It's not a pretty list: cyanazine (known to cause birth defects and cancer), fluometuron (reported to poison the blood and spleen), methyl parathion (linked to fetal damage, as well as reproductive and immune system toxicity), sodium chlorate (responsible for kidney damage and deoxygenation of blood cells). These are only a sampling of the pesticides used to grow cotton-"the fabric of our lives," according to Cotton Inc., the trade group that represents U.S. cotton producers and importers.
Cotton farmers use approximately 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides and defoliants), according to Allen Woodburn Associates Ltd., an agrochemical consulting firm based in Edinburgh, Scotland. The American Crop Protection Association estimates that 10% of all pesticides sold for use in U.S. agriculture were applied to cotton in 1997 (the most recent year for which data is publicly available).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 as "possible," "likely," "probable" or "known" human carcinogens. Amazingly, it takes about one-third of a pound of pesticides and fertilizers to grow enough cotton for just one T-shirt, according to the Sustainable Cotton Project, an environmental advocacy group in Central California.
By contrast, organic cotton "is grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment," according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. "Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture. Third-party certification organizations verify that organic farmers use only methods and materials allowed in organic production. In January 2004, OTA finalized organic fiber processing standards that apply to the processing of organic fibers such as cotton. Certifiers will soon be able to certify to those standards."
"Synthetic fabrics are manufactured from petroleum derivatives," adds Carolyn Grogan, owner of Mama's Earth, a Housatonic, Massachusetts-based environmental retailer. "Most fabrics used for anything today are very earth-unfriendly, if not downright dangerous," she tells OrganicAuthority.com. "While finished goods manufactured from synthetics are generally cheap, due to artificially maintained low petroleum prices, the actual cost to the environment of acquiring, transporting and refining is seldom taken into account by consumers. The amount of energy resources alone, if known, would turn off many buyers. Factor in the pollution these processes cause, and most buyers would be shocked."
Environmentally conscious farmers can successfully grow cotton without pesticides, and manufacturers of clothing, bed linens and towels are beginning to respond to consumer demand. Manufacturers of organic fiber products experienced a 22.7 percent rise in sales in 2003, according to the OTA-38 percent in the category of women's clothing alone (followed by infant clothing and diapers, sheets and towels, and children's/teen clothing).
Even mainstream companies have entered the marketplace. Nike introduced its first six-item line in 2002 and labels its certified organic clothing with a "Nike Organics" label. Patagonia, Inc. is one of the most environmentally conscious manufacturers in the world, offering sportswear and accessories for men, women and children. Gaiam specializes in organic cotton exercise and yoga wear, as well as bed and bath linens.
"With developments in the manufacture of organic cotton, there's really no reason not to wear organic apparel," says Byron Freney, Gaiam's director of marketing. "It's comfortable and fashionable, and every time you buy organic, you can know that you're positively affecting the overall health of our planet," he tells OrganicAuthority.com.
Expect to pay a bit more for organic cotton products, as farmers face special challenges.
"Organic growers take on more risk and can't turn to a chemical if they have a pest outbreak," says Marcia Gibbs, program director of the Sustainable Cotton Project. "They have to pay for organic certification and usually end up doing more of their work by hand-as in hand-weeding instead of using herbicides," she tells OrganicAuthority.com. "Hand labor is expensive and often hard to get. In the case of cotton, without utilizing defoliants and a chemical called 'pix,' growers are not likely to get the same amount of cotton from the field."
Yields on organic cotton are traditionally lower than those for conventional cotton, which affects price, Gibbs explains. Nonorganic cotton farmers average about 2.5-2.75 bales (500 pounds) per acre, while studies of an organic grower found that he harvested 1.25 bales per acre. With a lower yield, he has no choice but to raise prices to remain competitive in the marketplace.
But the price is well worth it. Buying organic clothing makes the world a safer, cleaner place, Grogan asserts, and increased demand will ultimately lower prices for everyone.
"If more people bought, more would be available-and cheaper," she says. "It's good stuff! Organic cotton is buttery soft and gets softer with each washing. It's stronger and more durable than most other fabrics, so it's a better long-term value."
"There are so many wonderful things about organic fibers," confirms Cheryl Hahn, owner of Norfolk, Virginia-based Tomorrow's World, a national mail-order catalog. "It's cleaner, has breathability next to the skin, is great for people with allergies or chemical sensitivities, has no formaldehyde finishing and is the best choice for the environment," she tells OrganicAuthority.com. "There are no dangerous pesticides for farm workers or the end-user. We've watched this industry grow over the past 10 years. The steps have been small, but there is definitely more interest in organics, as well as choices, than there was a decade ago. And that's a good thing for all of us."