All About Cotton
The rising worldwide tide of environmental concern has grabbed the attention of the fashion industry as well as the hip and savvy clothes shopper. Amongst the materials green designers are choosing to work with now, organic cotton is the frontrunner, ahead of hemp and bamboo. Organic cotton is even thought to have it's own positive "chi or energy by some holistic practitioners, but is it really a great environmental choice?
Cotton cultivated by non-organic methods is one of the most polluted crops in the world. The conventional cotton industry uses tremendous amounts of chemicals, pesticides and herbicides to produce cotton. The Pesticide Action Network (PAN) reports that 8-10% of all pesticides, and 22.5-25% of all insecticides are specifically used on cotton worldwide, however the total area used to farm cotton crops is only 2.4% of all earth's cultivated land. That's quite a disparity: the pesticide and insecticide use for cotton production is way out of proportion – breaking it down, this means that approximately 150 grams of pesticides and insecticides are used to produce the cotton for a conventional t-shirt.
In an effort to minimise this chemical overdosing, the planting of genetically modified organism (GMO) cotton has become widespread – constituting approximately 20% of the worldwide cotton acreage and a staggering 80% in the US and Australia. One form of GMO cotton is modified so that the plant can better tolerate the application of one of the active ingredient in most commercial herbicides, glyphosate, so that it can be applied more freely. The other GMO cotton, Bt cotton, is modified to be pest resistant, but this can and does lead to increasing populations of Bt-resistant insects and arguably it can also impact biodiversity in the area. The result of GMO crops? An increase in yield but not necessarily a reduction in synthetic chemical use!
Organic cotton is grown without pesticides, chemicals or herbicides using untreated and unmodified seeds. The practice of growing organically is systemically good – it builds strong soil through crop rotation; helps soil retain water efficiently through increased organic matter in the soil; promotes biodiversity and maintains a healthy balance between "pests" and their natural predators, also known as beneficial insects.
Once the cotton is ready to harvest organic methods again win hands down – conventional cotton is harvested after it has been defoliated with yet more chemicals, while organic farmers use seasonal changes or water management to stimulate natural defoliation.
After harvesting, the toxic impact of conventional cotton continues to build with the use of up to 8,000 additional chemicals including such things as chlorine bleaches, formaldehyde (to prevent creasing) and heavy metals. These chemicals are used throughout a series of processes including washing, bleaching, dyeing and printing; the behind the scenes peek at the life of a simple, conventional cotton t-shirt.
Organic finishing processes try to eliminate chemical use wherever possible, but inevitably there are some chemicals used, particularly in the dyeing or bleaching of fabrics. In general all the chemicals used in "eco-finishing" are water-soluble. Organic cotton fabrics that have been whitened use hydrogen peroxide. Coloured organic cotton fabrics will most certainly have been exposed to chemicals. However many fabric producers are using an "eco-dye" standard, the Oeko-Tex standard 100, which certifies that harmful substances have been screened in their production. Research is also currently underway to find ways to use and fix vegetable dyes without the use of harmful chemicals.
Cotton is the biggest selling natural fibre in the world, accounting for around 40% of the world fibre market, yet less than 1% of that is organically grown and processed. However demand for organic cotton is at an all time high, with major brands such as Nike, Levi's and The Gap integrating organic cotton into their products. So the future outlook is bright (but not bleached).
Our advice to you: When wearing organic cotton it is best to wear organic that hasn't been bleached or coloured. But it's always better to wear organic cotton than regular cotton. So use your commercial clout, vote with your feet and join the growing crowd of hip shoppers demanding organic cotton.
For more, check out the companies in our Fashion & Clothing directory.