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Conventional, organic, recycled and regenerative agriculture cotton: which is the most sustainable choice?

The production of cotton with traditional agricultural practices presents several problems from an environmental point of view.

The main environmental problems caused by the cultivation of “conventional” cotton can be summarized in the following points:

  • Use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that deplete the soil and damage it
  • High CO2 emissions
  • Huge water resources needed for cultivation

Regarding the first point, the cultivation of cotton represents 2.5% of the world's arable land, but at the same time requires the use of 16% of the pesticides applied in agriculture which ruin the soil and damage the health of farmers who use them.

It is also estimated that growing cotton requires 200,000 tons of pesticides and 8 million tons of synthetic fertilizers each year.

While as regards the second environmental criticality, ie the polluting emissions caused by conventional agricultural practices of the fiber, it is estimated that the global consumption of cotton is responsible for the release of approximately 220 million tons of CO2.

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study conducted on conventional (non-organic) cotton concluded that, globally, 1800 kg of CO2eq are emitted for 1 ton of traditional cotton.

The production of conventional cotton also requires the use of high water resources necessary for cultivation. 73% of the cotton produced in the world comes from artificially irrigated land and the use of water resources, as already mentioned, can be significantly high.

The cultivation of conventional cotton therefore presents various environmental problems.

However, there are several alternative solutions to conventional cotton that help mitigate these impacts.

Cotton with low environmental impact


As previously mentioned, there are several alternative solutions to traditional cotton that have significantly lower environmental impacts.

These solutions are:

  • Organic cotton;
  • Cotton from regenerative agriculture;
  • The recycled cotton.

The organic cotton


Organic farming is an agricultural method that involves the exclusive use of natural substances and processes.

Demand from organic cotton farms has increased to the point where supply is becoming insufficient to meet the large market demand.

The market share in 2020, in fact, corresponds to only 0.95% of the total cotton production.

From the work conducted by the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, “Identifying Low Carbon Sources of Cotton and Polyester Fibers” there is considerable uncertainty about the environmental benefits deriving from the cultivation of organic cotton.

The cause of this uncertainty corresponds to the absence of results on soil health and its ability to sequester carbon for an extended period of time.

However, organic cotton is less impactful than conventional cotton in some conditions:

  • Cultivation occurs in regions with high cotton yields (above or on par with traditional cotton yields)
  • Traditional harvesting practices are employed in rainy conditions (require low energy resources)
  • Manure from own cattle is used as fertilizer

As for the economic benefits, the cultivation of organic cotton requires fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers, allowing the farmer to be able to make production more economically sustainable.

In this regard, according to the Organic Cotton Accelerator, a consortium of companies and brands created with the aim of supporting the spread of organic cotton, farmers who have joined the OCA Farm Program have obtained, on average, 21% more profit than local farmers producing conventional cotton.

The main certifications that guarantee the cultivation of cotton with organic agricultural practices are:

  • GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard): is one of the best known and most recognized certifications in global markets to guarantee that textile fibers (of vegetable or animal origin) have been grown using organic methods. GOTS products can be “organic” with a minimum of 95% bio fibers, or “made with organic materials” requiring at least 70% bio fibers;
  • OCS (Organic Content Standard): is a certification promoted by Textile Exchange, one of the most important international non-profit organizations for responsible and sustainable development in the textile sector. The OCS certification model provides for the use of two different types of logos according to the content of certified fibers in the product: Organic Content Blended: if the fabric contains a minimum of organic fiber corresponding to 5% and a maximum equal to 94%; Organic Content 100: if the fabric contains at least 95% organic fiber up to a maximum of 100%.

Cotton from regenerative agriculture


Regenerative agriculture can be defined as the set of practices capable of increasing soil productivity, reducing the need for external inputs and improving soil health.

The principles that inspire them are: the use of cover crops, crop rotation, rotation of livestock with crops, reduction/elimination of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Improved soil health through increased organic materials would greatly increase soil carbon sequestration capacity from 1.76 to 2.46 metric tons CO2eq per hectare per year.

