When it comes to sustainable cotton, fashion focuses on the 1% at the expense of the other 99. Why?

Cotton’s environmental impacts are well publicized (if not well understood), including the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and flood irrigation. However, cotton is the second most popular fiber in fashion after polyester, and finding sustainable solutions to current farming methods is an economic and environmental necessity.

However, much of the “sustainable cotton” debate centers around organic products, which account for about 1% of global production. “If only more farmers would go organic” is an oft-repeated wish, but it ignores the critical indicators of cotton and downright impossibility. 99% of the cotton that is not organically grown comes from conventional methods derived from the industrialization of agriculture in the early 20th century.

The advent of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides has enabled a steady increase in world food production and fiber production. At the dawn of industrialized agriculture, it fed and clothed a global population of less than 2 billion people. It now enables the production of food in excess of the required caloric food intake of the 8 billion (and growing) global population. It also dresses us in 25% of the world’s fibers (cotton and wool combined), which are now eclipsed by 64% of fossil-derived synthetic fibres.

Today’s food production volumes are achievable with synthetic inputs that speed up the growth process and strengthen crops until harvest; this is not to deny the damage done by industrialized agriculture, but to recognize that industrial agriculture supplies global commodity markets by providing food and supporting farmers’ livelihoods. Furthermore, farmers’ earnings depend on their yields, and scientific evidence (along with the dominance of conventional farming) shows that processes that use synthetic inputs tend to increase yields.

Organic vs Conventional – yields explained

The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) reported in 2016 that the average global organic cotton yield was low at 375 kg of lint/ha compared to a global average of 782 kg of lint/ha. On the other hand, evidence from India, the US and Turkey has shown that yields in excess of 1,000 kg of floc per hectare can be obtained if supported by good science. However, there are significant challenges in growing organic cotton, including insufficient seed availability, poor quality or insufficient access to organic inputs, poor scientific support, uncertain price premiums, and low yields in the 2-3 year transition period. In addition, laborious certification processes, complex traceability systems and the potential for contamination arising from the coexistence of genetically modified crops are considered problematic.

India is the world’s number one country in terms of cotton-growing land, with four times as many hectares of cotton-growing land as China (the next largest). However, China is the largest producer of flocs by volume, and India is not in the top ten. India is the world’s largest producer of organic cotton, accounting for more than half of the world’s production, again pointing to the significant differences in yield between organic cotton and conventionally grown cotton.

Thus, organic farming has significant growth constraints despite being organic. The same cannot be said for conventional ones, whose cost to sustainable development makes a long list of environmental degradation that includes groundwater, surface water, soils and biodiversity. In addition, social costs include the growing rural-urban divide, the worldwide obesity epidemic and antibiotic resistance. Nevertheless, in this “conventional 99 percent”, cotton has sustainability opportunities and challenges.

A conventional problem, a huge opportunity

After understanding the limitations of organic farming and the interrelationship between food cultivation and fiber, it becomes clear that alternative farming methods are needed to balance the environmental impact and global demand for fibre. So are there sustainable options for growing cotton, and if so, what are they?

Movements towards organic farming methods, including organic and regenerative farming systems, have intensified in recent decades. Scientific studies show that these systems are highly competitive in terms of low environmental impact compared to conventional farming. However, they are believed to be highly dependent on financial incentives and political support, and yields vary.

What is the difference between organic farming and regenerative farming? Can regenerative cotton solve the environmental problems associated with conventional cotton while maintaining yields? Which option is the most “sustainable” and what does it mean for fashion brands?

Organic vs regenerative – what’s the difference?

Organic farming (OA) is a holistic approach that maintains and improves soil health and embraces biological cycles. This is achieved by using agronomic, biological and mechanical techniques instead of using synthetic agents to perform specific functions in the agricultural system. Organic farming adheres to the following regulations:

  • No chemical pesticides,
  • No synthetic fertilizers,
  • No genetically modified crops,
  • Responsible use of energy and natural resources.

Regenerative agriculture (RA) is a holistic approach to agriculture that emphasizes the relationship between agricultural systems and the wider ecological system. Regenerative agriculture is a concept rather than a strict set of requirements. It includes a practice-based assessment of farming systems that strictly adhere to five recognized principles:

  • cover the ground
  • avoid disturbing the soil,
  • increase crop diversification,
  • keep living roots in the ground all year round
  • include livestock.

Regenerative agriculture aims to improve soil quality and biodiversity while cost-effectively producing nutritious agricultural products. Eliminates plowing (digging and turning the soil) and environmental damage associated with bare soil. At the same time, RA promotes plant diversity and integrates livestock and food production on land. Critically, RA does not prevent the use of synthetic and genetically modified input materials. Instead, it uses them to optimize soil health and yields at the same time.

Organic and regenerative – pros and cons

Compared to organic farming, insufficient data are available on the benefits of regenerative farming. However, research has shown that regenerative practices can lead to higher profitability than conventional farming practices. For cotton, for example, farmers have seen higher yields by carefully controlling and minimizing synthetic inputs while maximizing profits in subsequent harvest years.

Organic farming protects the environment by reducing the effects of overuse of chemicals; but on the other hand, it can lead to social and economic difficulties due to lower yields. Is organic production “better” if it does not use GMO ingredients, or is it unsuitable due to the limited capacity to feed and partially clothe the global population? Also, is it “better” because there are organic certifications that regenerative agriculture does not have?

Regenerative methods allow farmers to use synthetic chemicals and genetically modified (GM) seeds to provide crop characteristics that can better survive in certain conditions, depending on regional climate and other factors. Is regeneration “better” because it can respond to ecological challenges through GM and targeted synthetic chemicals – as long as the impact of “net regeneration” is positive (to be proven through ongoing soil, water and biodiversity analyses)? Is regeneration “better” because of the markedly increased carbon sequestration at a time when reducing emissions is essential to halting climate change? Or is “regenerative” the crutch that sustains our unrelenting consumption compared to “organic” with the imposed limits of what optimized farming in harmony with nature can provide? The reality now is that the organic impact – and opportunities – is negligible.

Organic’s ‘eco-credit’ vs. Regenerative’s carbon capture

Organic farming is certified to agreed standards, albeit through manual and highly unreliable chain of custody processes. Regenerative agriculture is not a one-size-fits-all, single set of methods that can be reduced to certification – they need to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, depending on net impact, yields and costs.

Despite the lack of certification, proving carbon sequestration by regenerative agriculture through data collection and soil analysis is a major victory, as demonstrated by this carbon case study. Notable supporters of the regenerative cotton brand include The North Face, which recently partnered with Indigo Ag for its carbon-coal cotton farming initiative. In addition, Pangaia is currently “in the process of converting” to regenerated cotton, aiming to source all of its virgin cotton from regenerative systems by 2026.

Organic cotton brands tend to focus more on consumer confidence from non-synthetic chemicals, non-GMO narratives, and broader impact reduction claims – including disproved water reduction statistics.

For all its certification flaws, organic cotton has a well-established and simple framework for what it is and how it’s grown, leading to specific organic standards along with certifications. Moreover, telling the story of organic cotton is relatively easy given what consumers already know about organic food. In this context, perception can be the deciding factor in driving “sustainable” brands to choose organic fibers over all other options. But that’s still only 1% of the available cotton. So regenerative, in terms of ecology and production volume, it can be the answer to the other 99.

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