Conventional Cotton, Organic Cotton, Recycled Cotton, and Regenerative Organic Cotton Explained

by: Well Made Clothes Staff | 10 months ago | Features

Image: regenerative organic cotton crops on a family-owned cotton farm near Madhya Pradesh, India. Via Patagonia. Image source.

Cotton is a fibre that we tend to use a lot of. It grows naturally, breathes well and forms the backbone behind a lot of our staple garments – case in point: white t-shirts and denim jeans. But not all cotton was created equal. Actually, there are lots of different types of cotton and their production processes have varying environmental and social impacts. Which is why we're breaking down the differences between conventional cotton, recycled cotton, organic cotton, and regenerative organic cotton.

1) Conventional cotton

Many people think of cotton as a quote-unquote ‘natural’ fibre, but when grown conventionally, this seemingly harmless crop can actually wreak a lot of havoc. Taking up a fairly small percentage of the world’s land (an estimated 2.4%) these crops account for a disproportionately large percentage of the world’s toxic chemicals – which are harmful to human health. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), it covers 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides. In addition to this, it takes about 290 gallons of water to grow enough conventional cotton to produce one t-shirt.

2) Organic cotton

Organic cotton is grown using methods and materials that have a low environmental impact. Designed to reduce the use of toxic pesticides and fertilisers commonly used in conventional cotton production, this approach also helps to replenish soil fertility and maintain biodiversity, rather than stripping the earth of these qualities. There are strict standards regulating organic cotton classification, but while it is certainly more sustainable than conventional cotton, it still doesn’t represent a perfect alternative – beacuse it, too, tends to require a lot of water to produce.

3) Recycled cotton

There are actually two different types of recycled cotton – post-consumer and pre-consumer recycled cotton. The former is reutilised after the consumer is finished with their garment, while the latter is made from manufacturer waste instead. This means that the scraps, rejects and trimmings, which usually wouldn’t make it into the customer’s hands at all – but would normally be discarded – can be given new life. Both forms of recycled cotton represent a better alternative than producing new, because they help to minimise resources and textiles wasted. Standard Issue, for example, has helped save old jeans from going to landfill with their new recycled cotton denim yarn. 

4) Regenerative organic cotton

Regenerative organic cotton is one step towards the future of sustainable fashion, because rather than focussing on environmental harm minimisation, it focusses on positive environmental outcomes. It does this by adopting regenerative organic farming practices on organic cotton crops. As Patagonia, which is currently running a Regenerative Organic Cotton Pilot Program, explains, regenerative organic farming practices ‘help build healthy soil that could help draw down more carbon from the atmosphere than conventional methods. To do this, farmers use a range of methods that have been around for millennia'. Imagine a future sustainable fashion where, as Patagonia puts it, ‘It’s not just about doing less harm, but also doing some good.’

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