Organic Cotton Production is on the rise, but is it all that it’s cracked up to be?

Textile Exchange revealed in a recent press release that 2017/2018 saw a 56 percent growth in global organic cotton production, with 180,971 metric tons produced.

Ruth Kelly

However organic cotton still only makes up 0.7 percent of total cotton production globally, and it’s been hovering around that level for quite a number of year now. With the increased  focus on sustainability and many brands now mandating preferred fibres, why is the adoption of organic cotton so low, and indeed should we actually be aiming to increase the amount of organic cotton produced?

Organic cotton is grown in only 19 countries around the world as opposed to over 80 countries growing regular cotton.  80% of the organic production comes from just 3 of the growing nations : India (47%), China (21%), and Kyrgyzstan (12%). Ssachs Magazine recently learnt that although the USA is the world’s third largest grower of cotton, there are in fact only 68 organic cotton farmers in the whole of the USA. So we were curious to learn  why this might be, and what is the relevance to the sportswear industry?

Cotton in Sportswear

Cotton is the second most used fibre across all end uses, with a 21-25% global share behind synthetics. Although cotton has natural breathability, high moisture regain and softness, its major disadvantage in the sportswear arena is that when it becomes saturated with moisture (rain, sweat or washing) it takes forever to dry. Synthetics with their ability to wick and transport moisture, allow the athlete to stay dryer and have less distractions both during and post activity. We tend to see therefore cotton used in sportswear either as a blend , in less high intensity sports, and /or post workout (hoodies, sweats etc).

Photo credit : Groceries Apparel showing 87% non GMO organic cotton High Waisted Seam Leggings
Products Volcom 04
Photo credit: Volcom

Cotton History

Scientists estimate that cotton (Gossypium)  has existed between ten and twenty million years. Human cultivation of the plant has changed the naturally occurring species to evolve into a smaller, more compact and easier to harvest variety. In total there are now about 50 species.

Cotton is a rather difficult plant to farm. It prefers warm temperatures with little or no frost,  lots of water (both to grow and process), lots of nutrients and its susceptible to disease. 

Cotton Growing Stats

  • 57% of global cotton production takes place in areas under high or extreme water stress, according to data compiled by the World Resources Institute. 
  • 30% of the cotton produced comes from ‘rain-fed’ farming.  The rest relies on irrigation, mainly wasteful flood irrigation.
  • Growing requires 20-25 inches of rain per year (preferably concentrated in the middle of the growing period) 
  • 2,700 litres of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt
  • 4% of all world pesticides and 10% of all insecticides are used in cotton-growing
  • During the 2016-2017 season an estimated 106.5 million bales of cotton were produced globally requiring nearly 3 % of the world’s arable land. 

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton according to the Higg Index has less of an environmental impact compared to regular cotton. So why don’t we just switch completely over to organic? Well even if we wanted to and could afford to, there simply isn’t enough organic cotton out there in the variety of staple lengths required. Organic cotton has a lower yield compared to regular cotton, so converting 100% at the same global consumption would result in more arable land being taken up by cotton growing as opposed to growing food. 

A close up of text on a white background
Description automatically generated
Photo Credit : Textile Exchange “How Organic Farming Systems Work”

Other barriers that have to be overcome are  the high costs of certification for farmers and lack of one unified global standard. Another requirement of organic cotton is that it has not been genetically modified (GM).

The availability of Non GM seed is a huge obstacles for farmers, especially in India and China, ironically the two major organic cotton producing countries.

Former World Bank economist and financial analyst Veronica Bates Kassalty in her ’Sustainable’ Cotton – The Whole, Shocking Truth” report published recently  in Apparel Insider, goes one step further and reports that many claims around cotton standards are unsubstantiated and that global organic cotton production, is at the most fundamental level completely unsustainable.

Perhaps we need to first look at our consumption of cotton – both regular and organic and reduce what we are buying, purchasing less and better. Then turning to  recycling cotton options, before finally considering virgin cotton fibre, organic and then regular. Maybe then we will see a rise in the per centage of organic cotton versus regular cotton, with a resulting dip in combined cotton global bales.

January 2020 will see the publication of The Inside Guide to Cotton & Sustainability from EcoTextile News, charting cotton’s rich past and uncertain future.

Further reading:

TEXTILE EXCHANGE/Organic cotton fibre classification

TEXTILE EXCHANGE/Organic cotton trading models

Article by Ruth Kelly, Materials Editor / SSACHS Magazine

If you work in materials; sportswear fabric innovation / technology / production, get in touch with Ruth to discuss your brand/business via