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The difference between organic cotton and conventional cotton

The term organic cotton is on everyone’s lips at the moment. But what exactly is the difference between organic cotton and standard cotton? We have put together a list of the most important differences, and also suggest some more sustainable alternatives to cotton.


9 November 2021 • 10 min reading time

The difference between organic cotton and conventional cotton

The trend towards environmentally conscious and sustainable fashion is growing constantly – which is great news. Cotton plays a major role in this development. Three billion items of clothing are produced each year, and cotton makes up 50% of the material used to make these garments around the world. In Germany, cotton is the most commonly used textile for clothing after chemical fibres. So we have put together a list of the most important information about organic cotton and conventional cotton.

How does cotton grow?

Whether it’s organic or conventional, cotton doesn’t grow on trees or come from an animal, like wool. Cotton is a vegan product. The cotton plant belongs to the mallow family, and is chiefly farmed in India, China and the USA.

How many kinds of cotton are there?

There are three basic kinds of cotton:

  • GM cotton is genetically modified, and is cultivated using pesticides and fertilisers.

  • Sustainable cotton is not genetically modified. This kind of cotton is cultivated using lower levels of pesticides and fertilisers, however it is not completely free from them.

  • Organic cotton does not use genetic modification, chemical pesticides or fertilisers.

Genetic modification and pesticides

Conventional cotton farming chiefly uses genetically modified or chemically treated seeds. These are resistant to pests and produce a larger crop. For organic cotton, the use of genetically modified seeds is forbidden, and pesticides and synthetic fertilisers are not permitted. Compost, dung and beneficial insects are used instead, which combat pests by natural means. These measures and regulations mean that the cultivation area (monoculture) is less contaminated and less sapped of nutrients.

Only 1% of cotton worldwide is organic

Even though there appears to be a high demand for organic cotton, only 1% of farmed cotton in the world is organic. 50% of the world’s organic cotton comes from India.
CALIDA chiefly uses SUPIMA® cotton from the USA. These extra-long staple fibres create a very fine cotton which is considered a premium product. This kind of cotton is particularly well-suited for underwear. SUPIMA and PIMA cotton only thrives in the hot desert climates of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California. Unfortunately, only a limited amount of this kind of cotton is grown organically – not enough to guarantee a constant supply for the CALIDA collection.

Misleading organic cotton labels

Only 1% of the world’s cotton is grown organically – and studies even show that this figure is declining slightly. The demand for organic cotton, by contrast, has increased dramatically. How do the two go together?
The answer is, they don’t. The various labels reading ‘organic’ mean different things, and the term often doesn't mean much. The term ‘organic’ is not protected and has no defined regulations. This is why we have our organic cotton tested and certified by the independent textile verification institution OEKO-TEX®. In addition, our entire children’s collection carries the MADE IN GREEN certification. This ensures that not only the cultivation but also the processing of the organic cotton is verified.

Alternatives to organic cotton

Although organic cotton is better for the environment than conventional cotton, there are even more sustainable alternatives. A T-shirt made with standard cotton requires 2,700 litres of water to produce. The amount of water required for organic cotton is less, but still substantial. For example, it requires around 20 times as much water as TENCEL™ (made from wood as a raw material). The cultivation area required for TENCEL™ – also known as lyocell – is around four times smaller than for cotton. In addition, these areas do not compete with food cultivation. The majority of TENCEL™ is made using sustainable forestry. Although the fibres have natural origins, the process of making them into material is a chemical one, meaning that they are not ultimately classified as natural fibres. The fibres have a different feel to cotton; the surface is smoother and more flowing, whereas customers consider cotton to be more ‘natural’.

It just goes to show that it’s worth taking a closer look at the topic of sustainable materials! Regardless of whether you prefer cotton or alternatives like lyocell or TENCEL™

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