Recycled, Organic and Conventional Cotton – What’s the Difference?

Cotton has long been a wardrobe staple and remains a popular choice for promotional apparel. That said, not all cotton is created equally. To help you make more informed purchasing decisions, we take a look at the varying environmental and social impacts that go into the different types of cotton production. Spoiler alert – it’s a bit confusing!

Conventional cotton: As a material, cotton is both comfortable and breathable, but sadly as a crop it can play havoc with the environment. The main issue is the use of pesticides, insecticides and the huge amount of water needed to grow the crop. The former contaminates the soil (causing issues for both the workers and the animal life who are exposed to these contaminants) and releases huge amounts of greenhouse gas into our atmosphere, whilst the latter plunders a resource that is especially scarce in under-developed countries. Coupled with the risk of unfair work practices, one really needs to be aware that if you are getting a cotton T-shirt for next-to-nothing then somebody else has likely paid the price.

Verdict? Not great, I’m afraid.

Organic cotton: The word ‘organic’ is the catch-all phrase used when a product or material is grown without synthetic additives or materials and hasn’t been genetically modified. So, your organic cotton T-shirt won’t have been grown using lots of nasty insecticides, synthetic fertilizers or the like which IS good (this helps replenish soil fertility and maintain biodiversity). While there is some debate over water usage (based on the amount of crop/land needed for organic vs chemically grown cotton), Textile Exchange (a global non-profit that works to drive industry change towards responsible fibres and production) initiated a peer-reviewed Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) which swung firmly in organic cotton’s favor. Their findings showed the organic production of cotton for a T-shirt resulted in a 1,982 gallon saving of water compared to chemically grown cotton. They also flag the fact that the real issue is about water pollution, with the toxic chemicals used in conventional cotton production poisoning the very water it claims to save.

Verdict? Better, but not perfect.

Recycled cotton: There are two types of recycled cotton, one that is recycled using old garments (post-consumer) and one that is made using textile leftovers (pre-consumer). Both require far fewer resources than conventional or organic cotton, making it a great sustainable option. When it comes to branded merchandise, products made with recycled cotton offer great quality with only a 10% difference in the touch/feel compared to organic products.

Verdict? Kindest to the planet.

For more info on sustainable cotton choices and the different certifications and initiatives this article has you covered. 

Top Tips:

Buy Better: Good quality products last longer making them a smarter choice all round. Look for GOTS-certified cotton (which guarantees that the item has only been processed organically from seed to finished product) and avoid retailers/suppliers offering rock-bottom prices. 

Buy Less: Every 10 minutes, Australians dump 15 tonnes of clothing and fabric waste – that adds up to 31 kilograms per person, every year. Only buy (or order) what you need and remember that a smaller campaign, with higher quality products, will likely elevate your brand better than a huge random act of merchandising. 

Wash/Dry mindfully: Don’t forget your loads of laundry use lots of water/energy too. Wash only as needed and if possible hang your clothes out to dry.

Talk to your supplier: By talking to your promotional product supplier about sustainable choices you can make smarter, more informed choices. Not sure what to ask? This responsible sourcing checklist is a great place to start. 

 Looking to make smart choices with your promotional merchandise? Give our friendly team a call today – we’d love to present you with industry-relevant merchandise you can be proud of!

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