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The Ultimate Guide to Organic Cotton

If you care about sustainable fashion and ethical consumption, organic cotton is a great choice. It is also a great way to green up your wardrobe without sacrificing on style. 

Organic cotton is cotton that is grown without the use of harmful synthetic chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers. Instead, organic cotton farmers rely on natural techniques like crop rotation, the use of beneficial insects, and composting to enrich the soil and control pests. This eliminates exposure to dangerous chemicals for the farmers, local communities, and the environment.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about organic cotton – from how it’s grown and processed to its benefits and where to find it.

The Ultimate Guide to Organic Cotton

Why Organic Cotton?

As mentioned earlier, organic cotton stands out because unlike conventional cotton, which is grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, it is cultivated without the use of harmful chemicals. 

So, why should you care? Well, conventional cotton farming is notorious for its environmental impact. Pesticides and fertilizers can wreak havoc on the ecosystem, contaminating soil and water sources. 

Organic cotton farming, on the other hand, reduces water consumption and supports healthier farming practices. Plus, it fosters safer working conditions for the farmers. 

How Organic Cotton is Grown

Organic cotton cultivation begins with the soil. Farmers work to improve the natural health and fertility of the soil through techniques like cover cropping, intercropping, and compost application. This nourishes the soil with organic matter and nutrients plants need to thrive.

Once the soil is prepped, organic cotton seeds are planted. Farmers choose disease-resistant heirloom seed varieties adapted to local growing conditions. Organic cotton seeds are non-genetically modified (non-GMO) and free from synthetic coatings. 

To control weeds, farmers use mechanical cultivation and hand weeding rather than chemical herbicides. Throughout the growing season, farmers use preventative methods and natural inputs to control pests. Beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings are introduced to manage harmful insect populations.

Traps, barriers, and pheromones are also used. If pest pressure becomes too high, farmers may apply OMRI-approved substances made from plants, minerals, or microorganisms. However, synthetic pesticides are prohibited.

Water usage is another key consideration for organic cotton farmers. Drip irrigation, furrow irrigation, and the planting of cover crops help improve the soil’s water retention and prevent soil erosion. Farmers also utilize rainwater catchment and natural water sources when possible.

At harvest time, organic cotton is picked by hand to ensure the cotton remains clean and undamaged. After it is ginned, which is the process of separating cotton fibers from the seeds, it is visually inspected to remove any debris before further processing.

Overall, growing organic cotton promotes biodiversity, enriches the soil, and establishes sustainable water practices. All these things are better for the health of people and the planet.

Ultimate Guide to Organic Cotton

The Certification Process

For cotton to qualify and be labeled as organic, it must go through a rigorous third-party certification process. This process usually involves extensive record-keeping, dedicated organic plot areas, and scheduled on-site inspections by accredited organic certifiers.

Farmers must document all inputs and methods used throughout the entire growing and harvesting process. Detailed records enable certifiers to verify organic integrity at each step.

To prevent contamination from other nearby conventional crops, organic cotton must have clearly defined buffer zones surrounding the organic farm area. Farm equipment used for organic cotton must be thoroughly cleaned to remove any chemical residue.

Certifiers then conduct annual inspections of the farms and facilities. Soil, water, inputs, record-keeping, and processing procedures are scrutinized to guarantee compliance with USDA National Organic Program standards. Cotton bales are tagged to allow tracking back to the specific farm where the cotton was grown.

Only after the certifier confirms compliance with the standards can the cotton be officially labeled and sold as organic. This rigorous system ensures customer confidence in the organic claim.

Here are some of the most common and recognized organic cotton certification schemes:

  • Organic Farm Certification: This type of certification applies to organic cotton farms, which grow organic cotton according to national or regional organic standards. Organic farm certification ensures that organic cotton is grown without the use of synthetic chemicals, GMOs, or other prohibited substances or practices. Some of the most widely used organic farm standards are the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), the European Union Organic Regulation (EU), the Indian National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP), and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) Family of Standards.
  • Organic Content Standard (OCS): This type of certification applies to organic cotton products that contain a certain percentage of organic cotton in their composition. OCS certification verifies the presence and amount of organic cotton in the final product, based on the chain of custody and the mass balance system. It does not cover the environmental or social aspects of the production and processing of the product. It is administered by the Textile Exchange, a non-profit organization that promotes the use of sustainable fibers and materials in the textile industry.
  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): This type of certification applies to organic cotton products that are made entirely or partially from organic cotton. GOTS certification covers not only the organic content of the product but also the environmental and social impacts of the entire production and processing of the product, from the farm to the final product. It is administered by the Global Organic Textile Standard International Working Group, a coalition of four organizations that develop and implement the GOTS standard.
A Guide to Cotton Organic Products

Benefits of Organic Cotton

So why should you choose organic cotton products? Here are some of the top benefits:

