Sunday, April 16, 2006

Organic Cotton - It's Worth Every Penny

I've been researching organic and natural fibers for the new book. Fascinating. It makes we want to smack my forehead - for all the years I spent with my head buried in the sand.

Here's the crux of it. Cotton is advertised as a "natural" fiber, as opposed to, say, nylon or rayon. And cotton can be natural. But, as some of you may know, cotton is one of the most pesticide-intensive crops there is. I've been hearing that for a few years, as I went right on buying cotton underwear, jeans, corduroys, T-shirts, sweatshirts. But I didn't really get it until this past week, which I’ve spent reading articles about the textile industry.

It takes a pound, a whole pound, of pesticides and fertilizers to produce enough conventional cotton to make one T-shirt and one pair of jeans!

Cotton uses 25% of the world's insecticides. In the US, cotton is second only to corn in the tonnage of pesticides used. (Corn is the heavy because it's the mainstay of the livestock industry. Fifty-six percent of the corn we grow is fed to farmed animals that will be served up on the dinner table. Now even more corn is being grown to provide ethanol as a gasoline additive. But that's a topic for later.)

What about those pesticides on cotton? Five of the top nine most commonly used cotton pesticides are Class I or Class II chemicals - the most toxic and carcinogenic pesticides. Like all chemicals, they're dispersed to some degree in the environment when they're sprayed on fields or crops. Ingested by birds, mammals, reptiles. Toxic to amphibians and fish living downstream from sprayed fields.

Here's something that surprised me. Two-thirds of the cotton crop winds up in our food chain! So we're eating all those pesticides too! Cottonseed oil is common in processed food. And cottonseed hulls or meal is a common "protein supplement" for cattle.

Cotton is also extremely toxic to workers. Ninety-one percent of laborers in the cotton industry have a diagnosed health disorder of some kind.

What about clothing consumers? All these toxins wash out when the T-shirt or jeans are washed - right? That's what I've been thinking all these years. No. They are slowly emitted during the lifetime of the garment. What about "easy care" or "permanent press" cotton? Formaldehyde. That's what makes them "easy care".

What about the dyes? "Virtually all commercial dyes are toxic petrochemicals, many contain heavy metals," said one of the documents I read last night. Like the pesticides, these dyes have their impact on the workers in the textile mills. They also have a heavy impact on the environment, because, at some point, the dyes wind up as wastewater. Dyes in particular are hard to remove from water, so cleaning or filtering processes, when attempted, often fail. To cut to the chase, even in the best circumstances, the dyes wind up in rivers. In developing nations, where many or most textile mills are located these days, the dyes can often be piped raw and unfiltered right into the rivers, with no effort at all to extract them from the wastewater. That's the beauty of overseas textile mills and sweatshops in empoverished nations - no labor laws to protect workers, no environmental regulations, no functioning governmental infrastructure to care one way or another what goes on.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But, man, we need to be supporting the providers who are trying to make a living offering organic fibers. I said to my husband last night, we're not buying anymore conventionally-grown cotton socks or T-shirts or underwear or anything. Period.

Here's the good news:
there are lots of alternatives to conventional cotton.

Here are the alternatives as I see them.

Organic cotton: It’s grown without the massive amounts of pesticides and fertilizers used in conventional cotton cultivation, which is a huge advantage for the environment, for laborers, for consumers. Organic cotton products cost 25 to 50% more, but not choosing organic, for me, feels like once again sticking my head in a hole and saying, it’s not my problem. It is my problem. I want to be engaged with the world enough to say it is my problem, and your problem, and his problem. We have to take responsibility, choose who we wish to fund, refuse to participate in corporate systems that are screwing the environment, laborers, and consumer health.

If you google “organic cotton” or “organic fibers” you’ll find organic cotton vendors online. Organic cotton isn’t perfect – the cotton dust can still cause respiratory ailments for workers. And the USDA organic certification only applies to how it’s grown. It doesn’t apply to the manufacturing process. But the Organic Trade Association offers an additional certification for the manufacturing process, which affects the use of formaldehyde to reduce wrinkling, and the use of toxic dyes.

Vintage clothing: Ah, yes. Being a cheap-skate and bargain-hunter, and being poor (struggling writer married to high school teacher), I partake heavily of the thrift store offerings in my town. We have a great thrift store, operated by AmVets. Every so often, when I’m with Sara Kate, we stop and do an inventory of what we’re wearing at the moment, how much of it came from Community Thrift. Usually I’m about 90% clad in Community Thrift items: shoes and socks included.

Thrift store purchases are guilt-free. The average American buys 48 new clothing items every year and discards an almost equal number. Most of the discards wind up in the landfill, about 10% are recycled. Of the recycled, about half make it to thrift stores. The rest are shredded to make blankets or commercial rags, and I don’t know what else. True, some thrift store items can still have toxic dyes – any dye that bleeds into laundry water is also absorbed into your skin when you wear it. But at least I’m not funding the corporations that are trashing the environment and exploiting laborers to offer cheap new products. Instead, I’m funding a non-profit with a humanitarian mission.

Organic wool:
I was surprised to read about all the toxins used to produce wool, a lot of them in the form of dips applied to the living sheep to kill parasites. Again, these miticides and so on are toxic to both workers and the environment, not to mention the animals themselves. Organic wool is grown without the use of these pesticides.

Linen (from flax) and hemp have their merits as clean and green alternatives to conventional cotton, in some cases. We’ll write more about those in the book, and in later blog entries. I read a good bit about bamboo fiber yesterday. It seems to have a lot going for it, in that it doesn’t require heavy use of pesticides or fertilizers. It also grows to maturity in three years and doesn’t need reseeding. And from what I’ve read, it can be as soft as cotton, which hemp is not. But, bamboo is typically grown and manufactured into textiles in China. After watching the documentary, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices,” I’m leery of anything manufactured in China because of labor concerns. That movie documented exploitive working conditions and abysmal wages for workers in Chinese factories. Also, none of the vendors I came across who are marketing bamboo clothing online are claiming to have an organic product. So…I’m not sure about bamboo yet. I plan to make some phone calls next week.

So. As I discover more, I’ll report it here, and in our upcoming book from Fulcrum in 2007. The working title was The Power of Your Pocketbook, but is now How Americans’ Spending Habits Shape our World. Fulcrum will most likely select a new title altogether after the book is completed.

I would love to hear from you readers about your adventures in trying to sort through the new alternatives to conventionally produced fabrics: your impressions, frustrations, and successes. We’re looking for reader submissions to include in the book. You can send submissions to


The Worsted Witch said...


I thought you might be interested in this:

Graham said...

Hi, is that why clothes come out the wash thinner because all the chemicals are washing away? Graham from said...

Hi there. I have been doing a lot of research lately on organic cotton because of a paper I am working on. I have been coming to a dead end on the actual labor of organic cotton. I am wondering if this is because a lot of it is still being manufactured in sweatshops with no enforced labor laws...? Thinking about anything organic immediately leads me to believe the entire chain of manufacturing is done properly. Perhaps not. If you find out any more information on the labor I would love to know.
Thank you!

Grapefruit Boutique said...

This is great information on the cotton industry! Thanks for sharing. I would like to make the switch to organic cotton.