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Processing, Dyeing & Finishing

Organic cotton: A route to eco-friendly textiles

The organic system of cotton production promotes enhanced biological activity, encourages sustainability and commands
proactive management of production, affirms R Senthil Kumar.

Cotton is one of the most chemically intensive among all field crops. Cotton is grown on an
estimated 3% of the total cultivated area in the world, but uses about 25% of all insecticides
consumed in agriculture. Pests are such a serious threat to cotton production that economic
yields are almost impossible to achieve without monitoring pests and adopting chemical controls.

Plant protection operations have become the crucial aspect of production practices and pesticides
that are banned for use on food crops are commonly used on cotton. In many countries,
especially where cotton is machine picked, herbicides, insecticides, growth regulators and
harvest aid chemicals in addition to fertilisers are integral parts of production practices.

Even after harvesting, cotton fabric at textile mills is treated with a variety of chemicals for
improving appearance and performance. Cotton fabrics are often processed with toxic dyes and
formaldehydes before they reach end users. Growing cotton without synthetic fertilisers and
other chemicals has been termed green, environment friendly, biodynamic, etc, but organic
production is the most popular name used in the cotton industry.

Organic cotton production is a system of growing cotton without synthetic chemical fertilisers,
herbicides, conventional synthetic insecticides, growth regulators, growth stimulators, boll
openers or defoliants. It is a system that contributes to healthy soils and/or people. The organic
system promotes enhanced biological activity, encourages sustainability and commands
proactive management of production.

Organic cotton

Organic cotton is grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the
environment. Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of
toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilisers, and build biologically diverse agriculture. Third-
party certification organisations verify that organic producers use only methods and materials
allowed in organic production.

Organic cotton is grown and processed without toxic chemicals that can be absorbed easily when
in contact with the user's skin. Pesticides, fertilisers and chemicals used to grow and process
conventional cotton fabrics may go directly to the users blood stream, which consequently affects
the body's organs and tissues.

Organic cotton production is not simply an elimination of fertilisers and insecticides but it is a complete production system,
which requires equally sound knowledge of cotton production practices. With respect to insect control in particular, a
thorough knowledge of non-chemical means of insect control is a pre-requisite for organic production.

Use of chemicals in the form of fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides, growth regulators, defoliants and desiccants has
increased the cost of production to the extent that cotton is losing its profitability against other field crops. Environmental
concerns are also increasing. Organic cotton production provides an alternative to grow cotton without chemicals.

Organic cotton production requires careful planning so as to realise optimum yield. It includes a number of factors like site
selection, crop rotations, variety, weed control, non-chemical means of insect control and skill to manage organic crop.
Similarly, there is a need to perfect the agronomic requirements of a crop to be grown without synthetic fertilisers and

Besides, the naturally soft organic cotton fabric is a lot more comfortable to use and is available at competitive prices.

Some facts:

1. Many chemicals used in conventional farming were first developed for warfare.

2. A source says that 25 million people worldwide are poisoned by pesticides every year.

3. 25% of the pesticides and fertilisers used in the world are sprayed in conventional cotton crops.

4. Over 0.75 kg of toxic chemicals are used to grow the cotton needed for a conventional cotton sheet set and about 0.5
kg to make a T-shirt and pair of jeans.
Among all the pesticides used, roughly 65% of the chemicals are used against insects, 20% are herbicides, 14% are
defoliants and growth regulators while fungicides and others comprise only 1% of the total toxic chemicals used on

Reasons for organic cotton production

Organic cotton production is also a consumer driven initiative. There are many harmful chemicals that people do not know
about. Twelve of these chemicals are known as persistent organic pollutants or POPs, which are the most hazardous of all
man-made products or wastes that cause deaths, birth defects and diseases among humans and animals. They are so
dangerous that 120 nations agreed at a United Nations Environment Programme conference to outlaw them. Of the 151
signatories to the convention 98 states have ratified it; sadly the United States and Russia have not yet done so. There are
three of those chemicals used in cotton manufacturing. The following are the main factors responsible for organic cotton

Concern for the environment: Fertilisers and pests applied to the soil, but all the chemicals are not taken up by the
cotton plant. Some elements are released into the environment while others leach into the soil and also pollute water.

