Cotton, “the fabric of our lives”, is everywhere . . . clothing, towels, bedding, housewares, toys. But unfortunately cotton is as environmentally damaging as it is abundant. Cotton is considered the world's “dirtiest” crop due to its excessive use of insecticides. By excessive I'm referring to the fact that 16% of the world's insecticides are used on the 2.5% of land used to grow cotton. In the U.S. cotton growers are responsible for 25% of pesticides used. Some other unpleasant facts that may have you itching to get out of those cotton clothes:
- The Environmental Protection Agency has labeled seven of the top 15 pesticides used in U.S. cotton production as "possible," "likely," "probable," or "known" human carcinogens. The World Health Organization considers the insecticides Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho to be the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health – the three also rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production.
- It takes almost a third of a pound of synthetic fertilizers to grow enough cotton to produce a single t-shirt. Nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are a major factor in increasing the greenhouse gas N2O. N2O is 300 times more potent than CO2.
- Many pesticide residues have been detected in cottonseed hull – a secondary crop (i.e., the unusable leftover from the cotton plant) sold as a food product. As much as 65% of cotton production ends up in our food chain, either directly through cottonseed oil or indirectly through the milk and meat of animals given feed that contains cotton seed.
- Cotton production uses massive amounts of water. It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce one pair of jeans.
- Ninety-nine percent of cotton farmers in the world live in developing countries, leaving the poorest and most disenfranchised among us to bear the brunt of cotton productions' negative health and environmental impact.
Organic cotton production, on the other hand, avoids the toxic chemicals that are so harmful to human health and the environment. By buying products made of organic cotton you support sustainable farming practices and humane treatment of workers and help keep harmful chemicals out of the environment and our food supply.
Organic cotton production still accounts for less than one percent of global cotton production, but it has seen significant growth in the past few years as more companies have started to offer organic cotton products. Consumers, with our power of the purse, can continue to drive that change to healthier production practices. Yes, organic cotton products are often more expensive than those made of conventional cotton, but when you consider the impact on human and environmental health it is certainly a justifiable expense. Plus, the more we support organic cotton, the more products will become available and the lower prices will drop.
You don't have to run out and replace all your cotton clothing and linens, but next time you do need something new consider the organic option. With more companies like Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart, Pantagonia, H&M, and Banana Republic offering organic cotton products you now have more choices than ever.