Is Organic Cotton Sustainable?

Chris Ondatje May 09, 2022
Is Organic Cotton Sustainable?

By: Daisy Hemmen

If you consider yourself a bonafide tree hugger, you probably try to make good choices when shopping for new clothing, including buying from B Corporations and investing in long-lasting, naturally derived clothing.

But when you’re ready to do some shopping, you might wonder if your organic cotton clothes are actually doing good for the environment.

Long story short? Organic does not necessarily mean sustainable—but when compared to conventional cotton, organic cotton can be much better for the earth, our environment, and us. Don’t worry if the whirlwind of eco-friendly advertising in the clothing industry has got you turned around. Read on as we clear the air about the sustainability of organic cotton fabric.

What is organic cotton?

Let’s start with a few basic definitions. First up: organic and cotton.

Conventional cotton is an agricultural product grown throughout the world. It’s a woody-stemmed, low, bushy plant that grows in warm-weather climates and produces a daisy-like flower followed by a fibrous seed pod called a boll. The boll is harvested, then becomes fabric through the complicated and multi-step processes of spinning and weaving.

Organic is a term that is strictly defined and regulated in the United States by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Their definition of organic means the crop is grown without the use of:

  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • Synthetic pesticides or fertilizers
  • Sewage
  • Synthetic fertilizers
  • Bioengineering
  • Ionizing radiation

Furthermore, the crop must maintain these standards for three years prior to certification. The process of becoming certified as organic by the USDA requires that organic farmers and handlers document their cotton production processes and get inspected every year. The inspections take in every aspect of the organic cotton farming practice, including:

  • Seed sources
  • Soil fertility and conditions
  • Crop health
  • Weed and pest management
  • Water systems
  • Contamination risks and prevention
  • Record-keeping

man in white athleisure shirt

So putting that together, organic cotton (in a nutshell) is grown using only non-GMO seeds, pesticides and fertilizers with no synthetic chemicals, and earth-friendly practices. We’re all trying to do our part for Earth's health, so this makes organic cotton seem like an easy lifestyle choice. 

But when it comes to ensuring your organic cotton clothing is also sustainable, there are a few more factors at play.

What does sustainability mean for organic cotton?

Now that we’ve gotten to the bottom of what cotton and organic mean, let’s do the same for sustainability. Is there organic, sustainable cotton? And what does it mean for a garment to be truly sustainable?

While definitions might vary based on your perspective, we like the definition from McGill University’s Climate & Sustainability plan. Sustainable means “meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Theoretically, regular cotton can be viewed as sustainable because it comes from a plant that can be replanted and harvested year after year (unlike, say, a redwood tree which takes many years to mature). It isn’t a finite resource like fossil fuel or a slow-growing resource like hardwood.

But the idea of sustainability takes in more than the lifespan of the plant itself. In our opinion, sustainability also includes:

  • Wise resource management – Sustainability requires leaving resources for future generations. Where traditional cotton is concerned, water is one of the most impacted resources, both in terms of usage and pollution. While the production of organic cotton can still be fairly water-intensive, studies suggest it can benefit our water resources by reducing the chemicals and toxins released into our waterways. 
  • Supporting social equity – Many argue that true sustainability also entails caring for our fellow humans. While there have been issues with unethical cotton farming and cotton production (yes, even the organic kind) there are movements like the Better Cotton Initiative shaking up the traditional cotton industry. This organization’s mission is to help cotton communities survive and thrive, while protecting and restoring the environment.

woman in loungewear

How to shop for sustainable cotton clothing

With fewer pesticides and toxic chemicals, organic cotton can be a better option for Mother Earth. But to ensure your cotton clothing is also sustainable, you need to look beyond simple labels to find the truth behind your clothing. 

As you seek sustainable brands, look for options that are transparent about their sustainable practices and methods of production. These may include:

  • A focus on reduced water consumption, less energy usage, and conservation
  • Production practices that minimize waste
  • A commitment to ethical production and healthy working environments

While labels like “recycled cotton” and “sustainable cotton” might catch our earth-loving eyes, it’s important to dig a little deeper into the specific labels and practices a company uses. The more transparent they are about how they work towards sustainability, the more confident you can be that you’ve made a green choice.

hands tossing bra and underwear

Boody Eco Wear’s soft, sustainable bamboo basics

At Boody, our mission has always been to bring you genuinely comfortable and exceedingly well-crafted sustainable fashion. For us, that means providing full transparency about our production methods and sources, also known as the Boody Code of Conduct. Whether you’re looking for organic cotton clothing or other sustainable choices like viscose, we approach every part of our process with sustainability in mind. 

Is viscose good material? Our practices actually improve air quality and promote soil health. Now that’s clothing you can feel good about. Explore the bamboo benefits today, with Boody.

From our sleepwear to our loungewear, women’s bamboo shirts to our underwear, to our line of adorable Boody Baby clothes, every item of Boody clothing will have you looking amazing and feeling virtuous about your role in protecting the earth. Shop today for your best new sustainable looks.


Toyota Industries. From Raw Cotton to Cotton Fabric.

McGill University. What Is Sustainability?

Fashion Revolution. The Role of Cotton in Social and Economic Development.

Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. Organic cotton production may alleviate the environmental impacts of intensive conventional cotton production. 

