Cotton: Know Before You Buy

Most people can agree that cotton is the most comfortable, breathable and soft of all the commonly worn textile fabrics. From your most fashionable jeans to your favorite old T-shirt, everyone loves cotton. Not only does cotton keep the body cool in the summer and warm in the winter, it is one of the easiest fabrics to dye, which makes it extremely popular among fashion designers. In the many mainstream magazines and store catalogs, you are likely to come across an ad or two asserting that because it's a natural fiber (i.e. it grows from the ground), cotton is green, or environmentally friendly. Nothing could be further from the truth! Regrettably, when cotton is traditionally grown, our most favored fabric is associated with devastating abuse of the planet and the people who inhabit it. Did you know:
  • The production of cotton accounts for 25% of the world's pesticides
  • In India, 91% of cotton workers complain of illness caused by chemicals
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies eight of the pesticides used in cotton as possible carcinogens
The push for organic cotton in increasing, because the fibers are cultivated without pesticides, chemical herbicides or synthetic fertilizers that can be harmful to the environment. However, the supply of 100 percent organic cotton is fairly limited: only .03 percent of worldwide cotton production is organic, according to the Organic Trade Association. Sales of organic cotton is expected to grow over the next year, but at this time time only 1% of cotton grown is organic.
So the next time you see an ad like the one below claiming that cotton is green, you may want to reconsider unless it says, organically grown.

Mike Taylor
Portland State University

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