What Is Organic Cotton and Sustainable Fashion

Rising awareness among consumers and retailers has induced fashion brands and retailers to introduce apparel lines produced from organic cotton.

The cotton landscape of the world today is dominated by GM cotton. Organic cotton forms only 0.7 per cent of the total global cotton production. However, with growing global concerns over sustainability and pollution, more organisations are beginning to turn to organic cotton for manufacturing textiles and apparel. There is a significant growth in organic cotton consumption in kidswear, denim, casuals, womenswear and home textiles. As the demand seems to be rising, many international brands are joining the bandwagon.

Presently, India is the leading producer of organic cotton fibres in the world and contributes around 47 per cent, followed by China (21 per cent) and Krygyzstan (12 per cent). India is also leading in terms of acreage of land under organic cotton cultivation and the number of farmers’ and producers’ groups engaged in it (Textile Exchange report, 2019).

India has a vast repository of natural seeds and a heritage worth mentioning that gave the world organic cotton around 3000 BCE. Post-independence, hybrids and chemical fertilisers were introduced to boost production. GM cotton was introduced in India in 2002, promising higher yields and greater returns. However, the scenario has changed with time and there is a gradual movement among farmers to switch back to indigenous varieties.

What Is Organic Cotton Farming

Organic cotton farming is the process of growing cotton completely free of any chemical application of pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides. It starts with soil regenerative practices, promotes multi-cropping, which diminishes the situation for nutrition and food scarcity, and provides an alternative source of income.

It does not pose any threat to human health, cattle or the environment. It represents an alternative method of farming that is safe and self-sustainable. It uses many natural plant growth techniques like the use of mulch and compost as fertilisers, intercropping for weeds control and crop rotation for soil nutrition and moisture retention management.

Organic Cotton vs GM Cotton

Cotton is a cash crop. Conventional cotton farming uses GM seeds that promise high yield throughout the year. Thus, it has led to mono-cropping in most states in India. This situation has resulted in the rise of food insecurity, degradation of soil, water and environment, upsetting the entire eco-system consisting of farmers, their families and cattle (Greenpeace, 2015). The World Health Organisation has declared that chemicals used to boost production from GM varieties are ‘probably carcinogenic’.

GM cotton requires excess water and consumes about 2.6 per cent of the total water used across the globe. It yields the best under well-irrigated conditions. India is primarily a rain-fed economy and most parts are water-challenged. Only Punjab and Haryana are 90 per cent irrigated. Thus, the yield per hectare is much less than expected in most of the cotton-producing states. 

C&A, the Belgian-German-Dutch chain of fast-fashion retail clothing stores, along with Water Footprint Network studied 480 cotton-producing farmlands in India in 2013 and suggested that conventional cotton pollutes about 200 times more than organic cotton.

The GM seeds use terminator technology and can be sown only once. The input costs are extremely high considering the cost of the seeds, chemical fertilizers and irrigation facilities required for a successful production. In contrast, the input costs for organic farming are very low. Indigenous seeds are sold at a minimal price of ?30 per kg and can be conserved for the next sowing season (Textile Exchange, 2015).

A technical report by the International Trade Centre (ITC) in Geneva in 2011 projected that the seasonal surface temperature in India would increase by 20C- 40C by 2050s, with a reduced number of days of rainfall, severe droughts and floods in places like Gujarat and Rajasthan due to excessive groundwater depletion and environmental distress. India’s Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) found in 2015 that selected indigenous cotton varieties will not only well adapt to such drastic climatic conditions, but will also enhance farm productivity.

In this scenario, a shift towards organic cotton farming is highly desirable.

Organic Cotton and Fashion

Cotton is the most widely used natural fibre that generates livelihood for millions and touches the lives of billions in the form of textiles. Therefore, it may be positioned as a symbol of prosperity and sustainability.

Organic cotton fibres are used in personal hygiene products like sanitary products, cotton puffs, ear swabs, make-up removal pads, fabrics, home furnishings, kids’ products, and different types of apparel.

A forecast based on a primary survey of Indian fashion retailers conducted by Textile Exchange in 2014 predicted an increased demand by 2025 for specific categories of products like denim, T-shirts, pants, shirtings, bedsheets, towels and other home furnishing materials. These products primarily require short and medium staple length fibres and the Indian indigenous cotton varieties have the required staple length compared to hybrid and GM varieties. The short-staple fibres also possess high absorbent properties, and therefore, most suitable for medical purposes.

Due to rising awareness among consumers and retailers, several Indian and international fashion brands have gone the organic way and adopted a cleaner and greener apparel production process.

A few Indian brands using organic cotton are Indigreen, No Nasties, Forty Red Bangles, Samtana, Tvach, Anokhi, UV & W, Bhu:sattva, Do you speak Green, Ethicus, Paruthi from Upasana, Tula, Ba No Batwo, Ka-Sha and Doodlage. International lingerie brands using organic cotton include Brook There, Najla, Alas, Base Range, Only Hearts, Kowtow, Nico, Skin and PACT. Some global apparel brands using such cotton are Patagonia, Nudie Jeans, Nino Bambino, Gron Stockholm, Muka, Remei AG, Inditex, Earth positive, C&A, H&M, Kathmandu, Nike, Decathlon, Lindex, Stanley & Stella, Volcom, Prana, Loomstate, Stella Mc Cartney, Continental, Organic Initiative, Indigenous, Cotonea and Skunkfunk. Many leading global designers like Katherine Hamnett and brands and retailers like Walmart, Harrods, Marks & Spencer and Coop Switzerland have successfully introduced organic cotton apparel lines that offer them an edge over competitors.

Thus, it is a positive sign that the fashion and textile industry wants to reduce its adverse impact on the environment by adopting more sustainable ways that will help influence and reshape the future of global fashion.

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