What is Organic Cotton? Why is it better?

What is Organic Cotton? Why is it better?

Right. The question we get asked the most.

Which is quite understandable for a 100% organic cotton brand like ours, honestly. Organic cotton is at the heart of what we do at No Nasties. Since the time we started off in 2011, there isn’t another material that has gone into every single piece of our clothing. We swear by it.

What’s equally understandable is that many people aren’t too clear on what the fuss is all about. You see, just about 1% of cotton grown globally and in India is actually organic. But if you know its benefits, you’ll also feel that this number really ought to be higher.

Let’s get into it, then.

What’s organic cotton anyway?

Simply put, organic cotton is cotton grown as naturally as possible. This translates into elimination of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) seeds and synthetic chemicals like fertilisers or pesticides from the agricultural production process. 

Organic is more commonly talked about in the context of foods. But there are a few very compelling reasons why it has assumed special relevance in the case of cotton, recently. They go far beyond organic merely ‘sounding’ better.

 

But what is even the problem with conventional cotton?

Oh, it is a NASTY one.

Cotton (i.e. conventional cotton grown with GMO seeds and chemicals) is the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop. Here’s an eye-opener: cotton farming takes up about 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, but consumes 16% of all insecticides and 7% of all pesticides! 

In India, which grows the maximum amount of cotton in the world, it’s even worse -  these numbers stand at about 5% of land vs almost 50% of total pesticides in the country! Cotton is also one of the world’s most water-intensive crops.

These aren’t numbers that should be taken lightly. Here’s why:

  • Strong, toxic insecticides and pesticides used to grow conventional cotton harm the soil and also enter food and water systems as run-off.
  • They pollute ecosystems and are detrimental to health once they reach living beings as cotton oil or livestock feed.
  • They’re awful for farmer health. Some of the most common pesticides used while farming cotton have been banned over time in many countries and flagged by environmental agencies, with one even labelled “probable carcinogen” by the WHO (World Health Organisation).

Oh, but there’s more.

Our Cotton farmers are suffering

Conventional cotton, as we know it today, came to be ‘conventional’ once advanced agricultural practices normalised the use of GMO seeds and chemical pesticides in favour of better yields. This, of course, comes at a cost (literally) to farmers. And y’know, agricultural finance in India isn’t without its share of problems. It has a number of issues that add immensely to the plight of farmers. 

Consider this. GMO seeds and chemical farming agents are expensive. Further, high-yield pressures force farmers into buying these seeds and chemicals, resulting in debt-traps. Now, India has also recorded about 300,000 farmer suicides in 20 years. Adding 2 and 2 isn’t difficult here, sadly. 

You see now? Cotton’s image as a soft, pure, natural fibre hides these nasties. Not cool.

Organic cotton: It’s cheaper, it’s cleaner, it’s better

Does growing cotton organically fix these issues? YES.

In almost every way, organic cotton positively benefits the planet and the people who grow it. And these benefits come back to us too, in the form of food and water systems that aren’t contaminated by pesticides and insecticides (you saw how BAD it is, yeah?). 

In number terms, various research studies have been carried out to assess how much better organic cotton fares over conventional cotton on different parameters. Some of these numbers are quite startling.

Let’s take a simple t-shirt, for instance. It takes about 500 litres of water to make one! If we switch to organic cotton and compare numbers, you could essentially save about 17 weeks of drinking water, a kilometre or two of driving emissions and an entire day’s worth of bulb energy. These are just the resources being saved. 

There’s also a strong social dimension to why organic is better. The organic switch allows farmers to make a better living due to lower input costs. They can also rotate crops thanks to better soil health. And their personal health too is helped by not being exposed to hazardous chemicals that make up the pesticides.

farmer happy india

Organic cotton is A BIG opportunity for India

5.8 million cotton farmers. Over 40 million in cotton processing and trade. Largest area under cotton cultivation in the world - 12.6 million hectares. 25% of the world’s cotton production - more than ANY other country.

That’s a snapshot of the cotton sector in India. Yep, it’s HUGE.

As a result, India is the world’s largest producer of organic cotton too. And while India produces almost half of the world’s organic cotton, organic cotton itself makes up just 0.7% of total global cotton production. Therein lies a large opportunity to create a better, kinder cotton. Because it solves a genuine, local problem in India of farmer distress and suicide. It’s also better for the environment, better for the planet and better for all of us!

Through greater awareness and people’s action, we can collectively take advantage of this unique opportunity.

Land under cultivation for organic cotton has grown over time, but this isn’t easy for farmers. It takes 3 years for the soil to be rid of residual pesticides! And though initial yield isn’t as high as what they would have with conventional GMO cotton, it leads to a more consistent, sustainable produce in the long run.

So it really makes a difference?

Absolutely. We’ve seen it over the years while working with farmer cooperatives, Fairtrade factories and non-profits. To give you an example, the farmer cooperative from whom we get most of our cotton - Chetna Organic - has grown in size from 234 members in 2004 to over 40,000 now! Further, they are now able to sell a higher percentage of cotton (over 80% now, against 20% earlier) as certified Organic, Fairtrade cotton - thus earning higher compensation for it.

We also wanted to find out the difference No Nasties and its patrons have made by going organic. So we commissioned an impact report from Green Story and we were quite pleased with what came out of it. Essentially, by using non-GMO, chemical pesticide free cotton, we’ve saved A LOT of water, energy and emissions.

Our friends at Textile Exchange, a non-profit that does work in the field of sustainable materials and fibres, have also beautifully mapped each of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to the role that organic cotton can play in achieving them. It outlines how widely the socio-economic benefits of going organic with cotton can be felt by farmers, farming communities and the environment. Take a look.

Organic Cotton: For happier farmers, a better planet and a more mindful you

Okay, those were a lot of stats and facts. But here’s what they essentially add up to, when you go organic:

  • Farmers have lower input costs and are able to earn better. Their health isn’t affected by nasty chemicals. And they’re able to rotate crops for increased food security and biodiversity. Less debt, less distress.
  • The planet breathes better. Precious resources like water and energy are conserved. Air, water and soil aren’t contaminated.
  • You use something free of toxic chemicals and that choice has a far-reaching impact which goes beyond you. The air and water around you are cleaner. 

Does organic vs conventional cotton even remain a question, then? You decide. 

Our story of how No Nasties came to be has a lot to do with the problems we saw Indian cotton farmers facing. This shaped our desire to make a positive difference to the planet and everyone on it - from farmer to factory to you. And when you choose organic cotton, you make that difference too. 

Ultimately, organic has to be a people’s movement. Because YOU have the power to vote through your choice and influence those around you for the better. Designer Anne Klein said it best: “Clothes aren’t going to change the world; the people who wear them will”.