Organic vs Non-organic Cotton: Who wins?

Looking for simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint this year? When buying your next cotton t-shirt, buy organic and cut the carbon footprint of your purchase by over 15%.

Say it Green! (, provider of organic, fair trade apparel custom printed with eco-friendly inks, has calculated that, all other things being equal, the carbon footprint of apparel made from organic cotton is 16% lower than that of apparel made from conventional cotton. Organic cotton is grown pesticide free, lowering the carbon footprint of organic cotton apparel by not having to process and distribute the toxic pesticides used in farming conventional cotton.

“The toxic pesticides used to grow conventional cotton contaminate our soil, water, air, and even remain in our food and clothing. We knew that, which is why we chose to offer clothing made exclusively from organic cotton. What we didn’t know was that the manufacture and distribution of these pesticides leads to such a high level of greenhouse gases being emitted into our atmosphere,” says Kira Dominguez-Hultgren, Say it Green! co-founder and Operational Manager.

Carbon footprinting is one tool used to track the level of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions associated with a product or business. There is broad consensus that man-made greenhouse gases (GHGs) cause global climate change. The scientific community has indicated that global climate change is already occurring, making it imperative that we start reducing greenhouse gas emissions now.

Eliminating our use of cotton pesticides is one easy way we can do this. Cotton pesticides are manufactured by big chemical companies and distributed to cotton farmers worldwide, and cotton requires a much higher pesticide level than the average crop. Even though it only makes up 5% of crop acreage in America, cotton crops account for 10% of all US farm pesticide use. In addition, worldwide cotton production accounts for 25% of all worldwide insecticide use (insecticides are a type of pesticide). Organic cotton does not require the use of these toxic pesticides.

Just how toxic are these pesticides? According to a 2001 EPA study, the EPA considers seven of the top fifteen cotton pesticides used in the US to be “possible,” “likely,” “probable,” or “known” human cancer-causing chemicals.

The research for this study was done by Andy Hultgren, co-founder of Say it Green! and Kira’s husband. Andy currently works for the sustainability consultancy Environmental Performance Group and is the company’s technical expert in carbon footprinting. Andy has conducted numerous carbon footprint studies for a wide range of businesses and government organizations, and has served on a technical expert panel for The Climate Registry, North America’s leading provider of carbon footprint standards and data reporting.

“This carbon footprint study was actually quite limited in the potential GHG-reduction benefits of organic cotton that were considered,” says Hultgren. “For example, organic cotton farmers use environmentally friendly fertilizers, often from very local sources. That means they are often not buying their fertilizers from big chemical companies, who produce them in factories and have them shipped all over the world. And organic cotton farmers typically use better soil management practices, leading to increased soil health and potentially less need for GHG emitting farmland expansion. So really, the potential GHG reducing benefits of organic cotton could be much higher than the 16% we calculated as resulting solely from the elimination of toxic pesticides. Pesticide elimination was just the easiest aspect to look at.”

Data for the study was sourced from the US Department of Agriculture and from the Carnegie Mellon University Green Design Institute Industry Benchmark model.

For more information regarding Andy’s assumptions and calculations, feel free to read the detailed Organic vs. Conventional cotton GHG calculations and assumptions.

Your clothes. Your voice. Say it Green!

Additional Information:

“Conventional cotton has any number of problems associated with it,” says Hultgren. “For example, the fertilizers used by conventional cotton growers typically run off into our water ways, contaminating them and contributing to massive algae growths that kill off other aquatic plant and animal species. And as for our carbon footprint study, it really was a limited study of the potential GHG reduction benefits of organic cotton.”

According to records held by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, in 1999 a work crew started work in a cotton field five hours after it has been treated with pesticides. Seven members of that work crew sought medical treatment and five continue to face health problems.

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