The Positive Impact of Organic Cotton on the Environment and People
The key differences between organic cotton and conventional cotton agriculture in numbers
Organic cotton production has been found to significantly reduce water pollution through soil erosion and nutrient leaching compared to conventional cotton production. These benefits have also been documented in other cropping systems where organic soils retain water and nutrients more effectively than conventional soils. Additionally, a large body of research suggests that organic farming systems can contribute to biodiversity conservation. Common organic farming practices benefit a wide range of organisms. Compared to conventional farms, organic farms generally support a greater diversity of carabid beetles, spiders, earthworms, beneficial parasitoids, vascular plants, birds, bees, and other native pollinators, soil microbes and fungi, and small rodents.
A life cycle analysis of organic cotton found that, on a per yield basis, its energy demand was 62% lower than that of conventional cotton, and its total global warming potential was 46% lower. These findings are consistent with other studies showing that organic production methods significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and use less energy. In addition to reducing emissions, organic farming can also help to mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil. Research shows that the diverse crop rotation strategies and soil-building practices required by the USDA's National Organic Program for all certified organic farmers can increase soil organic carbon, leading to increased long-term carbon storage.
A new study, released in June 2021 by Cotton 2040, examined the potential climate risks to cotton production around the world. The study found that by 2040, half of the world's cotton-growing regions could experience significant changes in temperature and water availability, as well as exposure to extreme weather events, if carbon emissions continue to increase. The study emphasises that even with ambitious decarbonisation efforts, climate adaptation will be essential. Textile Exchange, an organisation working to promote sustainability in the textile industry, has a goal to reduce CO2 emissions from textile fibre and material production by 45% by 2030 through its Climate+ strategy. The "+" in the strategy's name allows Textile Exchange to prioritise climate while addressing other areas that are interconnected with climate, such as water, biodiversity, and soil health. The "+" also acknowledges that Textile Exchange cannot achieve this goal on its own.
In June 2019, the World Resources Institute published guidelines for apparel and footwear companies to set science-based climate change targets. Using fibre volume data from Textile Exchange and impact data from the High Materials Sustainability Index, the initial calculations indicated that raw material extraction accounts for 23% of total apparel and footwear GHG emissions. Cotton, which makes up 24% of total fibre by volume, is estimated to be responsible for 14% of these emissions.
Historically, there has been a lack of funding for applied organic agriculture research, while significant resources have been invested in increasing yields in conventional farming systems. Organic farmers face many of the same large-scale challenges as conventional farmers, but the lack of investment in research has left them with fewer agronomic tools, leading to the yield gap. To support organic farming practices, purchasing apparel and other home textiles (such as mattresses, towels, and sheets) that contain organic cotton is a good first step. For more comprehensive support of environmentally and socially responsible practices that are third-party verified throughout the entire textile supply chain, from raw material harvesting to store shelves, purchasing products with Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification is recommended.