Organic cotton: how does it compare to other sustainable materials?
by Amelia Zimmerman | Oct 05, 2022
The fashion industry loves organic cotton. There are 13 well-known industry heavyweights committed to the 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge, committing to sourcing 100% sustainable cotton by 2025. In a similar vein, the Better Cotton Initiative aims to improve the environmental impact of global cotton production. Brands like PACT, Patagonia, Adidas and Nike are all incorporating organic cotton into their supply chains — but how does this adored textile stack up against other sustainable textile choices?
In this article, we’ll compare organic cotton to a few other popular sustainable fibers — hemp, recycled wool, and Tencel — and see how its carbon footprint, water consumption, cost, and availability compares.
What is organic cotton?
Organic cotton is a natural, biodegradable fabric. It is an eco-friendly, ‘like-for-like’ alternative to its conventional counterpart, cotton (the most widely used natural fiber crop).
Organic cotton is best known for its lack of toxic chemicals in cultivation and production. Its steady availability has made it a go-to fabric in the eco-fashion space. In fact, organic cotton was essentially the first mainstream eco-fabric — although more and more are joining the market.
How does organic cotton compare to standard cotton?
Cotton is ‘organic’ if the fiber is produced to the standards of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements Standards (IFOAM). The European Commission outlines strict guidelines for what constitutes organic, including avoiding the use of toxic or persistent synthetic agrochemicals and genetically modified seeds.
Compared to standard cotton, organic cotton has a smaller carbon footprint because it is less reliant on fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. It also uses far less water, although both kinds of cotton are still water-intensive compared to other fibers available. On the whole, organic cotton tends to be better for the environment and the people who farm it, because it doesn’t require the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides like traditional cotton does. Organic cotton is often farmed using regenerative agricultural techniques, such as no-tilling, which can help to restore the health of depleted soil, absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, improve land water cycles, and boost biodiversity. If you’re looking for sustainable cotton, organic is probably the way to go.
Organic cotton vs. Tencel
Tencel is another fiber popular for its sustainable qualities. It is made from cellulose by the Austrian company Lenzing. Let’s see how it stacks up against organic cotton.
Carbon footprint. Organic cotton manages to keep its carbon footprint small thanks to the fact that it doesn’t require any pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers (manufacturing these chemicals is extremely carbon-intensive). But it still goes through energy-intensive processes such as ginning, which still produces some carbon dioxide. On the other hand, Lenzing’s Tencel production process is circular, and optimized for sustainability. Tencel still requires wood pulp extraction, which is carbon intensive, but overall, Tencel has a far lower carbon footprint than many other textile alternatives, including organic cotton.
Water consumption. Even though organic cotton uses 85% less water than conventional cotton, all cotton needs significant quantities of water to grow. Conversely, despite Tencel’s reliance on water-intensive Eucalyptus trees, its closed-loop production system captures and reuses 99.5% of water and solvents.
Cost. Tencel’s production requires significant oversight and relies heavily on technological development, both of which make it significantly more expensive to produce than cotton. As many cotton farms in India switch to organic, the availability of organic cotton is growing rapidly, bringing its cost down.
Availability. Organic cotton is widely available due to increased production globally, especially India. Unfortunately, Tencel’s availability is still limited due to its controlled production.
Both Tencel and organic cotton are pesticide-free and highly versatile. However, Tencel’s production process has better oversight and is more tightly controlled. The quality of organic cotton varies, and it can be difficult to legitimately verify organic claims. Tencel is also softer, stronger and more durable than cotton, and has stronger color retention.
Amour Vert’s entire Dream Collection is Tencel-based, as is much of Encircled’s catalog. Allbirds has worked Tencel into t-shirts, socks, and underwear, while Organic Basics offers a full range of Tencel products.
Ultimately, the environmental impact of Tencel and organic cotton are very similar, and either can be a versatile, eco-friendly option compared to more traditional, less sustainable textiles. Tencel tends to have better product strengths (colour retention and durability for example), a better quality control, and a better environmental impact. If you’re shopping based on cost and availability, organic cotton could be a better option, but beware of potential issues around certifications and ensuring the product is legitimate.
Organic cotton vs. recycled wool
Both organic cotton and recycled wool are natural, biodegradable fabrics and like-for-like replacements of their counterparts, cotton and wool. Recycled wool bypasses the most environmentally-damaging stages of wool production, and keeps our discarded wool garments out of landfill, while also avoiding the need for new fiber creation. Without the eco-impacts from sheep, and chemicals and water needed for dyeing, recycled wool is a great option for sustainable fashion — but let’s see how it compares to organic cotton.
Carbon footprint. A large portion of wool’s carbon footprint comes from sheep and what it takes to raise them. But recycled wool bypasses this step, lowering its carbon footprint dramatically. It also skips the scouring process (cleaning the wool), which is also energy-intensive. In contrast, the farming and ginning associated with organic cotton constitutes a significant energy loss.
