Organic Cotton 101

By Petey Roach

The rise of organic and USDA approved goods has skyrocketed in the past decade, making its way into everything from our food to our clothes. Still, the biggest questions surrounding organically produced goods are what exactly is organic? And why does it matter?

Here at Spiritex & Asheville Apparel, we produce organic fabric and apparel from cotton. And now we want to break down exactly what it means to produce organic cotton and examine some of the countless benefits.

Let’s start by differentiating organic cotton from cotton that is not organic (a.k.a. “conventional”). Organic cotton must adhere to strict United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards that forbid the use of conventional chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers. The soil used for planting must be free of these conventional chemicals for at least three years. There are even regulations on what kind of seeds can be used. In order to be Organic Certified, the cotton seed cannot be classified as a genetically modified organism (GMO). An organism is considered GMO when the genes of one plant or animal are extracted and forced into the genes of another plant or animal. Most conventional cotton is genetically modified to produce pesticides inside the plant itself. This process of genetic modification makes the plant toxic for consumption to all living creatures from insects to humans.

So how does organic cotton production remain high yielding without pesticides or genetic modification? Simply through smart farming! Organic farmers promote pests natural enemies— such as birds, beetles, parasite wasps, and lacewigs—in their fields in order to reduce damage to the cotton. Organic farmers will also plant “trap crops” of hibiscus, sunflowers, maize, or okra that pests prefer to consume more than cotton. Most farmers also choose to incorporate a practice called crop rotation in which they plant crops that require different nutrients from the soil in order to avoid depleting the soil nutrients needed to grow cotton. The stalks of the picked cotton are often decayed through a process called composting and then tilled back into the soil for further enrichment.

Trap crops are placed in between the rows of cash crops to distract pests.

Meanwhile, the production of conventional cotton uses 16% of the world’s insecticides and 7% of pesticides. There are so many chemicals used that most women (and especially pregnant women) are not safe working in conventional cotton farming. Millions of farmers suffer annually from poisoning due to pesticide exposure. Conventional cotton takes 71% more water and 62% more energy to maintain. This poor quality of production is why cotton is commonly known as “the world’s dirtiest crop.” The process as a whole can be summed up in one word: yikes. And still, conventional cotton makes up 99% of the 26 million metric tonnes produced annually on average.

Conventional farmer spraying chemicals directly on crop.

Don’t worry though—there is still hope for organic goods. As buying organic becomes more mainstream, the price points are becoming lower and the stereotype of “overpriced organic” is fading out. There is an increased demand in ethical production that sustains the environment and boosts local agriculture economies. This demand will create more accessibility to organically produced goods, from food to fashion.

Spiritex and Asheville Apparel are proud to source organic cotton to create our fabric and apparel. We are so excited to be one of many opportunities for people to buy ethical and fashionable clothing for themselves and their loved ones.

Have questions? Leave a comment below! We would be happy to continue the conversation about organically produced fabric and apparel.

February 01, 2019 — Corey Jones