A little while ago I talked to the head of a well-known snowboard brand who is very much in favor of sustainability and tries to push this topic within the company. Against quite a bit of resistance he manages to overcome some internal obstacles to launch multiple products containing organic cotton. At one of the first press conferences announcing this new move he got some very critical feedback from a, let’s call him “green” journalist that said: “Well, congratulations, you have now moved to a type of garment that uses up even more water than with the previously used classical cotton.”

Since that conversation I was interested to find out if that statement was really true and if organic cotton is not such a good idea afterall. So let’s get to the bottom of the matter. A couple of facts {1} about classical cotton production and the fashion industry first:

  • The fashion industry has a huge, tangible impact on the world’s water supply.
  • Growing cotton accounts for 2.6% of the world’s yearly water usage.
  • One t-shirt made from conventional cotton represents 2700 liters of water, and a third of a pound of chemicals, which often contaminate water supplies.

But what is organic cotton exactly and why does it use more water per pound of cotton?

Definition: Organic cotton is generally understood as cotton, from non genetically modified plants, that is certified to be grown without the use of any synthetic agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides.{2}

Water Use {3}
Conventional cotton: Water use per pound of cotton: 0.002 AF
Organic cotton: Water use per pound of cotton: 0.0024 AF

So organic cotton doesn’t use pesticides, but it uses more water. Is this really true? There is evidence that once fields are transitioned to organic, the need for water is lessened. And here is why – there is another advantage {4} regarding organic cotton and that is:

  • Organic cotton is a rotation crop. When crops are rotated the soil maintains its nutrients and is better able to hold water in. Regular cotton is usually the sole crop planted. Cotton depletes the soil, and leaves the soil incapable of holding water.
  • Most organic cotton is rain-fed and not irrigated.

Crop rotation is also an effective measure to break many insect pests and plant disease cycles. Another plus is that organic cotton farms keep lots of people employed fairly.

The water use of organic cotton compared to conventional cotton is indeed a slightly higher (0.0004 AF). But after 1 or 2 rotation cycles the soil quality rises and allows for the same or even less water usage. As organic cotton can be rain-fed in a lot of regions in the world energy use in the production process is also reduced. Other advantages like the use of biological systems to keep the balance, instead of using synthetic agricultural chemicals are obvious.

So as long as you can make sure that your certifier is staying true to the cause – organic cotton is definitely the better choice.