Consumer Guide to Organic Cotton
Clothing and Bedding


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Compiled from various sources by Robyn Landis. See links at bottom.


What if you discovered that the pound of conventionally grown cotton used to make your tee shirt was sprayed with almost a third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides as it grew? Or that it took more than a pound of agri-chemicals to produce that set of conventional cotton sheets on your queen-sized bed? You might be appalled to realize that you were unknowingly contributing to the damage agri-chemicals do to people, wildlife, and the environment. And did you know that some cotton bedding and clothing is treated with a chemical "finish" that may include formaldehyde and other noxious chemicals?

A few years ago, some independent thinking, environmentally concerned cotton farmers started asking themselves some serious questions about the methods of conventional cotton farming. After years of intensive pesticide and herbicide use, they could no longer ignore the negative effects these chemicals were having on the environment. The grim reality is that over 20 million pounds of chemicals are sprayed on conventional cotton crops annually. Many of these chemicals seep into our ground water, or form a toxic runoff endangering our rivers and streams. The organic cotton farmers are converting back to methods used before all these high tech chemical compounds were available. Old techniques like crop rotation, and reintroduction of predator insects like ladybugs and spiders are again proving viable.

Curious about the origins of that conventional cotton tee shirt? Cotton is the world''s favorite natural fiber and accounts for about three percent of all cultivated land in the world. What's shocking is that cotton cultivation accounts for 25 percent of the world's yearly pesticide use and 10 percent of its annual herbicide use. Some of the agri-chemicals used on cotton are listed among the most hazardous pollutants by the Environmental Protection Agency. Conventionally grown cotton is so full of pesticides that in California farmers can no longer legally use the leftover leaves and stems to feed their livestock. Cotton farmers typically apply some 300 pounds of pesticides and other agri-chemicals to an acre of cotton, from which they harvest about 1,000 pounds of fiber. Using crop dusters to aim this chemical spray at the crops is an inefficient and hazardous business as well. Neighboring food crops and the workers who tend them are subjected to the wake of pesticide carried on the wind. According to some estimates, 75 percent or more of the pesticides released by crop dusters miss the cotton entirely. This toxic process often contaminates an entire farming region.

Fortunately, other options for cotton production are available--and they work. Through the efforts of organizations such as the Sustainable Cotton Project in California's Central Valley and the Organic Trade Association's Organic Fiber Council, cotton farmers are making the transition from conventional to organic cotton growth and learning natural ways to maximize crop yields while reducing water and chemical use. For example, organic farmers have several new techniques to manage their fields without resorting to dangerous chemical pesticides. Rather than eliminating all insects, the farmers are introducing friendly bugs that destroy insect pests, sparing workers and wildlife from exposure to toxic chemicals. Farmers are learning to use organic compost and cover crops in place of harsh chemical fertilizers to encourage a healthy cotton crop. Special weeding techniques and nontoxic compounds keep hazardous defoliants and herbicides out of their fields. Using these methods, many farmers find that they are saving money both on pesticides and on water while realizing equal or better annual crop yields. The organic fiber that results is both stronger and softer than conventionally grown cotton.

The market for organic cotton fiber is still young and somewhat volatile. Although the U.S. now has tens of thousands of acres planted in organic cotton (organic cotton is also being grown in Egypt and elsewhere), if a huge cotton buyer like Nike or The Gap were to decide to go totally organic, it would be years before farmers could grow enough organic cotton to meet the demand. (Certification processes often take three years, for example.) In fact, a few large companies have taken tentative steps toward organic cotton, using small percentages of organic cotton in their cotton blends. Dozens of smaller clothing companies, however, have fully embraced organic cotton and offer various types of well-designed and comfortable clothes made from 100 percent organic cotton.

Organic Cotton: Facts & Figures

Cotton is the most pesticide dependent crop in the United States. (USDA) In one year alone, 811 million pounds of pesticides were used on U.S. agricultural fields -- 50 million pounds on cotton alone. (USDA)

The world's largest cash crop, cotton accounts for nearly 25% of the world's total crop insecticide use. (I.A.S.A.)

The EPA has found 98 different pesticides in the groundwater in 40 states, contaminating the drinking water of over 10 million residents. (Greenpeace)

California alone uses 6,000 tons of pesticides on cotton in a single year. (P.A.N.)

Cotton has been cultivated for about 4,000 years. Only in the past 50 years have cotton crops been cultivated with pesticides. (IFOAM)

35% of quail living near cotton fields sprayed with methyl parathion had enough insecticide in their bodies to cause sickness or death. (NC Coop Ext. Svc.)

