Why Buy Organic Cotton?
by Kristi Wiedermann
For at least 7,000 years, cotton has protected humankind from sun and rain, heat and cold. Today, cotton is the single most popular textile crop, providing half of the world’s fiber material. Contrast this with the fact that cotton is also one of the most heavily chemically sprayed crops in the world, and we’ve got a problem—but at the same time, an opportunity to support the organic cotton industry.
Impacts of Conventional Cotton Farming
Despite only being grown on 3% of the world’s land, cotton uses approximately 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of overall pesticides, which include insecticides, herbicides and defoliants. It is estimated that it takes roughly one-third of a pound of pesticides and fertilizers to grow enough cotton for just one T-shirt and three-quarters of a pound for a pair of jeans. Far from benign, the Environmental Protection Agency considered seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 in the United States as "possible," "likely," "probable," or "known" human carcinogens. Such chemicals certainly don’t lend themselves to a safe working environment for farmers, workers and neighbors, not to mention air, soil and groundwater contamination and the multitude of animals and insects undoubtedly affected. What’s more, along with corn and soybeans, cotton is one of the top three most prevalent genetically modified (GM) crops grown today in the U.S., a highly controversial subject of its own.
Benefits of Organic Cotton Farming
While only making up a fraction of 1% of all cotton grown in the world, organic cotton production is on the rise and is currently grown in at least 12 countries, with Turkey and the U.S. leading the way. Unlike conventional cotton, organic cotton is grown to maintain and build soil fertility using methods and materials that have low environmental and health impacts. Organic production systems reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, build biologically diverse ecosystems and are not grown with genetically modified seeds. Furthermore, the rates of water use and soil erosion for organic cotton are less than half those for conventional cotton. Whether for fiber or food, third-party certification organizations verify that organic producers use only methods and materials allowed in organic production per the National Organic Standards.
Not All Cotton Is Processed the Same
Once cotton is grown organically, however, it must also go through several processing steps at the mill before it’s turned into a final fabric. Currently, mills are not required to process organic fibers any differently than conventional fibers. Instead, it’s up to the individual apparel company to require organic processing only if they choose to. While there are voluntary organic processing standards developed by the Texas Department of Agriculture as well as European standards, the Organic Trade Association has just published the first nationwide standards, called the "American Organic Standards," to address processing and accurate labeling. Until these national standards are fully underway, however, if you’d like to know whether an organic cotton product has been processed organically, a phone call to the company will have to suffice. In the meantime, a label that states "made with organic cotton" will only refer to how the fiber was grown. Overall, whether conventional or organic, cotton processing is a very resource consuming and wasteful industry—though, due to the use of more benign chemicals, organic processing is less so. This is important because chemicals can remain in the final product, which may lead to health problems.
Driving the Demand
While mainstream apparel companies like Patagonia and Nike are two of the largest users of organic cotton, many other smaller companies are also helping to increase organic cotton acreage around the world. Along with producing 100% organic cotton lines, several companies in the market are blending small percentages of organic cotton with their conventional cotton products. For instance, while all of the cotton sold by Patagonia is 100% organic, Nike has introduced a small 100% line for women, but for the most part uses its organic cotton for blending into its conventional cotton line.
Aside from clothing, organic cotton fiber is also being used in personal care items like cotton balls and swabs and sanitary products, as well as in children’s products including diapers and toys. Home furnishings products, the fastest growing sector of the organic cotton market, includes towels, bathrobes, sheets, blankets and bedding.
Organic Cotton = Organic Food
Organic cotton farming also supports an organic food system. Since the majority of a harvested cotton crop is actually comprised of seeds that are in turn used for food, producing more organic cotton leads to more organic food. Post-harvest, cotton seeds are crushed and turned into oil, meal and hulls. While cottonseed oil is primarily used as cooking oil and in shortening and salad dressing, it is also used extensively in the preparation of such snack foods as crackers, cookies and chips. The remaining meal and hulls are used as livestock, poultry and fish feed and as fertilizer, all eventually making their way into the food system as well.
Buying Organic Cotton at the Coop
Aside from the mainstream retailers, most organic cotton clothing and products are actually sold on the web. Lucky for us, the Coop currently sells Maggie’s Organics popular socks and tank tops. You can also find personal care products by Natracare and Organic Essentials in the Coop’s HaBA department. Website resources to check out include Co-op America’s Green Pages at www.thegreenpages.com and All Organic Links at www.allorganiclinks.org.
As a final note, while buying organic cotton is certainly a positive step toward reducing the environmental impact of cotton farming, it’s also important to consider labor practices. Ask the manufacturer for this information or look for items with "Sweatshop-Free" or "No Sweat" labels. In the near future, cotton products sourced under Fair Trade Certified conditions will be joining food with the more familiar Fair Trade label as well.
Dorothy Myers and Sue Stolton. 1999. Organic Cotton. Intermediate Technology Publications.
National Cotton Council of America. FAQ, at www.cotton.org/pubs/faq.
PEW Initiative on Food & Biotechnology. 2003. "Genetically Modified Crops in the United States," at pewagbiotech.org/resources/factsheets (August)
Wayne C. Smith, ed. 1999. Cotton: Origin, History, Technology, and Production. John Wiley & Sons.
Sustainable Cotton Project. "Cleaner Cotton Campaign Toolkit," at www.sustainablecottonproject.org.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2001. "List of Chemicals Evaluated for Carcinogenic Potential."
Allen Woodburn Associates/Managing Resources Ltd. 1999. Cotton: The Crop and Its Agrochemicals Market.