Published: April 17, 2017 Updated: February 21, 2023 6 min read
Unfortunately, in today's world, naturally occurring organisms aren’t enough to make a piece of clothing eco-friendly. It’s important to also buy organic. When natural fibers are not labeled as organic it means they are treated with pesticides, specifically insecticides to kill bugs, herbicides to keep weeds away, and synthetic fertilizers to ensure crops grow big and strong. That’s a lot of chemicals! We go out of our way to eat organically, but what we wear is just as important. Some sources cite cotton alone for being responsible for 15% - 25% of the world's pesticide use. We can all agree that these chemicals are bad for us and the environment with negative if not detrimental impacts.
Cotton production is by far the most widely used and farmed natural fiber in the fashion industry. Since we use so much of it, it is important to understand how non-organic cotton farming effects environments, ecosystems, people, and entire food chains.
WATER CONTAMINATION - All the chemicals that help the plants grow and that keep insects and other plants away seep into the ground and are washed away into nearby water sources where they will contaminate not only the soil by groundwater for years
CHEMICAL RESISTANCE - After a while, the plants and insects that are being killed off by the herbicides and pesticides become resistant to chemicals. This leads to stronger and more toxic chemicals being introduced.
DECREASED BIODIVERSITY - When the herbicides and pesticides do work and kill everything in their path there is a decrease in biodiversity. The wipeout of entire species in an ecosystem creates a gap for new species to fill, this throws off entire foodchains and creates new “pest problems” which need new chemicals to contain.
GMO SEEDS - These seeds are problematic environmentally and economically. Environmentally, GMO plants are able to contaminate natural plant populations and create permanent genetic changes in seeds and future plants. GMO plants are also stronger and more resistant to chemicals, this allows farmers to use even higher doses of chemical herbicides on them (don’t be fooled, herbicides harm animals too, not only the plants they are intended to kill) - the GMO plant will thrive despite the chemicals while all other plants will be killed. Economically, in India, the GMO seeds allowed for an above average harvest, the large supply drove the prices of cotton down, however the production costs never decreased, and the farmers were not able to make enough money to support their farms and pay back loans. Farmers are going into debt because their yields are too good.
SOIL SALINIZATION - Non-organic cotton farming requires large amounts of water, more than the soil can naturally handle. The salts in the water build up over time and this lead to salty unusable farmland.
MONOCROP FARMING - Non-organic cotton is grown as a monocrop. The problem with monocrop farming is that the one crop will completely deplete the soil of nutrients needed for that specific crop to grow. This leads to soil degradation, which leads to smaller yields, which leads to the farmers desperate solution of increasing their dependency on GMO seeds which can be engineered to grow high yield crops in poor soil quality, thus perpetuating the negative cycle.
TOXIC FUMES - Farmers are exposed to the toxic chemicals during crop spraying and factory workers breathe in the toxic fumes while fibers are being cleaned and treated in hot steamy solutions. People in third world countries are poisoned from these chemicals, The United Nations an estimated 200,000 acute deaths per year worldwide are caused by pestisides—a number that is most likely grossly understate
LINGERING CHEMICALS ON OUR CLOTHES - Chemicals sometimes are not fully washed off clothing and can be absorbed by the skin causing skin rashes, headaches, and potentially still unknown side effects
Cotton is not considered a food crop, this means that harsher more toxic chemicals can be used on the plants because the end use in not for human consumption, BUT, there is a food loophole, and it’s called “gin trash”. Gin trash is the cotton seed, stalk, leaves, burrs, twigs, dirt and everything else that are not used in cotton textile production.
The gin trash is allowed to be added to livestock feed to fed to farm animals. The same farm animals that are supplying our meat, milk and dairy are actually on a steady diet of not fit for human consumption cotton trash. The chemicals do not go away, they are then passed onto us through these animals products.
There is another loophole for cotton to enter our food supply, that is cottonseed oil and cellulose extracted from cotton fibers. Although cotton is not a food, when it is processed into oil or cellulose it is considered to be food quality. This means, you guessed it, those super chemicals that we thought no one would be consuming are being repurposed and added to our food.
Everyone is using this stuff - Kraft uses it in their salad dressings, Organic Valley in their shredded cheese. So what can you do? Stick to full fat, non diet version of foods, and read your labels. Only buy foods with whole ingredients that you can pronounce!
We think the answer is fairly obvious when you know the effects of non-organic cotton farming.
What is organic cotton? Organic cotton is farmed sustainably to avoid the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Actually, no chemicals AT ALL are allowed to be used. Because organic cotton farming does not use the chemicals used in non-organic farming, it eliminates all the terrible causal effects. Crops are rotated, the soil remains healthy, and people, plants, and animals, are not exposed to toxic chemicals.
In organic farming, alternative pest control methods are used instead of chemicals. One of the biggest threats to the cotton plant is the boll weevil. A great example of alternative sustainable organic farming are boll weevil traps. They are used to trap the insects instead of spraying the entire crop with a pesticide.
Another organic method of pest control is keeping ecosystems diverse and healthy. This creates natural balance and does not allow one species of pests to thrive. If there is balance, there is no need for manmade pest control.
Less water is used in the farming process, less fossil fuel is used in the harvesting process, and more jobs are actually created. Organic-cotton is usually picked by hand instead of a cotton combine. More people are needed to pick cotton by hand, but in 3rd world countries where there are not enough jobs for the population these safe additional jobs to local economies are welcomed.
You might be asking yourself why farmers would choose to use such destructive chemicals. It all basically comes down to money. With non-organic cotton, farmers can grow more cotton, harvest it quicker, and make more in profits. Small farmers need to maximize their yields as much as possible today more than ever in order to compete with bigger cotton farmers who can affort to sell their crops for lower prices. But, with more customers wanting ethically made clothing, and more brands wanting to become sustainable, the need for organic cotton is growing and allowing these small farmers to go back to sustainable growing methods decreasing their dependency on non-organic methods.
There is currently no regulation on what constitutes organic cotton. If a garment is labeled as organic cotton, there is a strong possibility it is not 100% organic and could be a mix of organic and non, look for verbiage that reads 100% organic.
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I have spent over a decade living and working in fashion factories, seeing firsthand how clothing is made.
And now, I want to share with you everything I know. To help you navigate supply chains, and launch your own conscious clothing brand.
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