigated so we could all make better choices when it comes to sustainable apparel. So check out our comparison of conventional cotton vs organic cotton and see for yourself which comes out on top.
Facts About Cotton
- Organic cotton doesn’t use pesticides. The Environmental Justice Foundation and Pesticide Action Network reported that conventional cotton uses more pesticides than any other single crop, thus dubbing it the world’s dirtiest crop. Want numbers? Organic crops saved 315,030 kg of chemical pesticides and 40.9 million kg of chemical fertilizers from soaking into soil and waterways (which damages ecosystems and erodes soil).
- Conventional cotton isn’t sustainable. According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, it’s one of the least sustainable natural materials out there, topping the charts just under leather and silk.
- Conventionally grown cotton requires an immense amount of water. In one year (2014-2015), organic cotton crops saved 218 billion liters of water. Cotton, Inc. and Textile Exchange state that an organic cotton T-Shirt requires 86 gallons of water to produce versus 2,168 gallons for a conventional cotton shirt. This is largely because research indicates that growers of organic cotton typically rely more on rainwater than other sources.
- Organic cotton needs less energy. In one year (2014-2015), organic cotton crops saved 288.7 million kilowatts of energy (the equivalent of a 60w bulb glowing for 549,314 years) compared to conventional cotton crops.
- Organic cotton contributes less to global warming. Compared to conventional, organic cotton crops saved 92.5kg of C02 (the equivalent of driving a car around the world 13,572 times).
- Organic cotton requires more space to grow the same amount of harvestable material, but even so, according to the Soil Association, offers a 46% reduction in global warming potential, 91% reduction in freshwater consumption, 62% less energy, and 26% reduced eutrophication (which encompasses soil erosion, disruptions in the ecosystems of rivers and lakes due to algae, and can encourage plant susceptibility to pests and disease).
- All cotton biodegrades, but not necessarily in a sustainable way. One advantage of cotton is that since it is a natural (not synthetic) fiber, it will biodegrade more quickly than, say, polyester or nylon, which is great! But since conventional cotton still contains harmful chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers from its days as a plant (before it was a sundress), those chemicals will leech back into the soil and waterways as it breaks down.
Cotton for the Outdoors
There’s no doubt that organic cotton is more environmentally friendly than conventional cotton; the numbers speak for themselves. At every stage of its life organic cotton is kinder to the earth in which it grows and everything that comes in contact with it. That said, organic cotton garments are best reserved for casual dayhikes and day-to-day life, not trekking across Appalachia (or even a weekend backpacking trip).
That’s because cotton–organic or conventional–doesn’t dry quickly when it gets wet, especially if it’s cold outside. For outdoor pursuits, that means a higher chance you’ll get blisters if your socks are cotton, chafing and sagging if you’re wearing cotton shorts or shirts, and really heavy clothing and gear if any of it gets wet. Worst of all, if it also happens to be cold, your chances of suffering from hypothermia increase exponentially if your clothes or outerwear get wet. And here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to rain for cotton to get wet and refuse to dry–sweat is enough to make it super uncomfortable (and unsafe).
So avoid cotton for extreme adventures (whether that means extreme temps, distances, hours on the trail, or extreme weather), but when you do have to refresh your everyday wardrobe, when it comes to conventional cotton vs organic cotton, opt for organic. It’s more sustainable and causes a lot less damage to the planet we call home. Yeah, it tends to be more expensive, but we could all buy a little less, anyway. So gear up and wander on!
A Few Sustainable Outdoor Brands with Organic Cotton Clothing
- United by Blue
- Toad&Co (read our Q&A with the brand here)
- TenTree (read our Q&A with the brand here)
Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com