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Benefits of Organic Cotton

Cheap clothing made of conventional cotton externalizes many costs, including environmental degradation and worker abuse. The benefits of organic cotton clothing include clean production, fair treatment of workers, and no toxic chemicals in your clothes!

Everyday Clothing and The Benefits of Organic Cotton

Here at Grinning Planet, we must be getting on a little on in years. We sometimes find ourselves yearning for the good old days of formal dances—the days of proper dress and improper advances. But we're not here to talk about the goofy sock-hops of yesteryear, but rather about the cotton fabrics in the clothes from then and now.

After World War II, the chemical pesticide industry grew out of the wartime nerve-gas industry, picture of hand near cotton plant and cotton bud and cotton was soon on its way to gaining the dubious distinction of becoming the crop with the most total pesticides applied to it. But before that, most cotton was grown without all those toxic pesticides—and yet somehow people managed to not go around naked!

Well, the history of cotton is not the point of this article. Rather, it is merely to point out the benefits of organic cotton in your clothing, whether your attire is simple and casual ... or Hollywood-style "avant weird". It's a guest article, offered by Saf, whose mission is to deliver high-quality, "proudly worn" clothing that is also responsible to people and the environment.

~    ~    ~

Pick Your Cotton Carefully
by by Jo-Rosie Haffenden for Saf

Industrial cotton takes a heavy toll on the environment:

  • Cotton accounts for only 3% of the world's crops, yet represents up to 25% of global insecticide use.
  • The average conventional cotton t-shirt uses almost half a pound of toxic chemicals in its production.
  • It takes 500 gallons of water to produce just one t-shirt made of conventional cotton. In some areas, conventional cotton is contributing heavily to water scarcity. In Central Asia, for instance, the demand for water to irrigate cotton fields is a major factor in the draining of the Aral Sea, which is now just 15% of its former size. This has been catastrophic for local fisherman—24 native species have disappeared. Even the cotton fields are now failing as rising salt residues (a side effect of long-term irrigation) render the land infertile. The United Nations describes the crisis in this area as one of the "most staggering disasters of the 20th century."

Farmers and clothing workers are also affected by the business practices used by some in the conventional cotton industry:

  • The biggest exporter of cotton to Europe is Uzbekistan. It has been widely documented that state-sponsored child labor is used in the cotton fields. Irresponsible environmental practices there have caused the UN to label Uzbekistan "one of the largest manmade environmental disasters."
  • Child cotton workers—a concept that is troubling even on its face—may be paid only 1 to 2 cents per pound for cotton that is valued at 50 cents (US) on the global market. In West Africa, child trafficking to provide child workers for cotton fields has been reported.
  • It's estimated that there are up to 5 million cases of pesticide poisoning every year among agricultural workers in developing countries, causing symptoms that include vomiting, headaches, impaired memory, confusion, tremors, lack of co-ordination, seizures, and severe depression. Every year, 20,000 of these cases result in death.

A number of clothing companies are urging an end to this epic ethical catastrophe and are supporting cotton suppliers that are certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). As well as guaranteeing that the cotton produced is organic (thus eliminating toxic pesticides and harsh processing chemicals), the standard includes an audit of the working conditions in the factory and verifies that:

  • Employment is freely chosen, and the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are respected.
  • Child labor is not used.
  • Regular employment is provided, living wages are paid, working hours are not excessive, and working conditions are safe and hygienic.
  • No discrimination is practiced, and no harsh or inhumane treatment is allowed.

The clothing industry is currently walking an ethical tightrope, with the media circus master cracking the whip at the chemical-laced fashion beast. But as the environmental and human toll mounts, we are on the verge of a cotton revolution.

Many companies are now embracing change and supporting the GOTS standard, and many consumers are recognizing the need to say "no" to toxic fashion. Some are also taking steps such as washing their organic cotton clothes in the greenest manner possible, and recycling packaging too!

Saf clothing is high-quality and proudly worn, created without toxic chemicals, according to the Global Organic Textile Standard. The company is committed to spreading the truth about the cotton industry, and encourages consumers to insist that the industry start to do business differently. Go here to read more about Saf and their organic cotton clothing.  

Grinning Planet Wrap-Up

There are a couple of other important problems with conventional cotton we think are worth mentioning:

  • The United States heavily subsidizes its cotton farmers, which allows the export of cotton at below-cost prices. This undermines small-scale cotton farmers in poorer nations, driving them out of business and into destitution. This predatory practice is not unique to cotton or the US, but this is a particularly egregious example.
  • Much of the non-organic cotton being grown today is "Bt cotton," which means the plants have been genetically engineered to contain a natural toxin that kills pests without spraying insecticides. While that sounds good on the surface, organic farmers have been using Bt successfully and judiciously (i.e. as needed, not routinely) on food crops for over a century. Because Bt cotton and other genetically engineered Bt crops constantly expose pests to the Bt toxin, the pests will soon develop resistance to Bt, rendering this critical pest-control method useless not only to organic farmers but also, ironically, to Bt crop farmers.

    Bt crops should be banned. Consumers can do their part by avoiding genetically modified food and fiber products (i.e. go organic!).

It's always tempting to go for the bargain bin at the clothing store and ignore pricier organic-cotton clothing. But the other stuff is only cheap because so many costs have been externalized. Organic cotton growers and clothing manufacturers take responsibility for all costs—financial, environmental, and human. They deserve our support.

Know someone who might like this article about the Benefits of Organic Cotton? Please forward it to them.

Publish date: 01-FEB-2009


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