Water consumption. When wool is recycled, the existing garments are broken down to fibers, and then respun back into yarn. None of the water usually required to raise sheep and scour the wool is needed in this process, and most recycled wool doesn’t need to be dyed, saving on both water and harmful chemicals. On the other hand, although organic cotton requires less water than its traditional counterpart (thanks to natural crop treatments that allow for soil to retain significantly more water and require less irrigation), cotton overall still requires significant water to grow.
Cost. While organic cotton is more expensive than traditional wool, it’s the industry’s favorite because of cost as well as availability. However, recycled wool is still considerably more expensive than organic cotton.
Availability. Organic cotton is an easy winner here — it’s grown in 35 countries and is comparatively easily available. On the other hand, recycled wool is only available in a handful of recycling hubs.
Organic cotton is grown without the use of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides or genetically modified seeds. It’s highly versatile and can be used in almost any situation. However, it also makes significant demands on land use. Conversely, recycled wool has the natural ability to breathe and gets credit for taking (wool) waste out of landfill. It’s a bit less durable than new wool, but it can be mixed with other fibers to strengthen it. However, it’s not as versatile as organic cotton.
Organic cotton vs. hemp
Although many people imagine hemp fabric to be a new invention, hemp has been used for thousands of years. Hemp is made from the cannabis sativa fiber, and as cannabis legalization gathers momentum and more countries loosen regulations, hemp is making a comeback. It is quickly becoming popular thanks to its eco-friendly properties, but let’s see how it compares to organic cotton.
Carbon footprint. Both cotton and hemp require upkeep. Hemp’s fiber yield is significantly lower due to the degumming process that most hemp fibers must undergo, which involves removing impurities like waxes before the fiber is spun into yarn. This requires significant energy and produces more CO2 emissions than cotton production.
Water consumption. Hemp is an extremely durable and fast-growing crop (it grows faster than some weeds). Hemp plants are sturdy and only require about a third of the water used by organic cotton.
Cost. Organic cotton is slightly more expensive than cotton since it has a lower yield, and should be third-party certified. Hemp is much pricier than organic cotton due to its limited supply and is often even blended with (hopefully organic) cotton to reduce its price tag. Hopefully, as hemp production ramps up worldwide, the costs will decrease.
Availability. In the past, hemp’s association with cannabis use contributed to it nearly disappearing from the fashion scene. While it’s not exactly the same plant (there is no THC in industrial hemp crops), the two look identical, which makes our eco-friendly fabric very limited due to national regulations. In contrast, organic cotton is grown in 35 countries and is comparatively easily available.
Both organic cotton and hemp are grown without the use of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, or genetically modified seeds. While organic cotton requires less land than traditional cotton, it is still demanding on land use compared to hemp.
Meanwhile, hemp is one of the strongest natural fibers, which means clothes last longer, stay in shape longer, and hold their strength when wet. It’s breathable, great in hot climates, and is the best natural fiber for antibacterial properties. On the other hand, hemp is not as color-fast as cotton and tends to be quick to wrinkle. Hemp yarn is also very rough and often needs to be blended with softer fibers to give it a gentler feel.
But hemp has other eco-benefits. Growing this crop cleans toxins from soil and groundwater, and acts as a natural carbon sink — each ton of hemp cultivated takes 1.63 tons of carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere!
A few well-known brands embracing hemp in their product lines include Levi’s Cottonized Hemp, Jungmaven, and Patagonia’s Hemp Clothing Collection. Overall, hemp is a fantastic sustainable fiber with some incredible ecological benefits, but has traditionally been limited by its availability, rough fibers and association with cannabis usage.
Looking to source sustainable fibers?
If you’re a fashion brand looking for sustainable fibers, organic cotton is a solid bet. It uses less water than traditional cotton, has a much smaller carbon footprint, and does less damage to agricultural lands and surrounding communities. It is relatively inexpensive, widely available, and biodegradable at the end of its life. Depending on the specific qualities you’re looking for, you may find that another sustainable fiber – such as Tencel, recycled wool, or hemp – can do the job better, but as far as sustainable textiles go, organic cotton is a strong contender.
For more practical examples of how fashion brands are integrating sustainable materials into their supply chains, download our free Green Fabric Guide. This helpful guide to eco-friendly fabrics covers important considerations for material sourcing in the apparel industry and evaluates the environmental impact of popular fibers, including linen, Tencel, hemp, bamboo, organic cotton, and recycled cotton and polyester.
About Amelia Zimmerman
Amelia Zimmerman is an ESG and sustainability writer. She lives in Toronto with her puppy and her partner, and she is passionate about using storytelling techniques to help people understand and act on climate change.