  1. Healthier for the environment: Growing organic cotton eliminates toxic runoff that pollutes nearby ecosystems. It also improves soil health through organic farming practices.
  2. Safer working conditions: Without exposure to synthetic chemicals, organic cotton farming is much safer for workers. It also allows smaller family farms to thrive.
  3. Chemical-free: Organic cotton is grown and processed without any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or GMOs. This means no residual chemicals in the final cotton products you buy.
  4. Better for water conservation: Did you know it takes thousands of liters of water to produce conventional cotton? Organic cotton, on the other hand, relies on rain-fed irrigation and water-smart farming practices.
  5. Biodegradable and renewable: Organic cotton is a plant-based fiber that can fully biodegrade at the end of its life. Conventional cotton uses more synthetic inputs that take longer to break down.
  6. Ethical supply chain: Choosing organic aligns with ethical principles of environmental stewardship, fair labor practices, and corporate responsibility.
  7. Baby-friendly: Organic cotton clothing is recommended for babies and kids since its chemical-free nature is gentler on sensitive skin.
  8. Better quality products: Apart from being baby-friendly, organic cotton products are just better quality overall. The absence of chemical residues means softer, hypoallergenic fabrics that love your body back.
  9. Fighting climate change: Organic cotton farming produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to its conventional counterpart. By making sustainable fashion choices, you’re also contributing to the fight against climate change.

Of course, organic cotton has higher production costs for farmers compared to conventional cotton. This usually translates to higher prices for the end consumer. However, the benefits above make it an excellent choice for those wanting a sustainable and ethical wardrobe.

How to Identify Organic Cotton Products

So now that you’re sold on the wonders of organic cotton, how do you spot the real deal when looking for organic cotton products? Here are a few tips: 

  1. Certifications: Look for certifications like GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or USDA Organic. These labels ensure that the product meets rigorous organic standards.
  2. Check the label: Most organic product labels will often proudly declare their organic status. Therefore, when in doubt, read the fine print. 
  3. Brand research: When it comes to clothes, not all brands are created equal. Do a bit of research on the brands you love to ensure their commitment to sustainability aligns with your values.

Where to Buy Organic Cotton Products

Thanks to rising consumer demand, organic cotton apparel and home goods are becoming more widely available. Here are some places to find organic cotton products:

  • Online retailers: Many eco-conscious online shops offer organic cotton clothing, bedding, towels, and more. 
  • Department stores: Major retailers like Target, Walmart, and Bed Bath & Beyond now carry organic cotton options in everything from t-shirts to sheets.
  • Boutiques: Local boutiques and specialty shops may source sustainable and organic cotton fashions from smaller designers. Check their tag descriptions.
  • Farmers’ markets: Artisans and crafters at farmers’ markets can be great resources for organic cotton items like produce bags and napkins. Ask if their items are organic.
  • Thrift stores: Search the racks at thrift and consignment stores to find high-quality secondhand organic cotton clothing at reduced prices.

Best Organic Cotton Brands

Organic cotton is used by many brands and products in the fashion and textile industry, as well as in other sectors, such as home, beauty, and health. Organic cotton offers a wide range of benefits and features, such as comfort, durability, versatility, and style.

Organic cotton can be found in different types of products, such as clothing, accessories, bedding, towels, diapers, pads, and masks. Here are some of the best brands and products that use organic cotton:

