Organic vs. Conventional Cotton: What’s the Difference?

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organic cotton vs cotton - image of cotton plant

People today are increasingly conscious of the chemicals that go into the foods they eat and the products they wear. So it’s no surprise that they’re also paying more attention to the ingredients in the bedding they lie on every night. Hence the rise of organic cotton—cotton that has been produced without the use of any toxic chemicals or harsh dyes—as a popular material for sheets and pillowcases.

Although organic cotton is certainly more sought after these days, it remains a rare commodity, making up less than 1% of global cotton production. A whopping three-quarters of that comes from India, which produces more organic cotton than any other country.

Here’s a rundown of the key differences between organic cotton vs. cotton that has been produced via conventional methods and the benefits of organic cotton for your health and the health of the environment.

How conventional cotton is produced

Cotton is produced in one of two ways: either grown dryland or irrigated. Dryland cotton relies on natural rainfall during the summer months to grow, whereas irrigated cotton is fed by water pumped from rivers or underground sources. According to the Water Footprint Network, about 53% of the world’s cotton crop is irrigated, accounting for about 73% of the world’s cotton production.

The International Trade Centre (ITC) notes that irrigated cotton is frequently grown in regions where fresh water is in short supply, such as the Mediterranean and desert or near-desert areas in Australia, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and the western United States. And it takes a lot of water to bring cotton to harvest: about 10,000 liters on average to produce one kilogram of cotton, according to the Water Footprint Network.

That presents a “significant environmental challenge,” the ITC notes. Extensive irrigation of cotton potentially contributes to groundwater depletion, and if drainage isn’t managed carefully, it can lead to a buildup of salt in freshwater sources. Then there’s the use of synthetic fertilizer, runoff from which can “increase the risk of contamination of surface and groundwater.”

How organic cotton is different

Like conventional cotton, organic cotton is water-intensive to grow—although whether organic cotton uses more or less water than conventional cotton is a matter of some debate. According to the nonprofit organization Textile Exchange, 70% to 80% of organic cotton is estimated to be rain-fed rather than irrigated. And, the organization notes, not all irrigation necessarily uses a ton of water—drip irrigation, for example, works by applying small amounts of water across a specific area. (Drip irrigation is more expensive, though, so it’s not necessarily an option for all countries where cotton is produced.)

What’s not in question is that organic cotton is non-GMO and contains fewer chemicals than its conventionally grown counterpart. Cotton accounts for as much as 25% of global pesticide use, according to the Organic Trade Association. Conventionally manufactured cotton fabric can come into contact with a range of chemicals and potentially dangerous materials including petroleum-based products, flame retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde.

(Here’s what you need to know before buying sheets.)

These chemicals can lead to skin irritation, exacerbate other health issues, and cause damage to soil and water. The ITC explains that fertilization practices up the risk of soil erosion, and the spreading of residues from synthetic fertilizers increases the chance of contamination to groundwater.

Organic cotton, on the other hand, is grown without any chemical insecticides or synthetic fertilizers, meaning it’s better for your health, and runoff won’t have a negative impact on rivers and local water systems.

Keep in mind that how a crop is grown is only part of the equation. Even if a textile is made from organically grown cotton, how the item is produced—a process that includes dyeing and finishing—also can be a source of chemical contact and pollution. That’s why many organic cotton products, including bedding, are undyed or made with environmentally safe dyes.

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Why organic cotton is better for farmers and factory workers

In addition to being better for your health, organic cotton is also better for farmers and factory workers than conventional cotton. One reason is that organic cotton is often hand-picked rather than harvested with machinery, which means workers avoid contact with potentially toxic chemicals.

Another reason is the prevalence of Fair Trade practices. Although Fair Trade and organic aren’t the same thing, they often go hand-in-hand.

First, a little background on Fair Trade practices: When you buy Fair Trade Certified™ goods, you can be sure that they were produced in factories where equipment and working conditions are strictly monitored to ensure workers’ safety, and where manufacturers commit to providing sustainable livelihoods for workers and their communities.

Raw materials are also traced from their origins to their destination so that these standards are upheld during every step of the production process. Workers’ rights and wellness are specific to Fair Trade, but environmental standards—like reducing waste and avoiding harmful chemicals—are aligned closely with the standards used in organic production.

How organic cotton performs

For those with skin allergies or conditions like eczema, choosing organic cotton sheets is a no-brainer. Because organic cotton isn’t treated with harmful chemicals, it’s hypoallergenic and much less likely to cause irritation.

What’s more, the Organic Cotton Initiative, a joint campaign between the Soil Association and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), states that organic cotton fibers typically produce better quality yarns than conventional ones, which may result in more durable, longer-lasting goods.

Because organic cotton hasn’t been processed with harmful chemicals, you may notice that it feels softer and is more breathable than conventional cotton.

How to be sure you’re getting organic cotton

So how can you tell if your bedding is actually made from organic cotton? For starters, look for the GOTS symbol on the packaging. Products that call themselves organic and have the GOTS symbol must be made with at least 95% certified organic fibers, whereas products that call themselves “made with organic” must be made with at least 70% certified organic fibers.

Organic products must also meet certain environmental criteria to receive a GOTS symbol. These include: Organic fiber must be separated from conventional fiber throughout processing and clearly identified, all chemicals, including dyes, must be evaluated and meet basic requirements on toxicity, and no toxic heavy metals, formaldehydes, or GMOs can be used.

The Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX is another certification system that can help you determine whether or not the cotton used to make your bedding is truly organic. Products with this certification have been tracked and traced along the supply chain and contain 100% organic cotton fiber. OKEO-TEX also tests for harmful chemicals.

Did you know that mattresses can be organic too? Here, learn all about organic mattresses and how to choose the right one for you.