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Organic Clothing: Is It Sustainable?

Jason Hughes
Published by Jason Hughes
Fact checked by Markus Oliver, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: May 23, 2022

As consumers become more aware of the detrimental consequences manufacturing has on the planet, more and more brands are making committed efforts to choose sustainable practices. Even larger conglomerates are making small steps to help reduce waste and embrace eco-friendly materials like Tencel.

Unfortunately, the fashion industry is to blame for massive amounts of waste each year, with nearly 14 million tons of clothing ending up in landfills. Most of these clothing are made with non-biodegradable, synthetic fabrics and cannot be recycled. In response to this crisis, many brands are embracing organic clothing as a more sustainable approach. Organic fabrics such as organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, and linen are all smarter choices for the planet. While it’s not a perfect solution, there are still many upsides to wearing organic clothing. 

Cotton: The World’s Dirtiest Crop

It’s no secret that the production of non-organic cotton for consumer goods is bad for the planet. It takes 2,700 liters of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. Mass-produced cotton also uses serious amounts of pesticides and insecticides and accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide sales. That’s $2.6 billion spent on pesticides each year to grow cotton. 

Not only are these methods unsustainable, they have ethical consequences too. The chemicals in cotton farming mean that workers are inhaling toxins all day. Research shows that exposure to these chemicals can cause cancer, neurological disorders, and reproductive complications. 

Studies also show that the water run-off from cotton farming seeps into our water and soil. Livestock ingest these chemicals too, which means pesticides and insecticides have essentially infiltrated every part of the food chain. 

Is Organic Cotton Sustainable?

While this information is tragic, innovative brands are embracing organic cotton to greatly reduce waste. Organic cotton is very eco-friendly, and while there’s still waste involved in production, it has a significantly smaller impact on the planet. 

The Benefits of Organic Cotton:

  • Watered with rain, not irrigated. Organic cotton crops are naturally watered with rain. Irrigation brings “blue water” to crops, or water from surface water bodies. Organic cotton uses greenwater, or water collected from rain and from the soil.
  • Grown without harmful chemicals. By growing cotton without pesticides and insecticides, farms can reduce water pollution by up to 98%. That means hardly any run-off carrying toxic chemicals to the air, soil, and nearby bodies of water.
  • Uses 91% less water to produce clothing. While regular cotton uses tens of thousands of liters of water to make a few pounds of cotton, organic cotton uses 91% less water in production.
  • Fewer greenhouse gas emissions. By not using fertilizers and pesticides, organic cotton has a very little footprint on global warming. These chemicals release nitrous oxides into the air every day.

The Drawbacks of Organic Cotton

Although organic cotton is significantly better for the planet, there are still some problems because mass consumerism itself simply isn’t sustainable. Farming organic cotton (along with other organic materials) is hard to scale, because the crop is not meant to take up huge amounts of land in the first place. As corporations lean more towards organic materials to appear more environmentally friendly, producing too much organic cotton may use too many natural resources.

While organic cotton is an eco-friendly material, the clothing manufacturing process still produces carbon emissions. Additionally, many brands use synthetic dyes. Currently, organic cotton only makes up 1% of the global cotton market, so there's a very small amount being produced, relatively speaking. As organic cotton grows in popularity, it’s up to corporations to find long-term solutions for sustainable farming of this plant.

Organic Cotton Brands to Try

There are many brands that are using organic cotton to make products such as organic cotton t shirts and organic cotton underwear. Brands like Patagonia and Everlane are two highly popular brands committed to healing and helping the planet, so you can feel good about buying their products. Everlane sells a variety of organic cotton yoga pants in soft, neutral colors. Cotton On is another retailer with 1,500 stories across the globe. They stand by their motto of “Doing Good” for consumers and the planet.

Even major fashion retailers such as H&M and Stella McCartney are gravitating towards organic cotton and more sustainable fashion practices. As always, it’s important to research the brands you purchase from to make sure they aren’t greenwashing, a term used to describe companies who use marketing language to make it appear as if their products are environmentally friendly.

Organic Clothing FAQs

What type of clothing is organic?

There are many fabrics on the market that are organic, biodegradable, and better for the planet. Organic cotton is by far the most popular choice, however, other materials such as organic hemp, linen, bamboo, and cork are also used in consumer goods. 

How is organic clothing made?

Organic clothing means that the farming practices used to produce these materials did not use synthetic chemicals and relied on natural sources of water instead of irrigation. Organic clothing helps maintain soil health, preserve biodiversity, and reduce water pollution. The materials are then harvested and sold to use in manufacturing facilities, where the material is spun, woven, or processed to produce organic fibers. These fibers are then dyed, sewn, and distributed to produce clothing you see on the shelves.

How do I know if clothing is organic?

It’s important to do research on the clothing labels you buy. The easiest way is to shop locally and shop small for things like organic t shirts, as you’re bound to find brands that have more sustainable manufacturing processes. You can also look for accredited labels on a brand’s website or clothing tags, such as the Organic Content Standards (OCS) and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). The Fairtrade Foundation logo also indicates that farmers have been paid a living wage in healthier working conditions. Avoid materials that are made from plastic, such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic.

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