Organic cotton production. The greatest sustainability challenges for cotton cultivation lie in reducing pesticide, fertilizer and water use and promoting better information and conditions for farmers. Cultivating cotton organically, that is in a system that does not use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, growth regulators or defoliants, addresses many of these issues.

In the organic system the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is avoided, as natural methods are used to control pests, weeds and disease.

Organic cotton todays production, quality of cotton grown

Particular attention is paid to the use of locally adapted varieties, the reduction of nutrient losses through wide crop rotation and mechanical and manual weed control. Switching to organic production brings a major reduction in the toxicity profile for cotton (as minimal chemicals are used).

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Organic production results in a dramatic change in the profile the toxicity of the materials cultivation phase of the lifecycle drops to zero and overall product toxicity is reduced by 93 per cent.

Organic production also has a strong social element and includes many Fair Trade and ethical production principles40 – as such it can be seen as more than a set of agricultural practices, but also as a tool for social change.

For example, one of the original undertakings of the organic movement was to create speciality products for small farmers, who would then receive a premium for their products and allow them to compete with large commercial farms.

Further promoting social change, organic standards also make recommendations to industry about production. The view is that it is not enough for cotton to be grown organically and then processed in a conventional, polluting system. In some organic textile standards and accreditation schemes, such as that provided by the Soil Association in the UK, 41 lists of permitted process chemicals and recommendations for dyeing and finishing techniques are included.

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Accreditation is increasingly popular and is linked to the success of organically grown food. As well as a host of small companies producing fully accredited organic cotton ranges, large corporates, like Levi’s, have produced an organic cotton jean, and Nike and Marks and Spencer have pledged to blend 5 per cent organic cotton into all their cotton products.

Unlike more politically contentious and technically challenging ‘alternative’ fibres such as hemp, organic cotton fibre is a fairly straightforward like-for-like substitute for conventionally grown cotton and as such it has been fairly quickly incorporated into existing product lines. The main factor limiting the increased use of organic cotton is its limited supply.

Total cotton market

Presently, organic cotton makes up a tiny percentage (0.18 per cent) of world fibre demand and around 1 per cent of the total cotton market. More farmers are converting to fully accredited organic production; however, the process is slow (taking three years), costly and is a risky venture for many farmers who are already struggling to stay on the land.

The quality of cotton grown in organic systems is equal to that grown in conventional ones; however, uniformity over large volumes can be an issue due to the limited supply of organic fibre for blending. Productivity of organic production is usually less than for conventional production, by up to 50 per cent, and this has given rise to scepticism in the fibre industry about organic cotton’s viability as a true replacement for conventionally grown fibre, as lower yields require more land (of which there is a finite amount) in order to meet demand.