Organic vs Sustainable (or Responsible) Cotton

Hema is a Dutch brand where I love to buy my undergarments. It has been a household name in Netherlands for decades, known for its nice stores and good quality products. Most garments either have a label that says ‘biological cotton’, or ‘responsible cotton’. This gave me the impression that my undies were honestly and sustainably produced. The other day I was in one of the stores and my eye fell on these labels again. I wondered: what is the difference between biological and responsible cotton?

Some online research soon taught me that the difference is rather simple. What surprised me, however, was the way in which the word ‘sustainable (or in Hema’s case ‘responsible’)’ is used by the fashion industry. Whilst large fashion brands are using this label as a marketing tool, sustainable cotton is not all that sustainable.

Foto door cottonbro op

Biological Cotton
In short, biological cotton is produced without the use of chemicals, genetically modified seeds* and fertilizer. Globally, there are two quality marks (or standards/certificates) for this type of cotton: the Organic 100 Content Standard (OCS) and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). If a brand claims to be using biological cotton, its clothes should have either of these quality marks. Clothing with the GOTS mark is made of at least 70% biological cotton and that with a OCS mark of 100%. In addition, the cotton should be traceable to its farmer. Of these two standards, GOTS is the most elaborate. They take processing of the cotton and the additional social conditions into account when they award garments with their certificate [Source: About Organic Cotton]. See the video below to get a better understanding of GOTS.


Sustainable Cotton
The case of sustainable cotton is more problematic. There is no common definition of sustainable produce and/or material in the fashion industry. Even H&M, a brand that presents itself as a forerunner in sustainable materials, does not elaborate on what sustainability actually means in the industry [Source: Fast Company]. There are many different types of fabric and each has its own pro’s and con’s in terms of sustainability. Synthetic clothing is considered more durable, but is not biodegradable and pollutes the ocean with micro-plastic when using a washing machine. Though cotton is biodegradable, it requires an immense amount of water to produce. We could ask ourselves whether there is even such a thing as sustainable cotton. 

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) keeps appearing in my search. It is a program that was founded by H&M amongst others. It aims to reduce the use of chemicals and water in the production of cotton by those farmers that are not able to produce biological cotton. Within the program, farmers are trained to change their production and they receive a fair price for their cotton. Many big brands (H&M, Hema, Decathlon, etc.) buy cotton through BCI and market the garments that they produce with this cotton as sustainable. Unfortunately, this is often still cotton that is produced with genetically modified seeds* and chemicals. Moreover, BCI only focuses on the production of cotton, not on the following production steps into garments. This means they can still be produced under bad conditions and/or by children (which is also possible for garments with the OCS standard) [Source: Keurmerken-wijzer].

Most brands share their use of biological and/or ‘sustainable’ cotton on their website. If you look up your favorite brands you will notice that some of them will refer to the Better Cotton Initiative. This search opened my eyes to the labels of ‘sustainable cotton’ and even ‘biological cotton’ that we find in stores. It taught me that these labels do not mean that the production of garments was not harmful for the natural and social environment. Shopping for sustainable undies thus became a bigger challenge for me.

Read more:
Responsible cotton at Hema
H&M Sustainability Report, 2018
Better Cotton Initiative

* It was rather difficult to find reliable information on the problems surrounding genetically modified seeds in the cotton industry. The sources that I found [Groene Amsterdammer 2013; Oneworld 2018; Indian Express 2016] seem to suggest the following. Many farmers use modified cottonseeds from companies such as Monsanto/Bayer and Cargill. These seeds were made to resist particular strong pesticides used by the farmers and typically provided by the same companies. These pesticides kill everything on the land, except for the cotton seeds and plants. As the companies have a patent on their seeds, farmers have to buy seeds for every harvest, whereas usually seeds are a byproduct of it. After some harvests, the yield of the land declines, because it is affected by the pesticides. The company offers different seeds that indeed provide a new harvest, but need even more pesticide. This cycle repeats itself until the land is poisoned and the plants that grow on it barely provide any cotton. Farmers are left with huge debts and barren land. Aside from all that, there are cases in which the (likely carcinogenic) pesticides polluted the drinking water of surrounding villages. These problems seem to have happened over the past ten years in India, Burkina Faso and America, countries where the produce of cotton is a big and important industry.

The original version of this article was published on this website in Dutch on 7 January 2020. Read it here.


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