When talking about sustainability, the difference between pure organic cotton and traditional cotton is often misunderstood or misrepresented. In fact, there is not much difference in planting practices between the two production systems.
One of the main differences between pure organic cotton and traditional cotton is the source of seeds and the chemical techniques used to grow and protect crops.
Pure organic cotton growers cannot use biotech (genetically modified) seeds, and in most cases, cannot use synthetic pesticides, unless other more preferred methods are insufficient to prevent or control the target pests. Technically, sustainable organic cotton must be grown on land that has no prohibited substances within three years.
Traditional cotton growers have greater freedom. They can grow bio-transgenic technology seeds or traditional breeding seeds. They can use synthetic or natural nutrients and crop protection agents, or a combination of the two.
Generally speaking, no more water is needed. The crop's production system (organic or traditional) has no effect on its water demand. The water requirement is determined by the planting area and the specific variety of cotton.
In addition, both production systems can benefit from soil health practices (regenerative agriculture, use of cover crops, multiple crop rotations, etc.), which have been shown to significantly increase soil organic matter and water storage capacity.
Generally speaking, the fiber yield per acre of pure organic cotton is usually low. This is largely due to the difficulty in controlling large-scale pest and weed growth while complying with organic guidelines.
It depends on how to define and measure sustainability. Both pure organic cotton and traditional cotton have the ability to reduce certain environmental impacts when they are responsible for production. However, according to the standard, neither is more sustainable than the other by itself.