In my late teens I vowed to never wear synthetic fibers again...probably for a combination of reasons including a power struggle with my mom, learning about the manufacturing process of polyester and because it just feels good to wear cotton. I was able to remain ignorant of how bad cotton production can be for quite awhile, maybe even for a tad after I really did know. I have shopped for almost all of my clothing second-hand for years, hoping to alleviate my guilt over the tons of pesticides used globally for my comfy clothes. But cotton doesn’t just clothe us... it seems to end up on our bodies even when we’re naked. Cotton is in our lives at some pretty important times...like when we sleep, bathe and bleed. It is in our food supply too. Why do we not pay more attention to this important plant and its impact on our lives?
With over 25 million tons of cotton fiber grown worldwide in over 35 countries, how cotton is grown is something that we should pay attention to. Cotton is typically grown in a monoculture and is a very pesticide-intensive crop. Although it is only grown on about 2.5 percent of the world’s agricultural land, it uses 16 percent of all the insecticides and about 28 percent of all herbacides worldwide. Not only do these make it to our water supply and stay in the soil for generations, but they make it to us to, in that breathable fabric we love so much. Even in organically grown cotton fibers, traces of old school pesticide DDT (which has been banned since 1972 in the U.S.) have been found.
Organic cotton crops currently only make up roughly .76 percent of the global cotton production... that’s right, less than 1 percent. In 2003, only 12 U.S. farmers grew organic cotton. On the negative flip side, approximately 70 percent of the cotton grown in the U.S. is from genetically modified seed. When asked what their greatest challenges are to planting more organic cotton, farmers cited finding a market that will pay the value-added costs of organic products as well as the high cost of the transition to organic. Consumers and companies are starting to pay attention though. Like the trend seen in the organic food industry, huge corporations like Nike have introduced organic blends in their clothing lines and boast being one of the two largest commercial buyers of organic cotton. Two of our vendors, Maggie’s Organics and Organic Threads top Nike in their efforts, in my opinion (although maybe not in sheer quantity). Maggie’s uses a minimum of 80 percent organic fibers in their products (we usually only carry their socks) and is produced in worker-owned cooperatives. Organic Threads uses U.S.-grown organic cotton and is made here to boot.
This reminds me that however important the growth and processing practices of cotton are, they may not be the only things we should pay attention to. While the U.S. is third in conventional world cotton production, it is sixth in cotton processing. We are, however, number one in a couple other categories: exporting our raw cotton and importing goods. This delightful combo means we will grow cotton (with government subsides), ship it to other countries allowing cheap labor to make our products and have it shipped back to us. I dare you to try to “wear local.” Oh wait...did I say that out loud? Our new t-shirt vendor, Locally Grown Clothing Company, often chooses made-in-the-U.S. over organic as they have found the demand for organic cotton surpasses what is grown and processed here. Maybe you can wear local, once in a while.
Another alternative that a growing number of smart producers are utilizing is the creation and use of reclaimed or regenerated cotton. Regenerated cotton is basically pre-consumer waste from cotton processing and cotton product manufacturing, or the stuff factories used to burn or toss, made into pretty yarn. Rock n Socks uses regenerated cotton to make the delightfully funky striped socks we sell. They boast that every 2,200 pounds of recycled cotton yarns they use saves: 1,272 gallons of water, 36 pounds of chemicals, 515 pounds of CO2 emissions, 512 kwh of electricity and 4,695 acres of land, not to mention the avoidance of releasing 1,763 pounds of inert waste. I wish I could get that breakdown per sock. Many of their socks are on sale this month.
So maybe now is the time to start learning more not just about what we put in our bodies, but also what we put on our bodies. Organic and local doesn’t need to stop at our plates. Look at where and how the cotton products in your life are produced...or at least how much cotton is in your life.