During our first few shows we encountered this question a number of times and it made want to delve into the issue a bit further than the short version. (according to Wikipedia) "Organic cotton is generally understood as cotton and is grown in subtropical countries such as Turkey, China, USA from non genetically modified plants, that is to be grown without the use of any synthetic agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides". Hmm, sounds easy enough, the cotton is grown organically, makes sense. But the answer is much longer and the repercussions go much deeper. Starting with the farm and the seed, there is quite a journey between cotton seed and cotton Ts.
Before the seed is even planted, the farm must first obtain an organic certification (differing between areas, GOTS, USDA etc) and to do so must outline the entire proposed method of growing. Starting with what growing practices the farmer will follow, to what type of substances and pest management will be used. The grower must also provide a description of control procedures and a list of any physical barriers that will be used to keep crops from contact with non-organic crops and prohibited substances. Once the farmer is certified the growing can begin, or continue, as the case may be. The soil is enriched with organic matter such as decomposing plants and manure. This is essential for growing cotton as the organic matter (or hummus, as it is called) replenishes the soil with nitrogen and moisture holding compost, reducing the need for fertilization and irrigation later in the growing process. Non GMO cotton seeds which have not been treated with fungicides or herbicides are planted, and largely tended by hand. Throughout the growing season weeds are picked, not sprayed and companion plants are often planted to draw pests away and attract beneficial insects.
Once the cotton has finished its growing season and is picked (predominately by hand) it is made into bales and sent through a cotton gin separating the fibers from seeds and impurities. This raw organic cotton is then spun into yarn or thread. During this process any method of production and treatments can be used while still being sold as organic cotton. Fabric can be whitened with chlorine bleach, or coloured with heavy metal dyes and an assortment of other unsavoury treatments. To determine if a fabric is ecologically produced from seed to store shelves, organic standards watchdogs such as GOTS and OEKO-TEX are put in place, offering the consumer assurances that the organic fabric they are purchasing is in fact ecofriendly throughout its entire supply chain. During manufacturing all dyes and other processing materials must meet strict environmental and toxicological criteria. Waste water treatment is also monitored and must meet the standards set for social and environmental criteria.
What’s great about the GOTS certification is that it follows organic cotton from seed through manufacturing and to the finished fabric. Ensuring that ecological, environmental and social standards are met along the way, keeping the fabric free of child labour and forced labour. Throughout production farmers, mill workers and those along the supply chain are assured a living wage. They are able to choose freely where they will work, form associations and labour unions while working within agreed upon employment contracts. These standards are controlled through unannounced inspections made through independent parties with access to all areas of production. Organizations like GOTS also act as an ‘HR department’ of sorts allowing the workers to take any issues to them directly without the knowledge of their supervisors.
So, our choice in using organic cotton for many of our products was an obvious one. It is a sustainable choice from a human and ecological standpoint, workers are fairly treated and paid a living wage, while minimal impact is made to the environment during growing and manufacturing. Plus, the natural fibers of organic cotton are perfect for young skin, as babies and children are most at risk for reaction to the chemicals used in conventional cotton fabrics. If each purchase we make is a vote for the world we want to live in, then this is our vote for the future of the textile industry.