Cotton: The Deadliest Textile

Ecologically conscious consumers are well aware of their power to support organic agriculture with their food purchasing choices. However, issues surrounding conventionally grown cotton have inexplicably escaped the conscious consumer's attention.

The hype over organic cotton is based on the disturbing reality that conventionally grown cotton is one of the most pesticide intensive and genetically altered crops worldwide, according to Rebecca Spector of the Center for Food Safety. Spector spoke on a panel on the subject at this year's Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at UO March 10.

Pesticides used on cotton not only harm the natural environment, but can also directly affect human health since 60 percent of cotton actually ends up in the food chain. Spector says cottonseed oil is used in common snack foods, such as potato chips and cookies. The catch is that the oil is extracted from cotton laden with toxic pesticides and fertilizers, and grown with genetically modified organisms. She warns that children who drink non-organic milk are exposed to these harmful chemicals because cottonseed is fed to dairy cows, which accumulate pesticide residues in their tissues. Project director for the Sustainable Cotton Project, Katherine Polan, says that food products derived from the conventional cotton plant may be more toxic than other non-organic foods. "Since cotton is regulated as a fiber, not as a food crop, cotton growers regularly use chemicals that have been banned from food crops because of their high toxicity," Polan says.

The problem of pesticide use on cotton is multiplied by the enormity of acreage of the crop around the world. Cotton fields grow in California, Texas, Missouri, and internationally in India, Turkey, Uganda, Senegal and Peru. There are 14 million acres of cotton in the U.S. and that accounts for 20 percent of the world's production of cotton. And cotton practically monopolizes the pesticide industry. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), cotton consumes 10 percent of the world's pesticides and almost 25 percent of its insecticides.

PAN reports that in many developing countries, farmers work in cotton fields with few, if any, safety precautions to protect them from the pesticides.

Lynda Grose, marketing consultant for the Sustainable Cotton Project, a group dedicated to educating consumers about issues related to cotton, advocates organic cotton fabrics as the solution to the problems with conventionally grown cotton. She says farmers and fashion companies will only be willing to convert to sustainable textiles, such as organic cotton, if they are convinced that consumers' interest is a long-term trend. The "vigilante consumer," she says, is a significant market force that companies are starting to recognize. "The vigilante consumer is educated about the issues, and ready to boycott a company if they don't live up to expectations." Furthermore, she says the higher the consumer demand, the less costly a systematic shift to organic cotton production will be, and thus, the more likely it will occur.

Grose predicts a growth in awareness of the dangers of conventional cotton will provide a much-needed boost for the organic fiber industry -- much like the one experienced by the organic food industry. However, she says the shift will require a critical mass effort necessary to convince industry that "today's consumers demand environmentally advanced products, processes, and companies." And this demand must include organically and sustainably grown fibers, she says.

The list of products manufactured with organically grown cotton is growing. It includes clothing, cotton balls, swab rounds, feminine hygiene products, futons, stuffed animals, sheets, towels, and many others. High-profile manufacturers like Patagonia, Levi-Strauss, Nike, and Espirit are already demonstrating that organic cotton can be profitably used in mainstream products. In Eugene, several vendors at the Saturday Market sell children's clothes made from organic fibers. Furthermore, businesses like Sew Ecological, a national mail-order business that sells organic cotton fabric and batting, make buying organic cotton products practical nationwide.

PAN warns that just as with organic produce, a "certified organic" label confirms that a third party inspected the product's manufacturing process. However, claims that a product is "natural," "pure," or "green" do not necessarily indicate that the cotton was grown organically.

Other alternatives to reducing the world's reliance on conventionally grown cotton include switching to organic linen, silk or hemp. Industrial hemp, grown organically or not, does not require the use of pesticides and requires less water than does cotton. Conversely, Grose says hemp requires the use of chlorine to bleach it to a cream color, whereas cotton is a cream color to begin with. Hemp also requires more softener to finish than does cotton.

Grose predicts that hemp can take over in certain areas, whereas for other products, cotton is more suitable. The most important message from organic cotton advocates, would be to cease supporting the current cotton industry which, for the most part, is under the impression that consumers do not mind if it uses processes that pollute the water, land, wildlife, farmworkers and consumers.

Judy Yablonski is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon.

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