Concern for family health: Danger of Insecticide inhalation by the spray men during back mounted manual
spraying without any protective equipment.

Lifestyle: Some people were interested in insecticide free cotton apparel due to allergies.

To reduce input prices: Insecticide use changed the insect complex in many countries. Some minor insects became
major and certain new insects were introduced. Consequently, there was an increase in the consumption of

Organic cotton: An overview

Cotton is the most widely used natural-fibre cloth in clothing today. It accounts for almost
50% of the textile market worldwide. It is used to make a number of textile products.
These include bath towels and robes, denim, shirts, socks, underwear, T-shirts, bed-
sheets, etc.

Cotton in food

Cottonseed oil

Cottonseed meal for dairy cattle

Cotton in textile

T-shirts, Shirts





Baby wear







The cottonseed meal that is left is generally fed to livestock. As much as two-thirds of
cotton crop can creep into the food chain. Each year, half a million tons of cottonseed oil
make their way into salad dressings, baked goods and snack food; another three million
tons of raw cottonseed are fed to beef and dairy cattle.

Globally, nearly 90 million acres of cotton are grown in more that 70 countries. It is
estimated that little over 8,000 hectares of organic cotton are grown in various countries,
the USA being the largest producer in the world. Organic cotton is produced in Argentina,
Australia, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, Greece, India, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Senegal,
Tanzania, Turkey and Uganda.

Organic cotton vs conventional cotton

Conventional cotton: A danger to human life

1. Cotton uses about 25% of the world's insecticide and more than 10% of the pesticide (including insecticides,
fungicides, herbicides, defoliants).

2. In the United States, 25% of all pesticides used are applied to cotton.

3. It takes about a third of a pound of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides to grow enough cotton for a T-shirt.
4. Five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton are cancer-causing chemicals (cyanazine, dicofol, naled, propargite, and

5. All of the top nine cotton pesticides in California are labeled by the US Environmental Protection Agency as Category I
or Category II materials, the most toxic classifications.

6. In India, 91% of male cotton farm workers regularly exposed to pesticides eight hours or more per day experience
some type of health disorder, including chromosomal aberrations, cell death and cell decay.

Organic cotton: A healthy way of life

The good news is that positive alternatives to conventional cotton and its related businesses are available. Over the past
decade, a small number of farmers and manufacturers have pioneered the market for organically grown cotton, producing
fibres and clothing while significantly reducing toxic chemicals.

Difference between organic and conventional cotton.

Criteria Conventional Organic

Treatment of seed with fungicide of
Seed preparation Uses untreated seeds
Use of GMO (BT) seeds. NO use of GMO/BT
Uses bio fertilizers like cow
Soil & Water Applies synthetic fertilizers.
Loss of soil due to MONO crop Strengthens soil through crop
culture rotation
Physical removal of weeds and
Weed control Applies herbicides and insecticides.
Repeated application infecting air, Use of mechanical and hand
water and soil methods and totally harmless.
Heavy use of insecticides. Consumes
Use of natural predators to kill
Pest control about 25% of world's total
Use pesticides which are highly toxic Uses beneficial insects to
and carcinogenic. control pests.
Use of spray which affects air, water
and also affects human life and Use of trap crop to control pests.
Harvesting Defoilates with toxic chemicals. Natural defoilation

Organic cotton: Market Potential

In 1998, Nike, one of the largest sports clothing lines in the world, decided to incorporate
organic practices. Most of their products contain 3-5% organic fibres and they also offer a
100% organic line. Although 3-5% may seem insignificant, in the scheme of things (and in
the volume that Nike is producing) the numbers are quite large. Nike alone uses nearly
three-million pounds of organic cotton per year! And other large companies such as
Patagonia, Timberland, and Orvis also incorporate organic fibres into their clothing lines;
without public support these companies would not be successful.

