Organic cotton, recycled cotton, conventional cotton or ordinary cotton?

Where does cotton come from? What are the disadvantages of cotton? Organic cotton or Oeko-Tex? We give you the full story on cotton.

Organic cotton, recycled cotton, conventional cotton or ordinary cotton?

It offers us softness and comfort all the way through our lives, without us barely noticing it. That's cotton for you. Discreet yet essential, it bends over backwards, never slips out of place, accompanies our daily movements, and does not shy away from sport. We tell you its story, in full.
Let's start off by going back in time.

Cotton, from every angle

From the moment we are born, from our first plaintive cry, we are swaddled with cotton to protect us from the world and all its harshness. Our first bodysuit, pyjamas, comfort blanket and bedcover are all made of cotton. The reason for that is this natural fibre is so soft and comfortable that it calms our worries and fears. So much so that cotton and humans have been in love for a very long time, not least in Egypt, India and Mexico, where species of cotton plants were grown several millennia ago by indigenous populations before spreading to tropical regions all over the world.

Where does cotton come from?

White gold

The ivory white flowers of Levant cotton (Gossypium herbaceum) are a sight to behold in India in early summer. They turn yellow and then pink before finally bearing their fruit - ovoid capsules with four or five "bolls" each containing six to 12 seeds. In early autumn, the bolls, having dried out, burst open into quarters and the seeds release wads of silky fibres. This is cotton. There are around 50 existing species of cotton plants, four of which have been domesticated and cultivated by humans. Together, these four species account for all the world's cotton production. Cotton fibre varies in length and strength and is used in the manufacture of quality textiles. Consisting almost entirely of pure cellulose, it can also be used to make cotton wool, paper, plastics and filling for mattresses and cushions. Some of the seeds are used to grow new cotton plants. They can be pressed to obtain a vegetable oil used for seasoning and cooking. The seeds can also be used to make protein-rich cattle cake, cotton oil for cosmetics, and garden fertiliser.

However, it is the properties of the fibres of the cotton plant, a small woody shrub that stands about a metre tall by the time it is harvested (and up to about ten metres tall in wild species) for which it is best known. These fibres provide hypoallergenic, soft, absorbent, strong fabrics that are easy to maintain and produce and are therefore affordable. So far so good, at least superficially, as the quality of the fibres depends on the amount of water and heat the plant receives. The cotton plant is a creature of habit and likes to receive 2 to 3mm of water per day during the first few weeks of its existence and then 6 to 8mm halfway through its growth [1].It requires around 120 days of rain, which equates to 700mm a year. Just to put that into perspective, the average annual rainfall in Paris is 635mm. The cotton plant also needs hot and dry conditions when the bolls are ripening – just before harvesting – to prevent the fibres inside them from rotting. This subtle balance can be found in tropical and subtropical areas. mainly in the Americas (USA, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina), Africa (Mali, Benin, Burkina Faso and Nigeria) and Asia (China, India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan).

The plants are harvested between five and a half and six and half months after sowing.
Harvesting can be done by hand or mechanically and involves removing the fibres and seeds from the plant.The seeds are then separated from the fibres. The longest fibres are used to form bales, which are stored and transported to spinning mills, where the cotton undergoes carding. This is a process in which the fibres are separated and made to lie parallel to one another and any impurities such as stalks, leaves and other organic waste are removed to create continuous strands of cotton called "slivers". The fibres are then stretched between rollers to create a standard thickness, the slivers are gathered, stretched and then twisted to create cotton yarn, an end product strong enough to withstand weaving, knitting or sewing.

The yarn can then be bleached or dyed as required. Cotton can be naturally ochre, khaki, grey-green and mauve in colour, though cream, which is easier to dye, is preferred.

[1] https://icac.org/SlideShare/SlideShareDetails?Id=16

Organic cotton, recycled cotton, conventional cotton or ordinary cotton?

Today, the humble cotton plant accounts for a quarter of the world's textile fibre production [2]. In other words, cotton is pretty much everywhere, even if you don't notice it. Its fibres are used for haberdashery (sewing thread), hosiery (socks, stockings, tights, lingerie), trimmings (furnishing and clothing), bed linen and bath linen (sheets, quilts, pillowcases, towels).

Depending on the type of interweaving of the weft and warp threads, there are three main weaving modes in cotton weaving: plain, twill or satin. These weaves are the basis for most fabrics and range, from the finest to the thickest, from cotton voile to stockinette. They include muslin, chambray, tulle, flannelette, gingham, piqué, denim, velvet and many others.

