Organic cotton vs. conventional cotton

[Source: Unsplash/Trisha Downing]

What is cotton?

Cotton is a tropical and subtropical plant that is commercially grown in countries such as India, China, the U.S. and Brazil. It is used to produce clothing more than any other fibre in the world. The seeds of the cotton plant are surrounded by a white, fibrous substance that is harvested to be spun into textile fibre for fabrics and threads.


What is organic cotton?

According to the Pesticide Action Network UK, “cotton crops cover 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but use 6% of the world’s pesticides, more than any other single major crop.” The intensive use of chemicals in conventional cotton farming has been shown to not only have a devastating effect on the environment but exposure to these agricultural chemicals also leads to serious diseases and development problems for farming communities and workers along the supply chain. 

In contrast to conventional cotton, the cultivation of organic cotton does not rely on toxic pesticides or artificial fertilisers. Instead, it takes place in accordance with the guidelines of organic farming, such as integrating ecological processes, maintaining local biodiversity, avoiding the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers as well as genetically modified seeds.   Its compliance with these guidelines is regularly checked by independent bodies which issue the organic cotton certificate. 


As organic cotton farming does not allow the use of toxic chemicals or GMOs, its production sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people by using natural processes instead of artificial inputs. An additional benefit to organic cotton farmers not using any harmful chemicals is that the cotton can be harvested by hand whereas conventional cotton farms rely on mechanical cotton pickers or strippers to avoid workers regularly being exposed to toxic chemicals. 

Hand-harvested organic cotton is of higher quality and more pure than conventionally harvested cotton. This higher quality of the raw material then results in much softer finished garments -- you can feel the difference in the Helz Defined tees! Organic cotton can be processed just as easily as conventional cotton and producers of organic cotton textiles always refrain from using harmful chemicals and toxic dyes during the production process. Every item in the Helz Defined BASICS collection is made of 100% organic cotton and printed in the UK using non-toxic dyes. 

Cotton is often grown in water-scarce areas and it takes about 2,700 liters of water to make a conventional cotton t-shirt. In the past, proponents of conventional cotton have often claimed that chemical cotton production uses less water than organic cotton production. However, this claim has long been proven wrong, with research revealing that organic cotton uses 88% less water and 62% less energy than conventional cotton. This is mainly because organic cotton is up to 80% rain-fed, thus reducing pressure on local water sources. According to a U.S. study, organic production of cotton for an average sized t-shirt resulted in a savings of 1,9 gallons (7,5 liters) of water compared to the results of chemically grown cotton.

Is it worth the price difference?
The price for organic cotton is sometimes, but not always, higher. However, this price difference is justified by the environmental, social and economic benefits of supporting the organic cotton industry. By buying organic cotton, you are investing in water conservation, cleaner air, better soil and improved farmer livelihoods. In 2015, 26 million metric tonnes of cotton was produced globally. Organic cotton made up less than 1% of this. However, this number is continually growing with more and more people becoming aware of the importance of organic cotton for a sustainable future. A study by the global non-profit The Textile Exchange found that organic farming is less likely to contribute to global warming, acidification and eutrophication than conventional cotton farming and is thus significantly more environmentally friendly. Therefore, when you choose to purchase a garment made from organic cotton, you make a difference not only for farmers and soil health but ultimately for a more sustainable future.