Organic Cotton: What it is and Why it is Better

Benefits Of Organic Cotton

Organic Cotton: Why Bother?

Say “cotton” out loud and images of pure, fresh, fluffy shirts and blankets come to mind. Unfortunately, that highly desirable picture has a sinister side to it. Most of the cotton being used by manufacturers and bought by consumers is the more harmful conventional cotton and not the earth-friendly organic cotton.

Cotton clothing is desirable because of its comfort, durability, softness and versatility that we get to enjoy year round. Cotton t-shirts and shorts/pants make up a majority of our wardrobe so the fact that cotton clothing comes cheap makes it even more desirable. But far from its pure and fluffy image, cotton – that is, the conventional cotton fiber used by most clothing manufacturers – come with a high environmental price tag.

Cotton is grown in only 3% of the world’s farms but it’s one of the worst sources of pollution – to air, soil, water. The tip of the iceberg: cotton uses a quarter of the world’s chemical pesticides, and only 10% of that amount effectively does what it’s supposed to do. The 90% of these chemicals seep into the soil and water and traces of it remain in the air.

But where does the danger to conventional cotton come from?

Read this for more information on the some unpleasant truths about the contents of our wardrobes.

Tracing the Makings of Conventional Cotton

Before a cotton seed becomes a cotton t-shirt, there’s a whole slew of processes that goes in between. From planting to growing, harvesting and cleaning (or “ginning”), through to manufacturing, many synthetic (and very dangerous) chemicals come into play in the making of conventional cotton.

Generally, a third of a pound of pesticides and fertilizers go into producing a pound of harvested conventional cotton. (If you’re wondering, a pound of raw cotton makes one t-shirt.) These chemicals include such highly toxic substances as aldicarb—so poisonous that just a drop absorbed by your skin can kill you—as well as parathion and methamidopho, three of the most dangerous insecticides to man according to the World Health Organization. And there are also such cancer-causing pesticides like cyanazine, dicofol, naled, propargite and trifluralin.

Because insects have a pesky way of growing resistant to these chemicals over time, cotton farmers become a victim to what is called the “pesticide treadmill”—they have to increase the amount they use to eradicate insects and pests to obtain the same level of earnings from previous planting seasons.

Come harvest time, the use of chemicals continues: cotton plants are treated with herbicides to strip off the leaves for quick, efficient picking. And because heavy machinery does the harvesting, the ground is compacted, reducing the soil’s fertility. Additionally, harvested cotton bolls are cleaned with chemical cleansers to remove oil and seed. Manufacturers further process this cotton material to take out remaining debris like leaves, stems, lint and dirt.

(Interestingly, the cottonseed—which is 60% of the cotton by weight—is used as food for both animals and humans. We use cottonseed oil in our baked goods and salad dressings, to name a few.)

At this point, the cotton—to turn it into the soft clothing that we like—is further chemically processed. The cotton is spun (thankfully without chemicals or oils) and the resulting yarn undergoes a polyvinyl alcohol sizing to seal in the fabric and make weaving easier. Since the woven cotton still has its natural colour, the fabric is bleached with chlorine, then washed with sodium hydroxide, and finally piece-dyed—usually with formaldehyde-fixing agents—to impart a solid colour.

If you think processing the cotton has stopped by then, think again. Finishing the cotton fabric comes last, to prevent shrinking, reduce wrinkling and add all those new-fangled qualities that consumers want in their cotton clothing. Manufacturers use a urea-formaldehyde combination to accomplish this goal. Additional dyeing and printing will also need such substances as volatile organic compounds, iron, potassium, tin and inks containing benzene, heavy metals and organochlorides. All these require huge amounts of water to wash off residues. The runoff as we know now seeps into the soil and water table to cause diseases and disorders on our skin and in the central nervous system and respiratory system of both humans and animals.

For a detailed breakdown of some of the dangerous chemicals used in cotton farming, see here.