  • MATE the Label. This is a Los Angeles-based brand that specializes in organic cotton clothing for women. MATE the Label offers a collection of cozy and chic essentials, such as tees, tanks, shorts, sweatshirts, and dresses, made from certified organic cotton and low-impact dyes. MATE the Label also supports local and ethical production, as all its pieces are sewn, dyed, and shipped from LA. MATE the Label is a perfect choice for those who love comfortable and casual clothing with a touch of color and flair. 
  • People Tree: For over 30 years, People Tree has been a trailblazer in sustainable fashion. Their collection features organic cotton clothing with a focus on craftsmanship and timeless designs. People Tree is also a pioneer in fair trade practices, creating a positive impact on the lives of artisans and farmers.
  • Patagonia: Known for its commitment to environmental and social responsibility, Patagonia extends its ethos to include organic cotton in its clothing line. From outdoor gear to casual wear, Patagonia’s organic cotton pieces embody both style and substance.
  • Pact. This is a Boulder-based brand that offers affordable and fair-trade organic cotton clothing for men, women, and children. Pact provides a range of basic and versatile apparel, such as underwear, socks, leggings, hoodies, and dresses, made from 100% organic cotton and free of harmful chemicals. Pact also partners with Fair Trade USA and the Global Organic Textile Standard to ensure that its organic cotton is grown and processed in a way that respects the environment and the workers. Pact is a great option for those who want to stock up on organic cotton essentials without breaking the bank.
  • Eileen Fisher: Eileen Fisher is synonymous with elegance and sustainability. This brand integrates organic cotton into its collections, showcasing a blend of classic and contemporary styles. With a focus on creating a circular economy, Eileen Fisher encourages customers to return their old garments for recycling.
  • prAna: prAna combines style with sustainability, offering a range of organic cotton clothing for yoga, outdoor activities, and everyday wear. Their commitment to using organic cotton aligns with their broader goal of minimizing environmental impact across the entire production process.
  • Organic Basics. This is a Copenhagen-based brand that focuses on organic cotton underwear and activewear for men and women. Organic Basics offers a selection of high-quality and minimalist products, such as bras, briefs, boxers, tanks, and tees, made from organic cotton and other sustainable materials, such as recycled nylon and Tencel. Organic Basics also uses innovative technologies, such as SilverTech and Polygiene, which add antibacterial and odor-resistant properties to the fabrics, making them last longer and require less washing. Organic Basics is an ideal choice for those who value simplicity, functionality, and durability in their clothing. 
  • Thought: Thought, formerly known as Braintree Clothing, is a UK-based brand that puts thought into every aspect of its production. From dresses to accessories, their range of organic cotton items reflects a harmonious blend of style, comfort, and environmental consciousness.
  • Outerknown: Founded by professional surfer Kelly Slater, Outerknown is a brand that epitomizes laid-back, sustainable cool. With a focus on fair labor practices and using organic cotton, their collection seamlessly combines surf culture with environmental responsibility.
  • Boll & Branch. This is a New Jersey-based brand that specializes in organic cotton bedding and home products. Boll & Branch offers a variety of luxurious and cozy products, such as sheets, duvets, pillows, blankets, towels, and robes, made from 100% organic cotton and certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard and Fair Trade USA. Boll & Branch also supports social and environmental causes, such as donating mattresses and bedding to shelters, planting trees, and empowering women farmers. Boll & Branch is a perfect option for those who want to create a comfortable and ethical home. 
  • Groceries Apparel: Groceries Apparel takes organic cotton to the next level by incorporating other eco-friendly materials like recycled plastic and hemp. This California-based brand is committed to transparency and offers a range of modern, minimalist designs for the conscious consumer.

Caring for Your Organic Cotton

To maximize the benefits of organic cotton, you’ll want to take good care of your items:

  • Wash in cool to warm water using an eco-friendly detergent. Avoid bleach.
  • Hang dry when possible or tumble dry on low heat. High heat can damage fibers.
  • Look for the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 label to ensure items are tested for harmful substances.
  • Patch holes and tears to extend useful life and reduce waste.
  • Compost organic cotton items at the end of life rather than sending them to a landfill.

By investing in high-quality organic cotton pieces and caring for them properly, you can keep your favorite items in rotation for many years. This saves resources and prevents textile waste.

Transitioning Your Closet to Organic Cotton

Shifting your closet to organic cotton may seem daunting, but it can be done. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Start small. Replace worn-out basics first, like t-shirts, socks, and underwear.
  • Check clothing tags and descriptions when shopping online. Look for the words “organic” and “GOTS certified.”
  • Mix in organic pieces slowly over time as your budget allows. Purchase high-quality items that will last.
  • Buy natural fiber blends (organic cotton mixed with wool, hemp, linen, etc.) as an affordable transitional option.
  • Donate or re-sell non-organic fast fashion items to remove them from your closet.
  • Talk to your favorite brands about sourcing organic! Consumer voices matter.

Even adding a few organic cotton pieces can make a difference. Any steps you can take support more ethical and sustainable production. With some patience and persistence, you’ll be rocking a comfy, chemical-free organic wardrobe in no time.

The Future of Organic Cotton

While still a small percentage of the overall cotton market, organic cotton production is on the rise as more consumers discover its benefits.

Innovations on the farm like low-till practices, permaculture design, and the restoration of heirloom seeds will continue improving sustainability. Emerging processing technologies like eco-friendly non-toxic dyes and closed-loop manufacturing will also reduce environmental footprints.

Organic Cotton Guide and Farming Practices

Brands and retailers are responding to demand by incorporating organic cotton across more product categories. Transparency around supply chains and labor practices is also increasing through blockchain technology and transparency certifications like Fair Trade.

As organic cotton becomes more competitive price-wise, this will enable faster adoption in the mainstream market. Buying organic cotton whenever possible encourages brands to further invest in scaling ethical production.

Final Thoughts on Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is cotton that is grown and processed without the use of harmful substances or practices. As we have seen, it has numerous benefits for the environment, the farmers, and the consumers.

Today, organic cotton is used by many brands and products in different sectors. It is a more sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to conventional cotton and a better choice for everyone. 

Through our combined purchasing power and voices, we can nurture the organic cotton sector and push the entire fashion industry in a cleaner, kinder direction. Are you ready to make the switch to organic?

About the Author

Nicole Booz is the founder of GenTwenty and GenThirty. She is an entrepreneur, author of The Kidult Handbook, and most importantly, Mama to two beautiful little boys. She loves reading, organizing her home, and living a simple, less toxic lifestyle. You've seen her in The New York Times, TIME, Insider, Inside Edition, New York Post, NextAdvisor, Forbes, Yahoo, HuffPost, and U.S. News & World Report.