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ALL COTTONS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL

Written by

Jacob Wibom Westerberg

Jacob Wibom Westerberg

Jacob is a co-founder of JUNIPER. He is strategy consultant with a Nordic consultancy firm where he works with strategy development and transactions, primarily within consumer products and consumer internet. He is also weirdly passionate about cotton.

Cotton is durable and reliable, holds up well to frequent washing, takes dye well, maintains comfortable body temperature, and is hypoallergenic. However, all cotton is not created equal so here we try to clarify some of the most common misconceptions.

 

COTTON: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE

The different species of cotton

Two species of cotton account for 98% of all cotton grown in the world. (1) Gossypium hirsutum (referred to as Upland cotton), which is native to Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and southern Florida, accounts for 90% of world production. And the better cotton (2) Gossypium barbadense (sometimes referred to as Egyptian cotton or Extra-Long Staple cotton, both nicknames less than ideal as they confuse consumers either thinking the cotton is from Egypt or that it always has Extra-Long Staples, neither is true). Both these species are native to America. Gossypium barbadense was introduced to Egypt in the 19th century by Egypt’s ruler, Mohammed Ali Pasha, who developed them as a cash crop to support his army. Gossypium barbadense accounts for about 8% of world production.

JUNIPER - Supima cotton boll

Fiber length definitions

Pictured above is a cotton plant boll, each boll contains nearly 250,000 individual cotton staples. There are three different classifications of staple length:

 

(A) Short-staple (less 1 2/8″), the most common type

(B) Long-staple (1 2/8″ – 1 3/8″)

(C) Extra-long staple (Above 1 3/8″)

These length differences may seem small, but they make a big difference in the quality, strength, color retention, and softness of the cotton, and ultimately of the bedsheets.

 

The hardest part, interpreting bedsheets labels

When reviewing the product descriptions across different bedsheets brands, you will find different words being used to describe the cotton. Assuming what companies write is true, these are some takeaways:

 

100% Cotton – Typically means it is Upland short-staple cotton

100% Long-staple cotton – It is most likely 100% Gossypium barbadense, the fibers are classified as long-staple.

 

100% Egyptian cotton – It can mean that the cotton is from Egypt, then it is impossible to know the quality, but Egypt is a tiny producer of cotton, so this is not too likely. It can mean that it is made from 100% Gossypium barbadense which is quite likely. The cotton is probably grown in India or China.

100% Pima cotton – 100% Gossypium barbadense, could be long-staple or extra-long staple cotton, but more likely the former.

100% Sea Island cottonLikely 100% Gossypium barbadense, grown in the Caribbean.

100% ELS Cotton – 100% Gossypium barbadense, only extra-long staple cotton, unclear origin

If it doesn’t say 100% something, you can trust that the cotton in the product, is at best a blend of different qualities. 

 

“A 2009 test revealed 89% of all bedsheets cotton did not live up to what was claimed on the label”

 

So as you can see that this is surprisingly complicated. However, some organizations have emerged to try to clear things up and ensure the consumer gets what he or she is paying for. These organizations ensure your bedsheets have the quality that is claimed and are the most exclusive types of cotton you can buy:

 

100% Egyptian Cotton™ – 100% Gossypium barbadense, only extra-long staple, grown in Egypt along the Nile river

JUNIPER - Egyptian Cotton Association

100% Pimacott 100% Gossypium barbadense, only extra-long staple, grown in California. 

100% Supima cotton – 100% Gossypium barbadense, only extra-long staple, 90% grown in California, 10% grown in small areas of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

JUNIPER - Supima

This list is probably not complete, there might be more organizations around the world trying to do the same thing as the three mentioned here. 

 

What about organic cotton? Not so straightforward.

Organic cotton is generally understood as cotton from plants not genetically modified and that is certified to be grown without the use of any synthetic agricultural chemicals. I.e. the way cotton was grown 200 years ago. So how does that change the end product? Well, in essence, it actually doesn’t change the end product. Bedsheets from any reasonable brand in the western world are OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certified, meaning they are free from any harmful chemicals. And in fact, even with the most advanced scientific equipment available, a scientist can’t determine the difference between organic and non-organic cotton by the time the product is finished.

But what about the production process and its impact on the environment? Here organic farming can, of course, play a crucial role.

Generally speaking, organic farming will use more soil as it is much less efficient. Hence it will require more water as it is spread out over a larger area. However, the great benefit of organic farming is that it avoids the use of toxic synthetic pesticides which may impoverish the soil, could harm insects that are part of the natural ecosystem and are often associated with farmworkers getting sick. This has been a big problem in developing countries such as India and China which are the first and third ranked countries in the world by volume. Hence when buying cotton from developing countries, buying organic is a good way of knowing workers likely are better cared for. It should, however, be pointed out that organic pesticides can be toxic as well, so there is no guarantee unfortunately just because something is organic.

JUNIPER - Cotton field

In the western world, primarily the United States and Australia, national regulations are much stricter both with regards to using pesticides and working conditions. So the use of toxic chemicals (synthetic or natural) is rare. Further much more of work is done with machines, e.g. cotton-picking which is all done by hand in developing countries, is all done with the help of modern equipment in the US and Australia. A seriously strenuous and repetitive job causing physical injuries.

So in summary, if we could trust everyone in the world to behave responsibly, non-organic farming would actually be more efficient and not harmful to the environment, it would simply be using the latest available science to farm as efficiently as possible. However, since we can’t, organic cotton is a good option, especially when buying cotton from developing countries. But of much less importance when buying from the western world.

Of course, there is also some truth to the expression; you get what you pay for. If you pay more and buy quality it is much more likely that both the farmer and the environment are healthy and happy.

 

At JUNIPER we produce 100% SUPIMA cotton sheets, with 500 thread count in a sateen weave. The most exclusive cotton sheets you can buy anywhere, no matter the price. Have a look at The Bed Set, our best value product.

Written by

Jacob Wibom Westerberg

Jacob Wibom Westerberg

Jacob is a co-founder of JUNIPER. He is strategy consultant with a Nordic consultancy firm where he works with strategy development and transactions, primarily within consumer products and consumer internet. He is also weirdly passionate about cotton.

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