1. Organic has caught on US & EU consumers like wild fire: The sales have been reported to increase over more
than 300% in last five years. Moreover, the projections are even more bullish and the sales are expected to increase
by about 1000% by 2008.
2. Proven business models: Patagonia in Ventura, California, and Nike, in Beaverton, Oregon are just two of the
examples of companies who have pioneered the organic cotton market and are sharing their expertise with the
Cleaner Cotton Campaign.

3. More and more brands joining the league: Next, Adidas, M & S, Roots, Cotton Ginny, Target, Walmart.

4. Consumer preference: Market analysts report that consumers expect corporate responsibility as a matter of basic
business practices. Organic cotton is a great way to implement it.

5. Increasing production and availability: Global organic cotton production has

increased rapidly, keeping pace with its increasing demand. From 99-00 the
production has increased 4 times with India taking lead and in 05-06 it is expected
to be highest producer of Organic cotton.

6. Forthcoming regulations: Possible bans on the most toxic agricultural chemicals,

as well as potential regulations about labeling on genetically engineered products, point to the need to develop
sustainable, practical solutions for cotton.

7. Quality product differentiation: Most consumers who care about the environment also care about quality; organic
cotton fibres provide the opportunity for market differentiation, particularly among companies with a high-quality
brand image.

8. A cleaner approach: Each T-shirt made from one hundred per cent organic cotton saves one-third of a pound of
synthetic fertilisers and farm chemicals.

Limitations to organic production

There are many reasons why organic cotton production has not extended to other
countries. Nineteen countries tried to produce organic cotton during the 1990s. But many
of them have already stopped, not for lack of desire or demand for such cotton, but for
economic reasons. Insecticides need to be eliminated from the cotton production system
because they are dangerous to apply, have long-term consequences on the pest complex,
and deleterious effects on the environment. Also, heavy reliance on pesticide use has
pushed many countries out of cotton production.

The following factors have limited the expansion of organic cotton production:

1. Suitable varieties.

2. Fertiliser use.

3. Pest control.

4. Production technology.

5. Lack of information on cost of production.

6. Price premium.

7. Need for alternate inputs.

8. Tied crop rotations.

9. Non-organic genetically engineered cotton.

10. Certification.

11. Marketing.

The concern for a life devoid of the use of extremely harmful toxic chemicals, the need for an eco-friendly industrial and
agricultural culture and an increasing awareness of depleting natural resources and the consequences therein; these are
factors which are shaping the lifestyles of people worldwide. It is in this context that the relevance of organic cotton
becomes important.

Organic cotton is not only better for our bodies but better for our environment. It makes a world of difference in the health
and comfort of our people, especially those with allergies, asthma, or multiple chemical sensitivities. Especially infants can
enjoy the purest softness, comfort and strength of cotton while diminishing the harm to our environment because what is
toxic to you is 15 times more toxic to a baby. Not only do these synthetic pesticides pollute our air, water and soil, but they
jeopardise our future.

The conventional cotton farming takes an astonishing amount of the responsibility for contaminating our planet by using a
full quarter of the pesticides worldwide. Twenty thousand deaths can be accredited to poisoning by farming pesticides; three
million people suffer from chronic health problems reported by The World Health Organisation. We know it's alarming!


1. Organic Cotton Production - 3, The ICAC Recorder, June 1996.

2. Organic Cotton Production - 4, The ICAC Recorder, December 1998.

3. Limitations on Organic Cotton Production, The ICAC Recorder, March 2003.

4. Suitable Varieties for Organic Cotton Production, by M Rafiq Chaudhry, Head, Technical Information Section, ICAC, at
the International Conference on Organic Cotton, Cairo, Egypt, September 23-25, 1993.




Note: For detailed version of this article please refer the print version of The Indian Textile Journal November
2007 issue.

R Senthil Kumar
Department of Textile Technology,
Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi.

published November , 2007

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