Better Cotton. Defining 'Better': Our Principles & Criteria 


About the Author: Daisy Hemmen is a San Diego State University Fowler College of Business alumni. Based in Encinitas, California, Daisy is a part of the marketing team at Boody North America. She is passionate about learning the ins and outs of living a happy and healthy lifestyle that benefits both people and the planet, and enjoys sharing her bountiful findings with the community.


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What is Organic Cotton?


What is Organic Cotton?

By: Heather Bien We’re all trying to be better stewards of Mother Earth. From recycling to upcycling and eating conscientiously to dressing mindfully, our choices affect the planet. So choosing organic cotton clothing seems like an easy decision, right? Not so fast! As with all sustainable choices, it’s important to take a moment to learn a bit more about why organic cotton might win over conventional cotton—and what makes these two materials different in the first place. Read on if you’re interested in learning about organic cotton and whether it’s the best choice for you and the environment. Conventional cotton Before we get into debating modern cotton farming techniques, let’s get familiar with the plant we’re talking about: cotton. It’s soft, durable, and probably on your body right now. But what else do you really know about cotton? Here are the basics: Cotton comes from the cotton plant – The cotton plant is a warm-season woody perennial shrub from the genus Gossypium and the family Malvaceae. Cotton fabric is made from the plant’s fibrous seed-hair (which is also called a cotton boll). Cotton is one of the top agricultural crops – Traditional cotton is the most widespread and profitable non-food crop in the world. Although the plant is capable of growing in any warm-weather climate, India and China are now the top producers of cotton globally. Cotton is thirsty – A normal cotton plant requires 10 gallons of water to reach peak potential. That doesn’t sound so bad, but multiplying it outward, that means it takes about 5,000 gallons of water to produce just 2.2 pounds of cotton fabric. Pests think it’s delicious – Not only is cotton thirsty, but it’s prone to pest infestations from bollworms, weevils, aphids, stink bugs, thrips, and spider mites. In order to combat these common pests, conventional cotton is routinely sprayed with a veritable salad-dressing of pesticides, many of which can remain in the soil and water supply for years afterward. Cotton harvesting requires defoliation – In order to quickly and efficiently harvest cotton, many commercial growers use chemical defoliants to strip the leaves from the cotton plant prior to harvesting the bolls. Like pesticides, these chemicals remain in the environment and on the cotton itself. Is organic cotton better? All of those cotton factoids point pretty compellingly to buying and wearing organic cotton fabric. But first, it’s important to understand what sets this organic alternative apart. Why exactly is “organic” cotton anyway? You might associate the word organic with your healthy fruits and veggies, but it’s not always clear what this term means when it comes to cotton. For many years, there was not a standard definition, but today, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) require that any cotton product labeled “organic” meet the following criteria: Made with fibers from USDA-certified organic crops Third-party certified (ie., through the Global Organic Textile Standard) under the National Organic Program standards Has a specific percentage of organic material (depending on the crop) But this definition is a little circular, so we need also to define USDA-certified organic crops. According to the USDA, organic crop standards are defined as follows: Land must have had no prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop. Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops. These can be supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials. Crop pests, weeds, and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices, including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used. Operations must use organic seeds and other planting stock when available. The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge is prohibited. What is organic cotton? In short, it’s cotton that is farmed according to these practices and certified organic by the USDA. Why should you choose organic cotton? With fewer pesticides, fewer synthetic chemicals, and more thoughtful cultivation practices, organic cotton can certainly offer a more environmentally friendly choice when compared to regular cotton. Is organic cotton sustainable?  Here are a few other reasons why organic cotton can be a better alternative for you and the earth: It’s better for our water resources – According to an analysis by the Textile Exchange, producing an organic cotton T-shirt requires 1,982 fewer gallons of water compared to a regular cotton T-shirt. Because organic cotton uses less chemicals, its production also releases fewer toxins into our aquatic ecosystems. It’s good for the soil (and our carbon footprint) – According to the Soil Association, the more natural cultivation practices and fewer pesticides used by organic cotton farmers can support healthier soil. That soil, in turn, can absorb more carbon from our atmosphere and help keep the planet healthy. It encourages biodiversity – Multiple studies have shown that organic farming practices can encourage more diversity among the animal species of our planet. Sustainability is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. But when it comes to plant-derived textiles, the ones which help us create a healthier world are always a better alternative.  Explore the benefits of bamboo with Boody Whether you choose to purchase conventional or organic cotton clothing, the fact that you are shopping mindfully for yourself is a win for the environment. At Boody, we believe in bringing you quality, comfy, sustainable clothing basics that keep you feeling good about yourself and your personal impact on Mother Earth. From our sleepwear to our loungewear, women’s bamboo shirts to our underwear, sustainable and ethical are our touchstones. Our clothing is made of bamboo viscose, requiring less water than cotton while putting precious oxygen back into the environment. That just feels good, doesn’t it? Explore the bamboo benefits today, with Boody. Sources:  Britannica. Cotton. Cotton. The Story of Cotton - Where Cotton Grows. World Wildlife Federation. Cotton. Textile Exchange. Quick Guide to Organic Cotton. Soil Association. What is organic cotton?  USDA. Conservation and Biological Diversity in Organic Production. About the Author: Heather Bien is a copywriter and writer based in Washington, DC. She works with retail, ecommerce, and creative brands on their website copy and digital presence, and her freelance writing has appeared on MyDomaine, Apartment Therapy, The Everygirl, and more. When she's not with laptop and coffee in hand, you'll find her planning her next weekend getaway, working on her budding green thumb, or scouting for her next great vintage find.