Fabric Dictionary: Organic Cotton

spacer 1Right now, it seems like everyone is jumping on the “organic train”.  The food industry is the easiest example of this, but as sustainability has taken hold in the fashion community, organic cotton has become a popular topic of conversation. But, with so many new certifications and definitions of organic, what exactly is organic cotton, and what is the difference? Here is all the information you need:

What is Organic Cotton?

Let’s cover a few different definitions to create a complete profile of organic cotton. First, as you probably know, cotton is a natural, plant-grown fiber, and can be used for a multitude of things. It is durable, easy to dye, and versatile. But what does the word organic mean, and how has it evolved?

Definition 1: Something made out of or having to do with living matter

The word organic describes something made out of living matter,  rather than man-made. But usually, when industries describe a product as organic, they use a different definition.

Definition 2: Something produced without using chemicals, man-made pesticides, or artificial ingredients.

This gives us a little more clarity, but still leaves a lot of gray area. What do they mean by artificial ingredients or pesticides? When it comes to cotton, it seems like the definition changes with each certification, though in general there is a focus on sustainable, environmentally-friendly production practices.

Definition 3: Cotton produced without proven toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, using non-genetically modified seeds.

Cotton is one of the most popular crops in the world. This means its production has a massive effect on the environment. Organic cotton is also produced in a crop rotation, which helps keep the soil healthy. It’s also made according to fair trade policies, meaning all employees are given a fair wage in healthy working conditions.

Types of Cotton

There are 4 main types of cotton:

Upland Cotton (Hirsutum):

This type of cotton is the most common and makes up around 90% of all produced cotton globally. Its fibers are fairly short, and it’s used in things like feminine products and baby wipes.

Extra Long Staple Cotton (Barbadense):

In contrast with Upland cotton, this type only accounts for 8% of cotton production. This cotton is extra high in quality, usually used for clothing and bedding, and is also called Pima in many countries. The fabrics made from this cotton are wrinkle and pill-resistant, and unlikely to fade over time.

Tree Cotton (Arboreum):

Responsible for less than 2% of cotton production, this cotton is native to India and Pakistan. Gauzy, breathable, and often used both in cooking and medical supplies, tree cotton this woven muslin is a popular choice for many things.

Levant Cotton (Herbaceum):

This cotton is commonly used for yarn. Levant cotton is a cultural staple in South Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Its seeds are often used for high-quality feed and it grows on small shrubs.

Short History

The first known use of cotton was around 6 thousand B.C., and it wasn’t introduced to Europe until the first century. In the late 1700s, spinning machines and the cotton gin were developed. The cotton industry really took off after that.

Slaves were used to mass-produce cotton in North America, which created both an economic boom in the south and detrimental rifts in the United States, the effects of which are still being rectified to this day.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that organic cotton made its way on stage. Since then, strategies and philosophies in cotton have evolved greatly, and many large clothing companies have started if not completely switched to using organic cotton. Still, less than 1% of cotton currently produced is organic, which means there’s a long way to go.

How is Organic Cotton Different?

Let’s get down to the real stuff- is organic cotton really that different?

Water Use

Most organic cotton comes from small-scale, individual farms. 95% of these farms use rainwater as their main source of water. Organic cotton also uses less water than cotton that’s been genetically modified. Avoiding pesticides and chemical fertilizers also reduces the amount of water needed.

Water Pollution

Growing organic cotton reduces water pollution by up to 98%. Unlike with non-organic cotton, there is no dangerous run-off or need to clean the soil or water after production.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Organic cotton creates 47% fewer greenhouse gases than other cotton production. The resulting soil also absorbs CO2. This leaves the atmosphere even cleaner than before.

When Should I Use Organic Cotton in My Brand?

This is an easy yet difficult question to answer. The obvious answer is: always, forever, as much as you can! Organic cotton production has made clear, proven differences for the environment, is higher quality, and encourages mindful consumerism.

Not only is this great because it helps keep our world healthy, but it’s also great because it promotes dedication to brands that meet consumers’ standards. Sustainability gives consumers a new reason to love and invest in fashion.

There are a couple of factors that can make it more difficult to use organic cotton in your brand. First, the cost. Even though research has shown clear benefits of this change for the economy as a whole, it is more expensive to use organic cotton, rather than cheaper alternatives that don’t give laborers living wages or healthy working conditions. It requires a new perspective towards budgeting, and sometimes limited stock or variety while you’re still building up your reputation as a brand.

Regardless, cotton has been and always will be a staple in the fashion world. If you are starting a sustainable fashion brand, organic cotton is an excellent choice. Regardless of what you choose to do with your company, it’s vital for you to know your market and what they care about.


StartUp FASHION is an online community where independent designers and emerging brands are coming together, helping one another, forming friendships, collaborating, letting off steam, sharing victories, and belonging to a network of people who get it; who are doing it too. We’re a place to access and discover the tools and information you need to build your fashion business. We help you define your path and give you the guidance, encouragement, and resources to follow that path.