Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Cotton - From Field to Fashion (Part of The Fall Eco-Fashion Series..)
In conversations that I've had before I researched organic clothing I often used the term “natural clothing” to refer to organic clothing because the clothing is completely natural and was not grown with any toxic chemicals nor manufactured using toxic chemicals. But what I've learnt is that natural fiber clothing simply refers to clothing made from fibers found in nature, such as cotton, wool or hemp, which may not be grown or manufactured under conditions which would allow them to be certified as organic.
Natural fibers fall into three main groups: vegetable fibers which come from plants; protein fibers, which come from the wool and hair of animals; and the strong elastic fibrous secretion of silkworm larvae in cocoons which is used to create silk. The most common natural fibers used to make clothing are cotton, hemp, ramie, linen, lyocell / Tencel, wool, and silk.
Cotton – hero or villain?
When we think about global warming, growing cancer rates, deepening poverty in some of the world’s poorest countries, and even increasing chemical sensitivities, our clothes closets are probably not the first villain that comes to mind, but our clothes can be a significant, the quiet co-conspirator.
Cotton evokes images of white, fluffy purity and many people think of cotton as being a natural, pure fabric. Versatility, softness, breath-ability, absorbency, year-round comfort, performance, and durability are just a few of the qualities that have earned cotton its popular status. Cotton has a unique fiber structure which can absorb up to 27 times its own weight in water; it breathes and helps remove body moisture by absorbing it and wicking it away from the skin.
It reminds me of that cool white cotton shirt on a hot indian summer afternoon.
But, the global cotton industry has a worldwide Dark Side of which most of us are not aware as we fill our shopping bags with inexpensive cotton shirts from major clothing stores.
The simple act of conventionally growing and harvesting the one pound of cotton fiber needed to make a T-shirt takes an enormous and devastating toll on the earth’s air, water, and soil that impacts global health.
Conventionally grown cotton
Farmers in the United States apply nearly one-third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for every pound of cotton harvested. When all nineteen cotton-growing states are tallied, cotton crops account for twenty-five percent of all the pesticides used in the U.S. Perspective, just 2.4% of the world's arable land is planted with cotton yet it accounts for 24% of the world's insecticide market and 11% of global pesticides sales, making it the most pesticide-intensive crop grown on the planet.
The health of our planet has been adversely affected by pesticides. The pesticides and synthetic fertilizers used on cotton routinely contaminate groundwater, surface water and pollute the water we drink. Fish, birds and other wildlife are also affected by the movement of these chemicals through the ecosystem.
Organically grown cotton
Working with rather than against nature is the guiding principle behind organic farming. Organic farmers use biologically-based rather than chemically dependent growing systems to raise crops. While many conventional farmers are reacting to the ecological disorder created by monocultures, organic farmers focus on preventing problems before they occur. By focusing on managing rather than completely eliminating troublesome weeds and insects, organic farmers are able to maintain ecological balance and protect the environment. Organic cotton is now being grown in more than 18 countries worldwide. In the United States, approximately 10,000 acres of organic cotton were planted in 1998 in the Mid-South, Texas and California.
• In Peru, cotton farmers have saved over $100 per acre in pesticide and fertilizer costs by switching over to organic production.
• In Tanzania organic cotton farmers plant sunflowers to encourage beneficial ants that feed on the larvae of the bollworm, and fertilize the soil with manure from their cattle.
• In India organic farmers intercrop cotton with pigeon peas and make insecticidal sprays from garlic, chili and the neem tree.
• In California, organic cotton farmers plant habitat strips of vegetation such as alfalfa near their fields as a refuge for beneficial insects. These natural alternatives are used to reduce and eliminate the toxic consequences found in conventional cotton fabric manufacturing.
For more information on this and related topics, please visit these sites:
Organic Consumers Association: An informative site that campaigns for food safety, organic agriculture, fair Trade, and sustainability.
Institute Of Science In Society: For articles on the science related to the hazards of genetically engineered cotton and other agricultural products.
USDA Organic Rules implementing the U.S. Organic Foods Production Act were finalized in December 2000. The word "organic" on U.S. products means that the ingredients and production methods have been verified by an accredited certification agency as meeting or exceeding USDA standards for organic production.