Well, I hope this gives you some insight into how some of our clothing is made and what the effect is of this product on our lives but also on the life of the planet...I know! These items just show up in our stores and look cute or comfortable!! But just like the food we eat, the clothing we wear also goes through a process that can be much healthier for us!
Organic Cotton…the Fabric of our Sustainable Lives
When was the last time you took a look at the tag on your shirt that you’re wearing? Is it made of cotton? Most of us barely pay attention to what fabric our clothes are made of unless we’re worried about it shrinking in the dryer. But in actuality, there is a whole long story behind where your shirt came from. From the time the cotton seeds are planted, to the harvesting of the cotton heads which are then sold overseas to manufacturers who wind it into thread. This thread is then sent to clothing manufacturing plants in places like India where women sit for hours sewing clothes together for less than a dollar an hour. And finally, these clothing items are then sent by ship back to America where it ultimately ends up in our stores and on our backs.
But let’s backtrack and explore the history of cotton farming, the effects it’s had on the life around us and ways in which this industry has worked to maintain its profit while often being at the expense of other living things. Lastly, we will look towards today’s current cotton farms and the shifting of current methods to that of organic. This is where the industry is heading, and thankfully, not a moment too soon.
Cotton has been around for over ten million years! Although we are unsure as to when and how it became domesticated, there are now over 50 species, four of which are domesticated. Two of these are used in the clothing industry including Gossypium hirsutum which is called the Upland species and is our regular cotton. The second species implicated in the textile industry is Gossypium barbadense, known to us as Egyptian cotton. Gossypium hirsutum accounts for 90% of the cotton grown and farms are located all over the world in at least 50 countries including the United States, India, China and Australia.
Cotton growing has accounted for the largest use of insecticides of all other crops grown. While 20 million cotton farms exist, 97% of them are in developed countries with a majority being run by low-income farmers. Due to heavy pesticide use, pesticide resistance has increased over the years which then requires even more pesticide use to combat this resistance. Pesticides also damage the soil which leads to infertility, stagnating yields and decreased profits. Insecticides that are used also affect other insects which are not targets including spiders, ants and bees. Also, due to the fact that much of the chemicals are dispersed by plane and aerosolized, this in turn leads to the chemicals landing on other animals and people outside of the farm area. In fact, 240,000 fish were found dead on the shore of an Alabama beach shortly after the farm application of a chemical called endosulfan and methyl parathion. After the spraying, heavy rains drove the chemicals into the water, killing the fish. In the state of California, cotton farming pesticide, insecticide and herbicide use was found to be the cause of one-third of all pesticide-related illnesses. Being that some of the chemicals used to grow traditional cotton were first formulated for chemical warfare, it is not surprising that their use has led to cancer and birth defects in animal populations surrounding their use. Overall, the increase use of pesticides has led to an increase in costs to the farmer and smaller profit. A newer method of farming was needed in order to maintain profitability. In order to improve yields and profits, cotton farmers then began utilizing GMO seeds on their farms.
Bt cotton, or genetically modified cotton (GMO), was first introduced by the company Monsanto in 1996 in the United States. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria of which it’s genetic code has been inserted into the cotton plant’s DNA. This DNA codes for a gene that produces the insect toxin called Cryl Ac toxin. Bt cotton is more resistant to natural pests and often yields larger crops with less variability. However, the seeds are good for only one season as the strength of the toxin produced will not last year after year. Therefore, farmers must purchase new seeds every year which can be very expensive. Over recent years, pests have developed resistance towards this Cryl Ac toxin. Because of this, farmers have gotten creative in their farming methods, growing patches of non-GMO cotton around the GMO cotton or intermixing it with the GMO cotton plots which in effect gives pests a place to go. While Bt cotton has shown some positive effects on crop yields and an improvement in the surrounding environment, rising costs for using these seeds has again been very expensive for farmers and in fact, almost unfeasible for smaller, low-income farmers.
All this being said, the latest trend in cotton farming that is slowing grabbing hold is organic farming in order for farmers to maintain their profits and livelihoods. Organic farming, which has a challenging start-up cost, ultimately leads to better profitability in the long run for farmers. With organic farming, pest management is performed using preventative measures such as using the more robust species Gossypium hirsutum, intermixing cotton crops with others such as maize and pigeon pea crops and using herbal pest repellants that are either home-brew or some combination of bacterial strains. Nutrient management is performed via farmyard manure, dung and crop residues, all of which are obtained and prepared on site. De-oiled castor and rock phosphates are used for soil nutrient enhancement. Weeding is done manually which adds to the higher cost of labor seen in organic farming. Without fertilizers, the input of phosphorus and nitrogen into the ground is less. However, this has not been shown to have a negative effect on crop yields as they have been similar to those seen in the older methods of farming. Crop profits are increased by using the same soil plots for growing wheat in the winter months. Because of all of these factors, organic cotton farming has the potential to decrease poverty and increase sustainability in developing countries. And for all farmers, an increase in profit over time is seen with a higher premium being paid for the organic cotton, up about 20% from that of conventional cotton. This plus not having to buy seeds annually, no royalties being paid for GMO seeds and no chemical costs all lead to more money for cotton farmers down the road once switching to organic cotton farming. While there is currently no official label used to identify organic cotton in our stores, certification is available to farmers, thus helping them to sell their stock more easily.
There is a thin line between being financially viable while also being environmentally responsible. Education and regulation are important factors in getting more farmers to switch over to this healthier type of farming. Farmers are much more likely to switch over once they are shown how their profit margins will increase. Education with regards to diversification of crops and its effect on water and soil quality could be convincing. But not only do farmers benefit but also populations of surrounding wildlife such as bees. In turn, for us the consumers wearing the organic cotton, we now have a chemical-free, healthier product touching our skin.
Public support of organic products in general is increasing due to our ever-pressing need to maintain the health of ourselves and our planet. The perceived health benefit along with a love for being outdoors also adds to the appeal. People are more likely to buy organic clothing products when their core values are in alignment with those of the companies from which they choose to purchase from. Companies that give a profit of their sales to environmental causes are especially appealing. The two organic clothing industries growing the quickest are sports and children’s clothing.
The comfort and breathability of organic fabric is constantly being improved. Often, 5% spandex is added to improve wearability by means of making it more comfortable on the body while also increasing its flexibility and movement. Bamboo terry fabrics, which are also environmentally friendly and are growing in popularity in children’s clothing, are known to be very warm. Wool animal fibers are now also starting to be seen in the market with the animals being fed a chemical-free diet with no antibiotics as well as being fed organically grown grain. Improvements are being seen all over in the organic clothing industry as this market continues to grow.
Cotton has been one of the most commercially exploited crops, being the 5th largest crop in the world and has been completely genetically modified. Cotton cropping will continue to exploit the genetics of this plant as some farmers will attempt to increase their production and quality. Organic cotton cropping offers an alternative for better yields and profits while also being healthier for people and the planet. As cotton continues to be the fabric of our lives, it is with great hope that this industry will continue to work towards better resource management and preservation while continuing to keep us warm and covered.
Talksoon Lovlies!! Be sure to subscribe to learn and see more! Also be sure to connect with me on Twitter @EF_GH or @Natalie_Lynn. My shop, which I now sell my own organic cotton fitness line is a great place to get started with your healthier clothing collection!