Organic farming has increased tenfold since 1980 and organic industry grew more than 22% in 1994 reaching sales of $2.3 billion. (O.F.R. Foundation)

A pound of conventionally grown cotton used to make a tee shirt is sprayed with almost a third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides as it grew

It took more than a pound of agri-chemicals to produce that set of conventional cotton sheets on your queen-sized bed.

Singing to the choir with some of you; others who may think the idea of organic cotton clothing silly, impractical or extreme might give it another look. This is a compilation--I've seen bits of and pieces of this many other places, but someone pulled the key stuff together nicely here. For where to buy, email me any time. I keep a good list, including websites.  It's really easy to buy this way, and easy NOT to buy virgin conventional-grown cotton. I haven't for years--and you know my clothes are as cute as the next person's!  8)


The Truth about Cotton

In 1994, at least 50 million pounds of pesticides and over one billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers were used in just six major cotton growing states.

Cotton is the second most pesticide-laden crop in the world after coffee and before tobacco.

The world's cotton crop represents approximately 3% of all cultivated land. This same crop utilizes 25% of the world's annual pesticide production, and 10% of the annual herbicide production.

Many of the pesticides used on cotton in the U.S. (examples: cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin) are KNOWN cancer-causing chemicals. Many of the pesticides are classified by the U.S. EPA as Category I and II, the most dangerous chemicals.

It is estimated that it takes approximately 1/4 to 1/3 pound of chemicals to grow enough cotton to make just one T-shirt.

In the U.S. today, it takes approximately 8-10 years, and $100 million, to develop a new pesticide for use on cotton. It takes approximately 5-6 years for weevils and other pests to develop an immunity to a new pesticide.

Cottonseed, the by-product of ginning cotton fiber, accounts for 60% of the yield from each harvest. The cottonseed is where the most concentrated amounts of pesticide residues remain. Some of this cottonseed is made into oil--the oil you read on the ingredient labels of many cookies, cakes, and snacks. Some of this cottonseed is sent to our dairies and cattle ranches. This chemical cottonseed also 'enriches' the butterfat in dairy, and marbles the beef that you eat.

In California, it is now illegal to feed the leaves, stems, and short fibers of cotton known as 'gin trash' to livestock, because of the concentrated levels of pesticide residue. Instead, this gin trash is used to make furniture, mattresses, swabs, cotton balls and tampons. (The average American woman will use 11,000 tampons or sanitary pads during her lifetime. Buy organic, non-chlorine feminine care products!)

During a tour of California's San Joaquin valley, where over 18 million pounds of pesticides are sprayed annually onto one million acres of cotton, a group stopped at two enormous toxic settlement ponds, where contaminated water from the fields is drained and left to seep into the soil. This water contains huge concentrations of salt, selenium, boron and pesticide runoff, which has caused serious damage to soil and groundwater. "(This land) will never be usable again" says Will Allen, of the Sustainable Cotton Project. "And I don't mean in our lifetimes; I mean forever."

In California's San Joaquin Valley, estimates are that less than 25% of a pesticide sprayed from a crop duster ever hits the crop. The remainder can drift for several miles, coming to rest on fruit and vegetable crops, as well as farm workers. One year, more than one hundred workers fell seriously ill after a single incident of such drift onto an adjacent vineyard.

One of the commonly used pesticides on cotton throughout the world, endosulfan, leached from cotton fields into a creek in Lawrence County, Alabama, during heavy rains in 1995. Within days 245,000 fish were killed over a 16-mile stretch. 142,000 pounds of endosulfan were used in California in 1994.

The problems with clothing production don't stop in the field. During the conversion of conventional cotton into clothing, numerous toxic chemicals are added at each stage--silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde, to name just a few.

Why Organic: Buy organic and help save yourself and the environment from pesticides and heavy metal dyes. Why wear clothes or buy conventional cotton products that financially support a toxic farming and manufacturing industry that is polluting the air, water and earth? Do you want to pay to support the genetic modification of other life forms and additionally pollute the environment with genetically modified pollen or pay to have countless friendly insects poisoned with up to 78 different pesticides? Then shift as completely as you can to organic and help save the Earth!


Why unbleached? Bleach is listed as a pesticide on the EPA website and it is toxic to the environment plus it breaks down into other toxic chemicals that hurt animals and the earth.


Why un-dyed? Most dyes contain toxic chemicals and or heavy metals. Do you really want heavy metal dyes touching your skin? Those dyes also come out of fabrics while you wash clothes and then go down your drain and back to the environment and pollute wild life, humanity and the earth. If you want it dyed you can dye it naturally with coffee, berries or green tea and have fun doing it.

Remember: You vote with your dollars, so vote organic and help save the earth!

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   "The problems with clothing production don't stop in the field. During the conversion of conventional cotton into clothing, numerous toxic chemicals are added at each stage--silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde, to name just a few."

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