Cotton is woven into the warp of American history. The first mass consumer commodity, cotton has remained central to our economy since the 1700's. It's credited with bringing commercial ascendancy to New York City, fostering trade worldwide, initiating the Industrial Revolution, fueling slavery and sparking the Civil War. However it's been manipulated by human hands, the plant itself - dating back 7,000 years - is essential to our existence.
America is now the third largest producer of cotton in the world - and our country's third largest cash crop. Growing up in Texas, I remember field trips to nearby cotton farms, plucking the boll straight from the bur, indistinguishable from a store-bought cotton ball. 20 years later, in my search for sustainable fabrics, I was led right back to these farms in Lubbock, TX, growing GOTS certified organic cotton.
If the conversation about organic vs. conventional seems like a 90's throwback, then fashion is still medieval in comparison to the food industry. Food and fashion have the same environmental, social and personal impact. We've learned how important it is to eat organically, for the planet's health and for our health, and yet our closets don't reflect those values. Education is the first step towards awareness and change. Below I'll speak to the differences between conventional and organic cotton so you may come to your own conclusions about implementing sustainability in the wardrobe!
- Conventionally grown GMO cotton is in the 4 most toxic crops in the world. It accounts for 25% of the world's insecticide use, more than any other crop - just one T-shirt takes 1/3 lb. of pesticides. In the US alone, more than 10,000 farmers die each year from chemical-related cancers. These pesticides seep into soil and waterways, polluting our ecosystem, killing wildlife and circling back to our food sources, creating disease and developmental disabilities.
- Organically grown cotton adopts an entirely different approach to pest management by establishing a diverse and balanced farm ecosystem. Strategies include crop rotation which prevents rapid pest increase associated with monoculture farming, promotion of the natural enemies of cotton pests, trap crops which divert pests, and natural pesticides like neem extract and chrysanthemum.
- Cotton requires intensive water irrigation. In mono-crop culture like conventional cotton farming, soil is depleted and incapable of retaining moisture. Water pollution is also a serious side-effect of conventional farming and it's inherent chemicals.
- Organic cotton is a rotation crop, intentionally designed to maintain the soil's nutrients and better retain water, requiring less irrigation - organic cotton is 80% rain-fed. Over time, it uses 71% less water. Synthetic pesticides are not allowed, so there's no pollution to soil,
waterways and wildlife.
- From seed to shirt, conventional cotton relies on numerous harsh chemicals, including bleach and formaldehyde, which irritate our largest organ - skin. These chemicals also weaken the fibers, resulting in less durability and longevity. Conventional cotton is harvested by machine, which also compromises the fiber and reduces softness.
- Organic cotton is processed without harsh chlorine and chemicals, using natural oils and starches instead, resulting in safe, hypo-allergenic products for skin and increased fiber longevity. Organic cotton is picked by hand, preserving the integrity of the fiber, resulting in softer, more durable products.
Overall, organic cotton farming reduces global warming, energy demand, pollution, erosion, water consumption, carcinogenic chemicals, and is always non-GMO. Yet currently, less than 1% of our cotton is grown organically. It takes more time, skill and hands-on labor to produce organic cotton, and is therefore slightly more expensive for consumers.
Our purchasing power can influence the industry to switch to a more regenerative supply chain. Cotton is still an energy-intensive crop, and so the "less, but better" approach, along with choosing organic,
is still most sustainable.
Cotton's entanglement in human history gives it a complex narrative, but in it's pure state, it's one of our closes allies. May we learn to steward it with more wisdom and compassion for the benefit of all!
That's all for now!
"Let me hear it for the cotton fields..."
- The Beach Boys