As a result, regenerative agriculture could potentially contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

The market share of cotton grown with regenerative agriculture practices in 2020 is lower than that of organic cotton, accounting for 0.01% of total cotton production.

The main certification that ensures the use of regenerative agriculture practices for cotton is the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). The certification was established in 2017 and was born from the union of various actors, farmers, non-profit organizations and companies.

ROC certification focuses on 3 pillars:

  • Soil health and land management;
  • Animal Welfare;
  • Economic stability and social equity of farmers.

This certification promotes regenerative and organic agriculture, guaranteeing that no chemical products are used that have negative impacts on human health and the environment.

To obtain the Regenerative Organic Certification, a company must first possess a certificate of organic agriculture or other certifications accepted by the ROC, such as Demeter Biodynamic.

Depending on the degree of implementation of organic and regenerative agriculture practices, the company can achieve the bronze, silver or gold level.

The recycled cotton


Recycled cotton can be produced from pre- and post-consumer textile waste.

The cotton recycling process can be:

  • Mechanical: simple and cheap process but causes loss of quality of the fibers during the recycling process;
  • Chemical: process that allows the quality of the fibers to be maintained or improved but may require the use of chemical substances that are potentially polluting the environment.

The market share of recycled cotton in 2020 corresponds to 0.96% of the total cotton production.

Recycled cotton can guarantee significant environmental benefits. In fact, the production of recycled cotton allows you to avoid the cultivation and ginning phases at the same time reducing waste that would otherwise end up in landfills.

This is confirmed by the work conducted by the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, “Identifying Low Carbon Sources of Cotton and Polyester Fibers”, according to which mechanically recycled cotton represents the most favorable solution in terms of carbon emissions.

Studies by several companies confirm: Patagonia estimates that its mechanically recycled cotton saves 80% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional cotton.

As regards water consumption, it is estimated that 765,000 liters of water can be saved for 1 ton of recycled cotton.

The main certifications and reference standards for recycled materials and, therefore, also for recycled cotton are:

  • Global Recycle Standard: it is the most important voluntary international standard for recycled fabrics and is promoted by the non-profit Textile Exchange. A product can be certified Global Recycle Standard if it is made of at least 20% recycled materials. However, only products made from at least 50% recycled materials can be labeled as GRS.
  • Recycled Claim Standard: standard promoted by Textile Exchange. It is possible to use the Recycled Claim Standard Blended logo if the percentage of recycled material that makes up the product varies between 5% and 95%. If the material is between 95% and 100% recycled, the RCS 100 logo can be used.



Cotton grown using conventional agricultural practices has significant environmental impacts, ranging from the high consumption of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to high CO2 emissions and the extensive use of water resources.

Fortunately, there are several alternative solutions, such as organic cotton, regenerative agriculture cotton and recycled cotton that have lower environmental impacts than conventional cotton.

Due to the absence of reliable and long-term data, the environmental benefits deriving from organic cotton cannot yet be estimated with certainty. From the information available, organic cotton farming practices have less impact than conventional practices only under certain conditions.

From the data available, however, it emerges that regenerative agriculture can potentially contribute significantly to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, mechanically recycled cotton is the most favorable solution in terms of carbon emissions, since it avoids the fiber cultivation phase and the disposal of textile waste in landfills.

The market share of these alternative solutions is still too low to encourage systemic change in the sector and to favor the alignment of the fashion industry with global climate goals.

It should be emphasized, however, that the demand for low environmental impact cotton is constantly increasing and this means that the offer will necessarily have to adapt to the increase in market demands.

For this reason, we at Cikis help your company identify the most sustainable and economically convenient solution for your business, with the aim of always keeping up with market changes.


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Francesca Poratelli
To analyse your sustainability level

After a work experience in Yamamay, she decided to specialize in the field of sustainability. She has dealt with sustainability assessments for companies ranging from outdoor clothing to textile merchandising.

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