If you think cotton is a safe choice because it is "natural", think again. Here are some cold hard facts about the cotton you may be dressing yourself and your kids in…
Until about half a century ago, cotton growing mainly involved sustainable techniques: it did not permanently deplete resources or create health hazards. With an increase in the world’s demand for cotton at cheaper costs, this has lead to new techniques that aren’t great for us or the environment.
The pesticides used on regular cotton increasingly threaten people, wildlife and the environment around us. Most pesticides were originally developed as toxic nerve agents during the second world war so it is no wonder they have been linked to many forms of cancers and other illnesses.
Conventionally grown cotton occupies only 3% of the world's farmland, but uses 25% of the world's chemical pesticides!
A year 2000 USDA study revealed that 84 million pounds (or 36.7 million kilograms) of pesticides were sprayed on cotton in the USA alone, ranking it second worst offender behind corn. Some of these toxic chemicals include the defoliant Paraquat and insecticides like Parathion which is 60x more toxic that DDT! The EPA considers 7 of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton as "likely" or "known" human carcinogens.
It is estimated that less than 10% of the chemicals applied to cotton accomplish their task, the rest are absorbed into the plant, air, soil, water and eventually, our bodies. Sprayed from the air, these highly toxic chemicals can drift into surrounding neighbourhoods, poison farm workers, contaminate air, ground and surface water and cause major eco-system imbalances.
As insects and pests gradually become more resilient to pesticides, increasing amounts are applied to be effective, resulting in massive ecological disasters and crop failures. These hazardous pesticides also pose an increasing danger to wildlife. A 1993 EPA study estimated that 1 to 2 million birds are killed annually by carbofuran, just one insecticide used on cotton!
Conventional cotton is also a major user of toxic herbicides, fungicides and defoliants. During processing, it is subjected to chlorine bleaches, heavy metal dyes and formaldehyde resins (the hidden hazard of “easy care treatments”). The bleach is almost worse than pesticides, causing myriad health problems and vast environmental damage.
So why is “Organic” better?
Organic cotton is a return to safe and sustainable practices. It is grown with natural fertilizers and is free from toxic chemicals.
Organic farmers rely on crop rotation (this means not planting the same crop in the same place year after year) to replenish and maintain soil fertility.
Mechanical cultivation and botanical or biological means are used to control pests and weeds instead of nasty chemicals.
It is good to know a field must be pesticide-free for at least three years to be certified organic, and the cotton must be processed according to international organic standards. The standards also set strict guidelines for transportation and storage to avoid cross-contamination.
Some of the benefits of organic cotton are:
Manual farming and organic practices have a lower carbon footprint as the entire process consumes less fuel and energy and emits fewer greenhouse gases.
Grown with natural rather than synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, no chemical defoliants used.
Not from genetically modified cottonseed.
Eco-friendly processing that does not compromise workers' health and helps reduce water and electric use and toxic runoff, eg. non-chlorine bleach, silicon-free softeners and low impact, azo-free dyes.
Strict testing ensures the absence of contaminants like nickel, lead, formaldehyde, amines, pesticides and heavy metals.
People with allergies and chemical sensitivity especially benefit from organic cotton clothing, as conventional cotton may retain harmful toxic residues.
Even if you don't have sensitive skin or allergies, organic cotton will just feel better against your skin.