With this variety of fabrics comes a great range of uses. When they're made of cotton, your work shirt, scarf or boiler suit are just as comfortable to wear as your leggings, snood or a sports shirt. Cotton clothing is both soft and durable, which makes it an ideal choice for anyone who does moderate-intensity physical exercise. Cotton is not averse to movement and is perfectly suited to brisk walking, leisurely bike rides and yoga. It should be avoided for very intensive sports though. While cotton is breathable, it is also very absorbent and can be very restrictive if you sweat a lot. In short, cotton is not tailored to performance. It's a fabric that's all about well-being and relaxed enjoyment, as its popularity shows.

[2] https://textileexchange.org/preferred-fiber-and-materials-market-report/

What are the disadvantages of cotton?

The problem with cotton

It's a figure that's well known: around 8,000 litres of water [3] are needed to make a pair of jeans, which reveals (or underlines) the environmental impact of the culture of conventional cotton. As for the manufacture of a simple T-shirt, that takes up 2,500 litres [4].The textile industry - of which the cotton production is an integral part - uses 4% of the world's available drinking water, putting it third on the list of sectors that use the most water, behind wheat and rice production. Its needs are so great that it is causing tension in parts of the world where water resources are becoming an issue of some concern.
In Egypt, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Syria, 40% of land used to grow cotton is irrigated. Irrigation is a drain on resources, the most striking example being the Aral Sea*, which has been largely emptied to feed cotton crops.

[3] https://librairie.ademe.fr/cadic/1529/le-revers-de-mon-look.pdf?modal=false
[4] https://waterfootprint.org/en/

It's a figure that's well known: around 8,000 litres of water are needed to make a pair of jeans, which reveals (or underlines) the environmental impact of the culture of conventional cotton. As for the manufacture of a simple T-shirt, that takes up 2,500 litres.

Used to excess, water is also polluted with chemical fertilizers, which are applied to crops to increase yields.

These fertilizers cause soil and subsoil pollution, especially in the water table, the main source of drinking water for humans. Among other harmful consequences, this results in the proliferation of algae that is toxic to other forms of aquatic life.  The upshot of all this?Drinking water is less freely available, soil nutrients are depleted and biodiversity is threatened. Cotton growing accounts for 4% of the world's nitrogen and phosphorus fertiliser use[5]. The cotton plant is prone to numerous viral, bacterial and fungal diseases and to insect and mite attacks, which means pesticides are also widely used on crops. Although cotton growing takes up only 2 to 3% of the world's farmland, it accounts for 25% of global insecticide use and 10% of herbicide use [6].

Attempts have been made to reduce pesticide use while continuing to improve yields. Biotechnology companies have developed genetically modified cotton plants. By 2018, GM crops accounted for 24.9 million hectares of the world's 32.9 million hectares of cotton, which equates to 76% [7]. In some parts of the world, and most notably in Burkina Faso, the introduction of genetically modified cotton has led to a decline in the quality of crops, with fibres becoming too short. As a result, such crops have failed to reach their expected price. Farmers buying GM cotton seeds, which are on average 18 times more expensive than conventional seeds, have not seen a return on their investment or an increase in yields. The profitability of these crops has fallen dramatically. What is more, the protocols for these transgenic crops are highly complex and a great deal of precision is required when it comes to the application of fertilisers and pesticides, practices to which the farmers and growers of Burkina Faso are not particularly accustomed. Furthermore, genetically modified cotton often requires more irrigation, which increases costs and water stress in the regions in question.

[5] https://multimedia.ademe.fr/infographies/infographie-mode-qqf/
[6] OMS
[7] James, C. (2018). Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2018. ISAAA brief No. 54. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA): Ithaca, NY. (online)

When Monsanto introduced genetically modified BT cotton in India in 2002, it promised bigger yields and a reduction in the use of pesticides. Following a few years of growth, yields have stagnated and new diseases have emerged and revealed the plant's vulnerability. The reasons behind this are poor seed quality, the emergence of secondary pests, the resistance developed by the cotton worm, and the fact that BT cotton technology is not suited to growing conditions in India. This results in the use of even more toxic pesticides to counteract the resistance of the cotton worm or secondary pests such as mealy bugs, aphids and thrips [8], which do not pose a threat to non-GM varieties. There are 780 varieties of transgenic cotton in India, each corresponding to a particular soil type and different fertilizer requirements. As Sridhar Radhakrishnan of the Coalition for GM-Free India told Le Monde: "Smallholders have no idea what they're buying, let alone how to grow these new varieties. Their time-honoured expertise is in the process of disappearing. "


[8] Remarkable Success, and Four Ugly Facts. Field Questions, Stone, G.D., 2012. But Cotton. (online)

Organic cotton, recycled cotton, conventional cotton or ordinary cotton?

