Is it really that important to buy organic cotton?
Even with all my earth-loving, organic food-buying ways, I actually didn't really think too much about organic vs non-organic clothing until a couple years ago. It's nice if you can do it, I thought, but it's not like I'm eating the clothes, so how much does it really matter? Turns out, just like everything else, the issue extends well beyond the scope of me and my tiny closet. Organic cotton (or as our grandparents called it, "cotton") needs to go back to being the norm and I explain why below.
By the way, I'd really recommend listening to the COTTON episode of the podcast Conscious Chatter. The host, Kestral, interviews an organic cotton farmer in Texas, and the episode really helped me understand the complex issues behind organic vs conventional cotton. The farmer sums it up nicely when she says that organic farming is about life, while conventional farming is about death. She was mainly talking about chemicals and the contrasting methods of dealing with pests, but I think it makes sense on other levels as well. Consider that as you read my top 6 reasons why reason why we need to actively be supporting organic cotton farming:
More chemicals are used on cotton than any other plant in the world. The Organic Trade Association estimates that 25% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides are used exclusively on cotton crops. (!!!) For the amount of space a cotton crop takes up, this means it’s considered one of the worlds most chemical-intensive crops. The health effects on the workers in the fields (many cotton crops are still harvested by hand), during production, as well as in the surrounding communities, is devastating. In the US alone it is estimated that 10,000 farmers die each year from pesticide/insecticide-related illnesses. It is also estimated that these chemicals kill more than 67 million birds each year in the US.
Many cotton fields use forced child labor. You may have heard about the child labor used to pick cotton in Uzbekistan. Well, it still goes on to this day. Each Fall around 2 million citizens, including school children and the elderly, are bused to the cotton fields to fill a quota. The director of the Central Asia bureau of Human Rights Watch says about this, “Uzbekistan is one of the only places we know of in the world where forced labor is actually organized and enforced by the government, and the president himself is acting as a trafficker in chief.” The citizens are forced to breathe in the chemical-laden air as they work and respiratory diseases, cancers, birth defects, and immunological disorders are rampant in the area.
Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops on earth. While cotton’s need for water is unavoidable, organic cotton crops are grown in a way that uses less water.
The toxic chemicals from conventional cotton affect your health. Many people get rashes, headaches, allergies, and dizziness from the chemicals trapped in the threads. Time to rethink those conventional cotton tampons too...
Monsanto’s monopoly on conventional cotton hurts farmers. The GM seed and pesticide giant Monsanto owns the patent for Bt Cotton--a genetically modified cotton seed that produces a toxin harmful to typical cotton plant pests. In theory, using Bt cotton reduces the need for pesticides and other chemicals. But studies have now shown that purchasing and using Bt Cotton can actually cost nine times as much as growing cotton organically--something that farmers (especially those barely making a living off their small farms) cannot afford and should not be coerced into using. The Bt Cotton seed also cannot be used more than once, which means farmers must re-purchase the seed every year. In India, where Monsanto has been pushing its Bt crops since their introduction in 2002, farmer bankruptcy, depression, and suicide rates have increased dramatically. Though the direct link between farmer suicides and Monsanto technically remains unproven, the fact that all over the world farmers have adamantly opposed Monsanto’s crops should tell you how beneficial they are to the farmers and their land.
Conventional cotton crops eventually make the land unusable. After several years of toxic chemicals poisoning the soil, the land the crops are grown on becomes “burned” or unable to be used again (for any type of crop), forcing the farmer to abandon that plot of land. Organic farming however, through using chemical-free methods of growing, assures that land will not become useless.
Cotton is celebrated for being a “natural fiber,” but much like leather, after being doused with a multitude of toxic chemicals, causing health problems and the deaths of people and animals, as well as environmental poisoning, it turns out conventionally-grown and produced cotton shouldn’t really be considered “natural” after all.
Luckily smaller independent designers as well as major brands are wising up to the worldwide demand for organic cotton, including Ikea and H&M, who recently became the world’s #1 buyer of organic cotton. STILL, organic cotton only accounts for 1% of the world’s cotton, so we can and must use our power as consumers to demand more. Each time you vote with your dollars by buying organic, you are supporting that brand who holds the same values as you.