Is your cotton shirt 'killing the earth'?

Richard Ziff, CEO of Of The Earth, an all natural clothing company, laying on 1,000 tons of OCIA Certified Organic Cotton.
Richard Ziff, CEO of Of The Earth, an all natural clothing company, laying on 1,000 tons of OCIA Certified Organic Cotton.

It’s difficult to imagine life without cotton as the world uses more cotton than any other kind of fibre.

We dry ourselves with cotton towels, sleep between cotton sheets and wear cotton jeans. Cotton is used largely for clothing and household items but has many other uses.

Every part of the cotton plant is used. The long fibres are used to make cloth and the short fibres are used for paper; cottonseed oil is made from the seeds, and other parts of the plant are used as cattle feed. 

Cotton grows in subtropical areas and the biggest cotton-growing countries in the world are Australia, India, Pakistan, China and the USA.

A big polluter

Cotton, because it is a natural fibre has the image of being natural and pure. Nothing could be further from the truth, and cotton farming takes a tremendous toll on the environment, mainly because of its heavy use of pesticides.

According to Organic Authority, the cotton industry is the most pesticide-intensive crop grown on the planet and uses the most dangerous pesticides to human and animal health.

Read: Why are pesticides used?

While cotton covers only 2.5 percent of the world’s cultivated land, it accounts for 24 percent of the world’s insecticide market and 11 percent of sale of global pesticides. The pesticide run-off also poisons our ground water, and cattle consume contaminated cotton straw and cottonseed. 

Aldicarb, one of the insecticides used on cotton, is so poisonous that it can kill a human with just one drop absorbed through the skin. Converting cotton into fabric and clothing also involves many toxic chemicals.

Going organic

A recently published report (Cool Cotton – Organic Cotton and Climate Change) by the Soil Association states that switching to organic could reduce the global warming impact of cotton production by 46 percent. It would also reduce consumption of fresh water by more than 90 percent and energy use by over 60 percent.

The organic cotton produced in 2013/14 saved the world the equivalent of nearly 95,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of freshwater compared to non-organic, and the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions was the equivalent of driving a car around the world over 14,000 times.

Read: SA's greenhouse emissions 'very high'

The report adds that the demand for organic cotton is growing, and that in 2014 the global market for organic cotton grew by more than 60 percent. It is estimated that global production of organic cotton increased by 15 to 20 percent in 2014/15. 

A study done in India found that organic cotton yielded just 14 percent less than non-organic, but that the costs involved were 38 percent lower. Organic cotton farms also have to grow other crops besides cotton, which means that they are more self-sufficient – in addition to enjoying better health because of the avoidance of pesticides.       

Image: Countries that grew organic cotton in 2014. Source:

organic cotton growers in the world

Organic cotton in South Africa

In South Africa Woolworths has started working with the “Better Cotton Initiative" in order to foster more sustainable farming – reducing usage of water, fertilizers and pesticides, while improving conditions for farmers and their workers.

Hugo Lemon, Product Technologist at Woolworths, said that BCI met their requirements best because it “talks to all aspects of growing cotton in a better way”.

Woolworths joined BCI in July 2014 with the goal of converting 15% of their cotton lint to Better Cotton by 2017.

Health24 asked Woolworths why we should switch to organic cotton and what the benefits are:

Q: Which South African fashion brands offer organic cotton? And globally?

A: Woolworths is the largest South African fashion retailer offering organic cotton and this year was confirmed by the Textile Exchange to be the fastest growing organic cotton retailer in the world.

Photoganic [who also sells sustainable satin clothing], EarthChild & Earth Addict are other local, niche fashion brands committed to organic cotton.

Globally there are a number of brands offering organic cotton ranges. There is a full list of global fashion brands on aboutorganiccotton.

Q: How will I know if my garment is made of organic or non-organic cotton, or only contains some organic cotton?

A: Retailers such as Woolworths clearly label organic cotton products and when there are other fibres in the fabric will offer a composition split, e.g.: 95% organic cotton and 5% Lycra.

The Textile Exchange is global a non-profit organisation committed to the responsible expansion of organic cotton and they regulate organic cotton labelling parameters globally.

Q: Are clothes made of organic cotton more expensive?

A: Generally organic cotton is approximately 30% more expensive than conventional cotton due to lower yields and auditing costs.

However, Woolworths has minimised this premium by converting substantial volume lines like chinos and golf shirts into organic cotton, thereby using volume purchase to offset additional costs.

Q: What are the advantages to wearing organic cotton in terms of wearability, how long the garment will last, and how does it feel on the skin?

A: Organic cotton performs the same as conventional cotton. Organic cotton appeals to a specific consumer mindset of choosing sustainable product options and doing the right thing for the planet.

Q: Are the dyes used to colour organic cotton clothes safe? How would we know?

A: Woolworths believes that if one is using organic cotton it makes sense to maintain the integrity of that product by using only OEKOTEX 100 dyes as a standard.

We ensure that all our organic cotton products have the Global Organic Textile standard and OEKOTEX 100 certification.

Q: Does SA produce organic cotton? If so, where is it farmed, what is the scale and do we export?

A: Unfortunately, South Africa currently doesn’t produce any organic cotton. 75% of the world’s organic cotton is grown in India, which is where the majority of Woolworths’ organic cotton is sourced from.


Woolworths SA has generously offered users the chance to win one of four R500 gift vouchers which they can spend at any Woolworths store on a beautiful organic cotton garment of their choice. Note, the competition closes on 4 February 2016.

Read more:

Enviro crisis spurs organic trend

Spices make eco-friendly pesticides

How do organic farms work?

Sources: to download the full report. 

Environmental Justice Foundation (2007) "The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton" (in collaboration with the Pesticide Action Network UK) (accessed August 2015)

Carbon Trust (2011) "International Carbon Flows – Cotton" (accessed August 2015)

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