Faced with more expensive seeds, crops that are not necessarily more profitable and resistant, complicated protocols, and highly variable weather conditions and cotton prices, Indian and Burkinabe farmers have a great many problems to contend with. Some of them have also fallen badly into debt.
The social impacts of the cultivation of ordinary, conventional cotton are significant. This is nothing new. Centuries ago, cotton was a driver of the triangular trade that saw millions of black slaves forcibly removed from Africa and transported to the huge plantations of the USA. Even today, cotton growing can have disastrous consequences for people. A 2020 report drafted by German researcher Adrian Zenz for the Victims of Communism Foundation and reported on by Libération, the BBC and Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed that several hundred thousand people were forced to work in the cotton harvest in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.Situated in the country's north west, the region produces 85% of China's cotton and 20% of the world's. It is at the heart of a huge industrial expansion plan in which cotton plays an important role, representing as it does 10% of China's total exports. The aim is to reduce costs to stay competitive. even if it means using force and paying very low salaries to the Uyghurs, the region's majority Turkic Muslim ethnic group, the victims of this form of modern slavery.Prisoners from other parts of China are also brought in by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) to harvest cotton. Given these serious human rights violations and in an effort not to contribute to them, cotton traceability has become a major issue, both for companies sourcing cotton and for consumers with a liking for cotton products. In short, if we are to stop buying cotton from Xinjiang, we must have the means to know where it comes from. We must be able to trace it.

Another significant problem rears its head later in the manufacturing process, namely dye. Carcinogenic azo dyes and polluting chemical treatments such as chlorine bleaching or heavy metal dyes are used to create fabrics that are a perfect white or any specific colour. Jeans are coloured in chemical baths using an indigo blue dye as part of a process that is highly toxic for the planet and for the factory workers making them. The sandblasting of jeans to give them a washed or worn look leads to workers inhaling silica dust from the sand. Many cases of silicosis have been recorded. Formaldehyde, which is used to make clothes wrinkle-free, causes all sorts of health problems such as skin and respiratory allergies and migraines. Last but not least, the manufacture of a pair of jeans involves not one factory but several, with the result that the raw materials and components involved in making it can travel up to 65,000 kilometres, which is more than one and a half times around the Earth. All that transport and fuel amounts to a pretty significant carbon footprint for one single pair of jeans.

From harvesting to spinning, weaving, dyeing and the creation of the end product, the practices of the conventional cotton industry and the textile industry as a whole also have significant social consequences: the exploitation of women and children, very low and poor working conditions. The planet also pays a heavy price: the depletion of water resources, the pollution of soils, subsoils and rivers, greenhouse gas emissions, negative effects on biodiversity, etc.

Last but not least, the manufacture of a pair of jeans involves not one factory but several, with the result that the raw materials and components involved in making it can travel up to 65,000 kilometres, which is more than one and a half times around the Earth. All that transport and fuel amounts to a pretty significant carbon footprint for one single pair of jeans.

To help create a more sustainable and responsible world and to avoid the negative impacts of cotton production as much as possible, DECATHLON is committed to making its products in a way that respects the environment and people.

Aware of the climate issues at stake, the drain on resources, and the social and environmental consequences, DECATHLON’s teams are committed to ensuring that all its products fulfil ecodesign requirements by 2026.

 Why use organic cotton?

Cotton has a positive impact

Without being a miracle solution that offsets all the negative impacts of cotton growing, the use of recycled and organic cotton fibres is much more sustainable than conventional cotton. Recycled cotton is the best option available. The reuse of existing cotton requires no pesticides, fertilizers or water and emits about ten times less CO² than new cotton. Its manufacture also generates employment in the European recycling industry, including a large number of jobs promoting social inclusion. The Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) certifies the presence and quantity of a recycled component in a final product, while the Global Recycled Standard (GRS) complements the verification of recycled content in a given product by providing for the control of socially, environmentally and chemically responsible practices during production with a view to reducing any related impacts.

The use of these fabrics prevents natural resources from being wasted. The cotton used is recovered by recycling charities and companies from clothing donated to them. The fabric is shredded and the fibres sorted and spun into new yarn. Though this yarn can be used for weaving, recycled fibres are shorter and weaker than new cotton fibres, which is why the two are often mixed to guarantee quality and a longer product life.

Biological cotton is another option. Though it is produced in largely the same way as conventional cotton – from growing through to the creation of the end product – the social and environmental impact is very different. The seeds are different for a start. They are not treated or genetically modified. Organic cotton is grown with natural compost instead of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Natural pesticides are used to deal with infestations. As a result, farmers and growers do not have to pay for expensive seeds and chemical products. The soil also stays healthy and productive and crops are rotated, which prevents oxygen deficiency and helps prevent diseases. The health of farmers and growers is also protected as they do not have to handle harmful chemical products. In turn, there are no such products leaching into the soil and subsoil, preventing soil pollution and exhaustion.

