Cotton is often referred to as “the fabric of our lives,” and for good reason. We come in contact with items made from cotton every day. The clothes you wear, the sheets you sleep on, the diapers you put on your baby and even some of the food you eat have been made with cotton. But growing conventional cotton requires the use of enormous amounts of pesticides, which has a huge environmental impact and presents health risks for those working around it. It may cost less to manufacture and buy conventional cotton, but it’s better for the land, the farm workers and your well-being to choose organic whenever possible.
What Is Organic Cotton?
According to the Organic Trade Association, organic cotton is grown without the use of toxic pesticides or fertilizers. Methods such as beneficial insect releases, strip cutting of alfalfa and new weeding machinery help reduce the environmental impact of cotton crops. Third-party organizations certify that organic cotton farms use only these approved methods and do not spray toxic chemicals on their crops. In 2004, 6,814 bales of organic cotton were harvested in the United States, which is about 3.2 million pounds. That is compared to this year’s estimate of total U.S. cotton production of 19.2 million bales — over 9 trillion pounds. Globally, it is estimated that 120.5 million bales of cotton will be harvested.
Cotton and the Environment
About 25 percent of the world’s insecticide use and more than 10 percent of the world’s pesticide goes to cotton crops. In 2003, that amounted to about 55 million pounds of pesticides being sprayed on 12.8 million acres of cotton, according to the Organic Trade Association. Some of these chemicals are considered to be the most toxic chemicals in the world. The health risks of pesticide exposure include birth defects, reproductive disorders and weaker immune systems.
In many countries, cotton is still hand picked; therefore anyone working in those fields is exposed to extreme amounts of toxic chemicals. The chemicals can also affect others in the community once they have seeped into the water supply. With so many products made from cotton, we are all exposed to these chemicals at some point. Even some baked goods, cookies and salad dressing contain cottonseed.
Water use is another issue with conventional cotton production. Crops use intensive irrigation and some estimates say cotton crops are the largest water user among agricultural crops.
Besides helping the environment, there are other benefits from organic cotton products. Working environments are better for those on farms and small-scale farmers save money by not having to buy large amount of pesticides. Consumers benefit too, some suggest that organic cotton products are softer and easier on your skin. Recent awareness of these benefits has increased demand of organic cotton and thus, lowered its cost.
Many companies now have organic cotton products. The Gap has introduced a baby Gap organic collection and in 2007 released a new line of men’s shirts. Women can find a variety of jeans and skirts made with organic cotton from Levi’s Eco. For your home, see Bed Bath & Beyond’s organic products. The Organic Cotton Directory is a great resource for finding other organic products