Organic Cotton Matters: Discover (And Make) The Difference

It was never a question on whether to use 100% organic versus conventional cotton for my brand, Wobabybasics. The question was: Do I use organic cotton from China?


It’s a well known fact, as a natural fibre, you can’t beat cotton. It is soft, breathable and one of the most comfortable fibres available. That is why cotton, for fabric, has been used since prehistoric times, and is used for clothes, towels, bedding and other items that we put next to our skin everyday.

As it happens, conventional cotton farming is one of the most environmentally destructive agricultural practices that harm the air, water, soil and many living things, including farmers and you, the end user.

If you are not convinced, let's look at the numbers. Currently, over 24.3 million tons of cotton are used globally per year, with China being the world’s top cotton consumer. Conventional cotton takes up to ten per cent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 per cent of insecticides on three per cent of total global farmland (this is more than any other crop per unit). That breaks down to an astonishing 150 grams of chemicals being used in the production of each cotton T-shirt.

These facts are enough to make any parent uneasy when you consider that a baby's skin is five times thinner and more porous than an adult’s, making it more susceptible to absorbing toxins. In fact, it takes ten years for a child's skin to completely build up their defensive mechanisms.

Thankfully, organically grown cotton is the alternative – cotton that is grown from untreated, non-genetically modified seeds, and without chemical fertilisers, defoliants, pesticides, herbicides or other nastiness at any point during its growth and production.

On the surface, positive signs are being seen in China for organic cotton production. As well as being the world’s top consumer of cotton, China jumped to second place for organic cotton production in 2013.

Farmers in China, in particular in Xinjiang, have been growing organic cotton since 2001. Organic farming takes more time, requires more knowledge and skill and, for now, costs more. But the benefits are also high – yield is high and the quality of cotton grown is equal to or better than conventionally grown cotton. Organic methods support biodiversity and healthy eco systems, improve soil quality and reduce energy and water usage.

In China, organic cotton use started with passionate pioneers, but global clothing giants like H&M, C&A, Decathlon, Target, Inditex (Zara) and Nike are starting to embrace organic cotton and are the leaders in usage of organic cotton. This should mean that in China, organic fashion will soon catch up to the popularity levels of organic food as concerned consumers learn more about its benefits.

So, why did 2013 see a decline in Chinese organic cotton production and more organic cotton farmers investing in more profitable crops like fruits and vegetables?

One issue is that these top ten companies using organic cotton are focusing on fast fashion and it is challenging to maintain the view that “organic” still equates with high ethics and quality.

At a glance, conventionally grown cotton is hard to distinguish from organically grown cotton. Certification boards, like GOTS and Organic Trade Association, are required to ensure that what consumers are getting remains organic and ethically made from farm to production to retailer to consumer. All too often farmers have limited finances and government subsidy, and these certification costs are too high.

There is currently a lack of knowledge and support to implement a holistic approach and biodiversity principles in farm production. Farmers are very susceptible to the financial and environmental risks of mono-agriculture. The organic cotton price tends to be market-driven, and farmers sometimes are forced to sell their organic as conventional due to uncompetitive price offers.

The organic cotton industry is also challenged with shortages and high prices due to government stockpiling, lack of availability of quality seeds and a missmatch between supply and demand. With these issues unresolved, it’s not likely that large or small companies would risk making longterm investment in organic cotton in China.

What’s the solution? Collaboration is the key – working in partnership with branding experts, local communities and governments to allow organic cotton to realise its full potential.

Stacked up against certification integrity and high costs, I chickened out and import GOTS certified organic cotton from Turkey.

But, go ahead, take action, demand organic cotton and support your favourite local eco brands to improve the prospects of those organic cotton farmers up in Xinjiang. I dare you…

In 2001, after working on various low-cost housing and sustainable design projects in Canada, Australia and Thailand, Sherry Poon settled in Shanghai. After the birth of her first daughter, Sherry started Wobabybasics ( where she combines her passions as an architect, environmentalist and parent to re-create children’s apparel with 100% certified organic cotton, nostalgic styling and modern practicality. Sherry is also involved with community projects in Shanghai, including the Eco Design Fair ( and the GOOD Gift Fair (