Other processes—and chemicals—are applied to make the cotton softer, wrinkle-free, stain resistant, wonderfully smelling and less static absorbing. These synthetic substances include urea resins, caustic soda, formaldehyde, halogens, bromines and sulfonamides to name a few. Some manufacturers also use disinfectants, which are very difficult to remove even after many washings.

No wonder then that there have been instances of heightened sensitivity and allergies to cotton clothing in the past years!

See here for more on the problems with conventional cotton.

A clothing label showing 100% organic cotton

Tracing the Makings of Organic Cotton

Organic cotton farming, on the other hand, entails a work-with-nature growing principle so from planting to harvesting, earth-friendly biological controls are used to grow cotton.

It’s interesting to note that for cotton to get its “organic cotton” certification, the land must have been free of any synthetic chemical for three consequent years, and strict testing is done to ensure that there are no chemical residues in the final product.

Organic cotton also uses non-genetically modified cottonseed as well as different cotton varieties. Conventional cotton, on the other hand, uses a single cotton variety to plant thousands of acres, thus the need for increased chemical use. These cotton farms can be wiped out with a single infestation so they need powerful fertilisers, insecticides, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and what have you to ensure their acreage’s continued viability.

With organic cotton farming, because the risks in this regard are reduced, farmers have more legroom to work with nature from planting to harvesting. Thus, biological controls – like beneficial predator insects, plant-based insecticidal sprays, mulching, and companion planting—are employed to address the problem of pests and weeds. Manure and other organic fertilisers are used to augment soil fertility. To further maintain and promote the land’s productivity, farmers also use crop rotation and intercropping, which provides additional cash crops to farmers. (The cottonseed by-product can also be sold as organic animal feed and organic cottonseed oil for cooking.)

Harvesting organic cotton is quite unlike harvesting conventional cotton, too – farmers pick the cotton by hand. Once it goes to the manufacturer for processing, organic cotton is not subjected to the alcohol-sizing, chlorine-bleaching, formaldehyde-colour-fixing, and heavy-metal-dyeing rigmarole that conventional cottons go through.

Natural spinning oils that decompose naturally ease the spinning process. Fabric sizing uses potato starch and hydrogen peroxide, rather than toxic chlorine, is used to bleach organic cotton. Natural colouring alternatives such as earth clays and vegetable-mineral inks and binders go into the dyeing and printing of organic cotton clothing. And yes, no disinfectants!

If you are interested in learning about organic cotton and recycled Pet, you can read more here.

The Benefits of Organic Cotton

Although growing and manufacturing organic cotton is labour intensive, the simplicity of turning cotton bolls into shirts and other organic clothing shows it’s not only earth-friendly, it’s also healthier for the humans who wear them.

  • Compared to conventional cotton, organic cotton releases fewer greenhouse gases, employs less fuel and water resources, leaves little toxic residue in the water, soil and air, and therefore has lower carbon footprints.
  • Earth-friendly, biological growing principles mean farmers are not exposed to such pesticide-related health problems as birth defects, memory loss, cancer, paralysis and death, among others.
  • The soil is healthier and so is more productive. Plus, we’re helping organic cotton farmers earn a decent living without endangering man, animal or earth.
  • Strict testing for organic cotton certification means we are sure that it doesn’t have the dangerous chemicals and contaminants that come with manufacturing conventional cotton.
  • Organic cotton is safer and healthier – we (grower, manufacturing worker, and wearer alike) avoid coming into contact with harmful residues as formaldehyde, chlorine, and heavy metals to name a few.

Although some quarters may say that organic clothing is expensive, think of the overall long-term costs of conventional cotton. Behind its cheap price tag, millions of dollars are going into the cleanup of toxic residues and the treatment of health-related consequences of growing conventional cotton. Not to mention the vicious “chemical treadmill” that cotton farmers are on: the land is less productive so it needs more and more chemical inputs every growing season so farmers go deeper and deeper into debt.

Ultimately, organic cotton clothing is much cheaper on the environment and on the health of everyone: grower, manufacturing worker and wearer.

  • In the market, it may have a slightly higher price tag in terms of dollar amounts but where it counts, organic cotton is simply the cheapest premium t-shirt you can wear without the guilt.


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