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Why organic cotton is not the solution

Better, but still a problem: Organic cotton. Image: Shutterstock
Better, but still a problem: Organic cotton. Image: Shutterstock

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Organic cotton is a lot better than conventional cotton, no doubt. It doesn't use synthetic pesticides, defoliants and fertilizers that make conventional cotton production so harmful to people and environment. Also, organic cotton by definition is not genetically modified. So if you're using cotton, go for the organic one. We do so, too - the 45% percent cotton we still need to have in our shirts are certified organic!

 

But while big fashion chains like to sell clothes made from organic cotton as the green thing, it actually fails to be a real solution. Yes, it doesn't use agrochemicals, that's good. But it's not better - or even worse - on the two other big counts, namely water and land.

 

Take water - we already know that cotton is a big problem because of its excessive need of it. This is not different with organic cotton - which is no wonder, as we are talking about the same plant whose need for water doesn't suddenly change fundamentally just because it's not bombarded with chemicals.

 

Advocacy organizations, fashion companies and even the media regularly claim the opposite: that organic cotton uses a lot less water than conventional one, often claiming "91% less". This is severely misleading. This very popular figure comes from a life-cycle analysis of organic cotton published by the NGO Textile Exchange which found that the organic cotton that was examined needed 91% less  irrigation than the average of conventional cotton. This, however, is not really surprising: The study explicitly looked at fields that were mostly rainfed and therefore received little irrigation.

 

This may be the case for around 80% of the organic cotton that is produced. But it has little or nothing to do with the question of whether the cotton is organic or not. It just means that rainfed cotton needs less irrigation. Which is not the same as to say it needs less water. The organic cotton in question actually needs 15,000 litres of water per kg, which is even 50% more than the average conventional cotton. The additional water comes from rainfall, so that may (hopefully) not be a big issue. But it sure as hell doesn't mean we are talking about less water.

 

So all that's left here is that rainfed cotton needs a lot less irrigation. That doesn't sound too exciting. But there's actually a big downside here: We already know that rainfed cotton yields per hectare are lower than those from irrigated fields. If 53% of the global cotton area is irrigated[1] and 73% of the cotton worldwide is harvested from these areas[2], it means the yields from rainfed fields are less than half of those from the irrigated ones. This comes on top of the fact that organic farming generally produces lower yields than conventional farming. After all, the fertilizers, pesticides and genetic modifications aren't there for nothing, but have a purpose: increase output, no matter the cost for people and nature. So in the end, in addition to being more expensive, organic cotton yields up to 50% less fibres per hectare than conventional cotton.[3] Which means it needs up to twice as much land for the same amount of clothes. And as soon as you need to go to drier regions to feed the world's need for cotton, also organic cotton needs irrigation.

 

That doesn't sound like a fully-fledged solution to the cotton problem.

 

Hemp, however, in addition to needing no harmful agrochemicals, produces more than twice as much fibre per hectare than cotton[4], and it indeed needs just a fraction of the water that cotton consumes.

 

Seems more like a solution, doesn't it?

 

 

Notes:

[1] Cherrett, Nia/Barrett, John/Clemett, Alexandra/Chadwick, Mattes/Chadwick, M.J. (2005): Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester, Stockholm, S. 24.

[2] Cherrett, Nia/Barrett, John/Clemett, Alexandra/Chadwick, Mattes/Chadwick, M.J. (2005): Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester, Stockholm, S. 9.

[3] Cherrett, Nia/Barrett, John/Clemett, Alexandra/Chadwick, Mattes/Chadwick, M.J. (2005): Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester, Stockholm, S. 5.

[4] Cherrett, Nia/Barrett, John/Clemett, Alexandra/Chadwick, Mattes/Chadwick, M.J. (2005): Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester, Stockholm, S. 16.