Organic Cotton – Does it Matter?

Organic Cotton – Does it Matter?

Your baby's skin is more sensitive than yours

Your baby’s skin, like the rest of its body, is in rapid development. As evidenced by skin conditions like cradle cap, diaper rash and eczema, baby skin is highly sensitive. A baby’s skin is 20-30% thinner than that of their mother and therefore more permeable and capable of absorbing toxins. As mothers, we should be concerned with what comes into contact with the largest organ on our baby’s bodies. One way to minimize exposure to toxins is to ensure your little one wears clothing made from the safest materials, like organic cotton.

We are what we wear

Though it’s not consumed like food, cotton is grown in much the same way as other edible agricultural products and thus carries many of the same concerns. As fashion-model-turned-eco-conscious-mother, Amber Valetta says, “We are not just what we eat, we are what we wear”. With this in mind, we should make clothing choices in the same way we opt for organic food over processed or pesticide-exposed alternatives. We know organic food is healthy, tastes better and supports local economies and the environment. So why don’t we apply the same reasoning to our fashion choices?

Just how is a cotton garment made?

Each cotton garment starts as seed. It’s planted, grown for about five months, picked, processed at a gin where impurities are removed, compressed and shipped, given a quality grade, spun into thread, woven into fabric, whitened, finished, dyed, designed, cut, sewn, and finally, distributed to retailers. For fast fashion, it takes an average of just three weeks from initial design to when a product is on the rack! Generally, these production stages are similar for both organic and nonorganic cotton, but there are crucial differences that happen each step of the way which result in two very different garments.

What are the real differences between organic and conventional cotton?

  1. Impact on water and soil

Without a doubt, conventional cotton farming is more resource intensive and environmentally destructive than organic agriculture. On average, 2,700 liters (over 700 gallons) of water is required to produce a conventional cotton garment—with a large portion of that used in farming. Organic cotton farming consumes a fraction of that (up to 88% less) by relying on rainwater as irrigation. 

Because the fields are monocropped and never allowed to rest, conventional cotton is also correlated to soil erosion and acidification—a  harmful imbalance in soil pH. Soils are like earth’s precious, thin skin and though not often thought of as such, they are a finite resource in need of protection. Organic cotton agriculture allows farmers to alternate crops on their fields, which helps preserve soil health and can diversify a farmer’s income stream so they don’t have to rely on the production of a single crop, which endangers soil health.

  1. Pesticide & chemical use

Conventional cotton growing uses genetically modified seeds and allows for the liberal application of toxic chemicals like pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Producers even encourage spraying synthetic chemicals to speed up defoliation of cotton so it can be harvested quicker—similar to how hormones are used to rapidly and artificially mature livestock. The overuse of these chemicals poses serious threats to ecosystem health. In addition to contaminating soil, chemical runoff pollutes community waterways where farmers and their families live, work and play. These chemicals—many of which are known carcinogens—affect the health and safety of workers who are exposed during their application. Because they are persistent by design and directly applied to cotton during cultivation, chemicals can remain in the fibers even at the time of purchase—a problem for clothes intended for children. 

Organic cotton does not allow for the application of any toxic chemicals. Instead, farmers use holistic, sustainable, low-impact practices like manual weeding, handpicking, compost use, and integrated pest management. These techniques, which are less reliant on big machines and widespread chemicals, increase the number of workers a farm employs and circulates money back into the local economy, all while keeping workers and the communities they live in healthy and safe.

  1. Dyes and finishing chemicals

After harvesting and some processing, cotton is whitened, finished and dyed. In these three steps, conventional and organic processes diverge again quite drastically. First, conventional cotton is bleached with harsh chlorines whereas organic cotton is whitened with peroxide which is generally safer and less harsh on fibers and your skin. 

Next, the cotton is prepped to accept the dyes in a process called “finishing.” Cotton is made from hardy cellulose fibers that do not take to dyes very well; in fact, it’s the most time and resource intensive to dye of all traditional textiles! Conventional cotton is submerged in hot alkaline solutions of chemicals, synthetic detergents and surfactants, even formaldehyde.  Organic cotton, on the other hand, is finished using a bath of warm water and non-toxic soda ash (aka: washing soda, sodium carbonate, sister to baking soda). 

Finally, conventional cotton is colored with synthetic dyes that contain high amounts of heavy metals and sulfur. If they are printed with a design, they often use petroleum-based inks. If dyed, organic cotton uses natural, organic dyes, or those with lower, safer sulfur contents. Soy or vegetable-based water soluble inks are used as well. The choices made in these final stages of dyeing, finishing and printing are crucial because they affect the health of your baby. The chemicals used in nonorganic cotton permeate the fabric, your laundry machine, and are in constant contact with your baby’s absorptive skin or mouth. Because of this, opting for naturally dyed, un-dyed or unbleached cotton can offer moms the most peace of mind.

How do I know it’s truly organic?

Now that you know there are BIG differences, how do you go about finding organic baby garments? There are a few certifications you can look to. 

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

The highest and strictest certification for any organic fiber is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). GOTS is managed by an independent third party and has been certifying textiles for over 15 years. There are two label grades possible: 95% certified organic fibers and 70%.  GOTS 6.0, released in 2020, is the most stringent yet. They scrutinize the entire supply chain from farmer to retailer to ensure that criteria are met in three categories: environmental, technical quality and human toxicology, and social equity. In addition to prohibiting the use of toxic chemicals and ensuring fair working conditions, they also review specifics like waste generated and how the product is packaged. Cotton that is GOTS certified is not even allowed to touch conventional cotton! 

OEKO-TEX

Another certification to look for is offered through OEKO-TEX, a group that focuses on testing for harmful substances. OEKO-TEX was established almost 30 years ago and the number of substances they test for has grown exponentially since. Their main certification is called STANDARD 100 and it ensures all elements of a garment—from buttons and threads to zippers and labels—are free from harmful substances. This certification applies to both organic and conventionally grown cotton.

Fair Trade

The fashion industry is notorious for worker exploitation, especially in developing nations. One certification that is looking to bring transparency and equality to the forefront is the Fair Trade certification. Fair Trade certified garments promise living wages and safe, healthy working conditions for every worker involved in the making of a garment. This U.S.-based certification agency, established in 1998, focuses on valuing, empowering and lifting up the communities that produce our products. 

All these certifications can get confusing. Which is the best one?

If you only look for one label, the most important is GOTS because it encompasses the values and standards of many other certifications. For example, if a manufacturer goes to the lengths of being GOTS certified, its products are likely free from harmful substances reviewed by OEKO-TEX. Furthermore, GOTS includes social criteria that approves fair working conditions and wages for those involved in the supply chain—the focus of the Fair Trade label.

But how much more does it cost?

The price of organic cotton typically ranges from 10-30% more than conventional cotton. Unfortunately, in the US “safe” and “sustainably made” clothing is almost always considered a “premium” or “luxury” item. At Borobabi our mission is to make safe materials for children accessible to all parents. Through our shared economy we are able to offer high quality, organically made clothing at a fraction of their retail prices, making it not only the affordable choice but the safest choice.

It is the healthier choice.

From seed to store, more care and respect for the planet and its people are put into the making of organic cotton. It is the healthier choice for the earth, its water and soils, for farmers, textile workers, and for you and your baby. Informed moms pick organic cotton.

We at Borobabi partner with brands that have material health and sustainability at the core of their values, just like us. Check out our brands that carry organic cotton.