Article by Adrienne Suhm, Images by Kowtow Clothing

Organic: a little word with big meaning in today’s health-conscious world. We constantly search for organic certifications in our food, cleaning products, and personal care items, but why does it matter how our clothing is grown?

While there are clear health implications associated with eating non-organic food or cleaning our homes with non-organic products, fewer individuals are aware of the necessity of purchasing organic clothing. It’s as simple as this: we don’t always see the whole picture when it comes to our clothing purchases. And there’s one crop in particular any fashion-conscious consumer should keep their eye on: cotton, a resource that accounts for nearly half of the fibers used to make clothing and textiles worldwide.

First, a few facts on non-organic cotton:

Cotton agriculture occupies only 2% of the Earth’s arable land, yet it accounts for the consumption of 24% of the world’s insecticides and 11% of its pesticides. Few consumers are aware that traditional pesticides and insecticides were originally created in the early 20th century as a new technology for chemical warfare – subsequently, scientists realized their ability to exterminate pests and implemented these chemicals in agriculture. So, based on the history of pesticides, it’s not entirely shocking to realize that the communities and ecosystems surrounding non-organic cotton fields and the workers who handle them experience higher rates of illness, cancer, and birth defects.

Similarly, cotton requires a high volume of chemicals in other levels of the supply chain, especially in the dyeing and manufacturing process. Consumers experience the side effects of non-organic fabrics in the form of irritated skin, headaches, and rashes as a result of chemical residue that remains even after growing and manufacturing the textiles.

But perhaps cotton’s most frightening environmental impact is on our water systems – the production of a single kilogram of cotton, equaling one t-shirt or pair of jeans, can require more than 5,000 gallons of water. That’s more water than any other agricultural crop in the world.

The production of a single kilogram of cotton, equaling one t-shirt or pair of jeans, can require more than 5,000 gallons of water. That’s more water than any other agricultural crop in the world.

It can be challenging to think beyond these shocking statistics, but there is some silver lining. Organic cotton farmers never use genetically modified seeds, meaning that they can gather and replant seeds at the end of each growing season rather than buying new ones, thereby limiting costs and encouraging agricultural diversity. The soil in which organic cotton is grown possesses long- term fertility due to crop rotation and higher volumes of organic matter. Healthier soil resulting from these practices retains water more efficiently and thus requires less irrigation to grow. At its most basic level, organic farming is centered around a partnership with nature rather than the destruction of it.

Furthermore, the global demand for organic cotton has tripled since 1996. Industry leaders including Amour Vert, Patagonia, and Kowtow sell clothing made exclusively from organic cotton, but more and more companies are making the switch. True, organic cotton is more labor intensive and more expensive than its non-organic counterpart, but we believe it’s a change worth making. The future of organic cotton won’t be realized by businesses alone – it takes environmentally conscious consumers to demand healthful, organic fabrics that reduce the hidden environmental costs of cotton growth.