The Shocking Truth About Cotton

The very last part of my eco-diva transformation was my wardrobe.  I’ve never been into the super trendy pieces, but rather focused on more simple designs that would last through the years.  Occasionally I splurged, of course, but for the most part I tried to be sustainable.  And I tried to stick to natural fabrics: cotton, bamboo, silk, wool, that kind of thing, thinking that the environmental impact would be less with fabrics like this than, say, rayon or polyester.

But after a little eye opening reading I was shocked to hear the truth about cotton.  Something that seemed so natural and safe is actually one of the worst fabrics out there that you can buy.  Here’s why:

Cotton is the most insecticide intensive crop in the world (WWF, WTO, and OTA).  2.5% of the world’s cultivated land is dedicated to cotton, but the crop uses 16% of the world’s insecticide.  This is more than any other single crop. (EJF. 2007, The Deadly Chemicals In Cotton, Environmental Justice Foundation, UK)  According to a list of insecticides released by the WTO, three of the most common insecticides used in cotton production rate among the top ten most hazardous chemicals to human health.  Aldicarb, for example, can kill a grown man by having just one drop absorbed topically through the skin (OTA).  This chemical is used in the US as well as around the world, but it has been found in the groundwater of 16 US states (OTA).  Pesticides are also used extensively in cotton crops with about 10% of the world’s pesticides being dedicated to cotton.  According to the USDA, cotton is the third highest pesticide heavy crop (2007).

It get’s worse.  Synthetic nitrogen based fertilizers are one of the most environmentally harmful fertilizers through runoff and leeching into fresh water pools, streams and lakes.  Nitrogen emissions from all sources including fertilzers are a major green house gas emission that is 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide (Kramer, S. et al, 2006, Reduced Nitrate Leeching and Enhanced Denitrifier Activity and Efficiency in Organically Fertilized Soils, PNAS).  One t-shirt requires a little less than one pound of cotton; that one pound of cotton requires approximately 1/3 of a pound of synthetic fertilzers (Lauresn, S, et al, 2007, Environmental Assessment of Textiles, Danish Environmental Protection Agency).

The hull around the cotton that is harvested for clothing is also sold as a food commodity.  This hull is the part that absorbes a fair amount of those nasty pesticides.  It is estimated that approximately 65% of these cottonseed hulls work their way back into the food industry though either food oil or by animal milk and meat because it can be used in animal feed.  A study done in Brazil and Nicaragua (the area of the world that produces 75% of the world’s cotton and therefore gets the most exposure to all of the chemicals) found pesticides in cow meat and milk (EJF, 2007, The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton, Envrionmental Justice Foundation, UK).

Scary, no?  I don’t know about you, but suddenly organically grown cotton sounds like it’s worth the money.


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