Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cotton – the fabric of our lives?

Today, I’m thinking about my favorite article of clothing – the t-shirt.  What other piece of clothing can you wear to bed, wear to work out, make into a dress, and wear to work (if you work at home like this green momster)?  I love t-shirts -- big, baggy t-shirts.  I’ve always loved t-shirts, from the t-shirt I had in 8th grade with a St. Bernard dog on it that said, “don’t eat yellow snow!”, to my honeymoon souvenir t-shirt covered in lizards that says “all gecked out and nowhere to go,” to my current favorite 4-H fair t-shirt designed by my son.  Yes, I’ve always been a snappy dresser.

So I’m thinking about t-shirts, which gets me thinking about cotton.  The biggest producers of cotton in the world are the U.S., China, Pakistan, and Australia.  Texas is the biggest state producer of cotton and was hard hit by last year’s drought.  Cotton requires a relatively long, hot growing season and fertile soil with lots of nitrogen.  The other thing that cotton needs is a way to fight off insect predators, and that’s where we get into some environmental trouble.  Up to 15% of a cotton crop can be lost to insects.  In the past, the response of cotton growers has been pesticides and fertilizers. 

According to Mother Earth News and the Organic Trade Association, 25% of the world’s insecticide use goes to cotton crops alone.  Three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides, according to the World Health Organization, are 3 of the top ten insecticides used for cotton production.  These pesticides can make their way into soil and water supplies, affecting the health of workers in the cotton fields and anyone else who lives in the area.  Pesticide exposure can lead to birth defects, reproductive disorders, nervous disorders, and weaker immune systems.  The arrival of Bt cotton, or cotton with the insecticide inside the plant, has added to the impact of this crop on native, beneficial insects.  Additionally, excess use of nitrogen fertilizer to supplement the soil leads to runoff into local water sources. The result of this runoff can be eutrophication and dead zones where there isn’t enough oxygen for fish and other aquatic life to survive (check out how this happens in the Chesapeake Bay).

To make 1 cotton t-shirt, it takes roughly 1/3 of a pound of insecticides and fertilizers.  Wow, read that again.  So what’s a consumer to do?   Organic cotton is one option.  It’s more expensive than regular cotton, because it costs more to make sure growing cotton doesn’t have so many environmental “side-effects.”  One disadvantage of organic cotton is the increased area needed for cultivation (some of the crop will be lost to insects).  But the advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages – less pesticide exposure, cleaner water, and better working conditions for farm laborers.  And if you’re into “buying American,” the U.S. is the 6th largest producer of organic cotton.  For more information on organic cotton (how it’s grown, the producers, etc.), check out Organic Cotton.

Coming down the pipe are some selective breeding programs to develop naturally insect-resistant cotton crops, as well as colored cotton, which reduce the need for pesticides and dyes.  Sally Fox is the innovator of this new type of organically grown cotton.

Sally Fox–organic, colored cotton
Let’s say organic cotton isn’t an option for you.  Another way to lessen the impact of the cotton you buy, is by buying locally grown and produced cotton product.  Often, cotton grown in the U.S. is shipped overseas to be made into t-shirts and jeans.  The fossil fuels used to ship cotton around the world for production adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.  Are there any locally produced options (organic or conventionally grown)?  In North Carolina, there’s a cotton production system that ships less than 700 miles from field to t-shirt.  Check out the information on Cotton of the Carolinas.

Cotton of the Carolinas
Living on the west coast of the U.S.?  Check out what’s going on with the Sustainable Cotton Project.

So now you’re saying, “But it’s too expensive and difficult to buy organic or locally produced t-shirts every time my child needs new clothes.”  Fair enough.  Then consider every frugal green momster’s favorite option – check out second-hand stores for kids’ clothes, so that those cotton products get one more chance and new clothes don’t have to be produced.

So here’s my plan:  I’m going to hold on to my old t-shirts, jeans, and cotton blankets, but when it’s time to replace them, I’m going to search out the organic or locally grown option.  Will I be able to afford to go organic every time?  Probably not.  But every little bit helps (be the hummingbird!)  I already bought an organic cotton blanket from Pottery Barn, and I was very pleased with the product.  Patagonia, a major sportswear producer, has pledged to only use organic cotton in its products.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how to work your old jeans into the “reduce, reuse, recycle” ethic and you thought Daisy Dukes were your only option, check this out: – recycled cotton insulation!

Anybody else have ideas for low-impact cotton?

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