The soil also retains more water and moisture as it contains more organic materials. The plant itself thus needs irrigation to meet its water needs. Weeds are tolerated. There are no insecticides in organic farming. And no insecticides or pesticides means less water is used. The dyes used do not contain metals and other carcinogenic substances, which again reduces water consumption. No toxic substances are used in the organic-cotton production chain, which makes it hypoallergenic and more pleasant for the skin. In terms of your health, it's better for you than conventional cotton.

Organic cotton, recycled cotton, conventional cotton or ordinary cotton?

Organic cotton or oeko-tex?

Several standards guaranteeing organic and socially responsible production methods have been set up over the last couple of decades. An international standard created in 2002, GOTS has an especially strict set of criteria, with the focus on protection. These criteria include the stipulation that no less than 95% of textile fibres must come from organic agriculture (in the highest level of requirement), that toxic and carcinogenic substances cannot be used in the production of clothing, and that the finished product may not contain any pesticide or heavy metal residues, such as lead or cadmium. No genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be used. As regards social aspects, the standard ensures that working conditions in the textile processing industry respect the conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO): respect for workers' rights, the freedom to join a trade union, no child labour, no forced labour, a decent wage, etc.

However, working conditions during cotton cultivation are not taken into account. Also recommended are the Oeko-Tex standard and Max Havelaar label, which respectively guarantee the absence of toxic chemical products and decent pay and working conditions for growers and their families.Oeko-Tex Made in Green and bioRe are traceable product labels that provide information on the country(ies) where they have been manufactured and the production stages.

Organic cotton T-shirts might be more expensive than their conventional counterparts but they are better in quality: softer to the touch and easier to work with, they last longer and have a much more favourable social and environmental impact. The development of organic and recycled cotton production can help reduce the environmental impact of cotton, while guaranteeing good conditions for workers.

This is the philosophy of Isabelle Ranghino, the product manager of DECATHLON's yoga brand. Having, in 2008, introduced organic-cotton ecodesign practices for the manufacture of the gymnastic products she is responsible for, she has continued, since the creation of the yoga brand in 2017, to work towards reducing the environmental impact of the development of its products.

"Our organic cotton comes from India. It grows there and we have offices there. We then manufacture locally in India or Sri Lanka - spinning, weaving, dyeing and assembling - which allows us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The finished product is then sent to Europe. I have used organic cotton out of respect for environmental and human values, the farmer, the soil and biodiversity. Then there's the fact that the people who do yoga are sensitive to these issues because the precepts of yoga include ahimsa (non-violence), which they put into practice by respecting every living thing. In India, yoga is often practised in loose-fitting natural materials such as linen, cotton and hemp."

Ranghino and her team are always on the lookout for new procedures that can help reduce impacts. For example, they use mixes of organic cotton and lyocell (a viscose extracted from eucalyptus grown in sustainably managed forests) and also blends of recycled and organic cotton.
"We develop products that are 70% organic cotton and 30% recycled cotton to reduce the carbon footprint. For the time being we're not going beyond 30% to avoid having too many short fibres, pilling and lint on the product, but it's already resulted in the impact being reduced by nearly a third. We'll soon be reusing pre-coloured fibres, such as a pinkish mottled grey. We take them as they are, without re-dyeing them. We then shred and unravel them before reusing them, without changing the colour."

In 2020, some 588,000 hectares of land was taken up with the production of organic cotton (around 2% of total cotton production), with 249,153 tonnes of organic cotton being produced. A record year before the Covid-19 pandemic, it followed four successive years of growth, with a 112% increase between 2016/17 and 2020/21. However, there is a lot of room for improvement, as only 0.95% of global cotton production is organic. At DECATHLON, 11% of our fabric requirements are met by organically grown cotton and 2% by recycled cotton[9].

Other avenues must be explored if the cotton culture is to become less onerous on the planet: fabric lifespan and second-hand. There are several ways to curb the harmful effects of a cotton industry geared towards quantity rather than quality: buying less but better, giving away rather than throwing away, and using clothes that have already had several lives.


[9] https://engagements.decathlon.fr/lapprovisionnement-de-coton-chez-decathlon

"The best thing in an environmental sense," says Ranghino, "is to have clothes that are so long-lasting that you can still wear them 20 years later, and to wear clothes that have already been used, of course. I think the big issue for everyone will soon be the sustainability of the clothes they wear. "
Cotton, along with other natural fibres such as linen and hemp, is known for its strength and softness, and is perfect for creating clothing that can last a long time and help bring about a more sustainable, simpler and fairer world. White gold most definitely has its place in tomorrow's world.

Further reading