Clothing is a huge part of our daily lives. Unfortunately it is also, in majority, an unsustainable and unecological industry. The harvesting of materials devastates ecosystems, the production process pollutes environments and uses slave labour, and the final product soon becomes a throw away item.
Choosing organic cotton for 10tacled range of clothing means higher quality products that are softer, breathable and much kinder to the skin, but also better for the environment and the people who make them.
Organic cotton is a natural, renewable and biodegradable fibre. It benefits cotton producers and the environment in developing countries by avoiding the harmful effects of toxic pesticides. The reduced cost of production improves social conditions. Consumers in the UK also benefit from garments that are manufactured without thousands of toxic and carcinongenic chemicals, which are used to turn raw material into clothes, towels, bedding and other items that we put next to our skin every day.
What’s Wrong with Cotton?
Cotton, the most valuable non-food agricultural product, is labelled as the world's “dirtiest” crop. It has survived competition from synthetics, but at the expense of heavy pesticide and fertiliser use and its shocking history of labour exploitation. This elegant, popular material has cost more in human misery than its competitors: wool, linen and nylon. The cotton trade was a driving force in the Industrial Revolution and helped to finance British Empire. It was the mainstay of the slave trade and contributed to the American civil war.
Today it is the heavy pesticide use necessary to grow this ‘white gold’ that claims lives. More chemicals are sprayed on cotton than on any other crop making it one of the most chemically intensive farming operations in the world. Cotton takes up less than 3% of the world’s farmed land yet uses approximately 16% of the world’s pesticides! (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants.) Newer, safer chemicals have been developed, but their cost is high. Cheaper, more toxic chemicals are used in developing countries, which are responsible for poisoning wildlife and rivers, as well as causing estimated 20,000 unintentional deaths a year.
Steve Trent, Director of Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), says “With no less than 99% of the world’s cotton farmers living in the developing world, the pesticides are applied in fields where illiteracy is high and safety awareness is low, putting both the environment and lives at risk”. He adds “The dangers faced by poor illiterate children and farmers, to keep our clothes cheap, is unacceptable”.
Cotton is widely considered to be a very natural fabric, but most of us are unaware of the fact that conventional cotton farming uses more dangerous, cancer-causing pesticides than any other crop. In the USA alone, an estimated 800 million pounds of pesticides are used on cotton each year. It takes roughly one-third of a pound (150g) of chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) to grow enough cotton for just one T-shirt. In addition, non-organic cotton manufacture uses tens of thousands of acutely toxic chemicals, including heavy metals, formaldehyde and aromatic solvents, many of which are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and have been associated with cancer, birth defects and hormonal and reproductive effects in wildlife and humans. Traces of these chemicals remain in the finished product, even after repeat washings. The chemicals used to grow conventional cotton may have serious adverse effects on human health and the environment.
GM An estimated 30% of all cotton grown worldwide is genetically modified. GM cotton poses a potential risk to wildlife and human health, as well as exposing farmers to unnecessary expense – Greenpeace research in South India in 2009 showed that genetically modified Bt cotton did not result in significantly higher yields than organic cotton, but cost farmers twice as much to produce as organic.
Why Choose Organic Cotton?
Organic cotton provides the following benefits:
BETTER FARM ENVIRONMENT Organic fibres are grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers or toxic pesticides. Soil fertility is achieved naturally through the use of compost and manure. This process helps to lock CO2 into the soil and avoids greenhouse gas emissions (associated with energy intensive fossil-fuel based fertilisers), helping mitigate climate change. Toxic pesticides are also replaced with organic sprays (such as garlic, chillies and soap) that successfully eliminate the wrong insects without destroying entire ecosystem.
CREATING BIODIVERSITY Excessive use of pesticides in large plantations of conventional cotton affects the entire ecosystem. By eliminating a variety of plant species, insects and animals the balance of a natural food chain is destroyed and the monoculture is created, in which various pests can thrive, and which effectively becomes dependent solely on chemicals to survive. Organic cotton production instead involves replacing synthetic pesticides and fertilisers with natural ones, then using crop rotation and mixed planting to encourage biodiversity. Many cotton pests prefer other plants (maize, sunflower, sweet sorghum, pigeon pea, okra) to cotton. These companion plants are cleverly used as trap crops, or decoy crops, keeping pests away from the cotton plants.
WATER CONSERVATION Cotton is a thirsty plant; to grow only one kilogram of cotton it takes around 20,000 litres of water (75-100 bathtubs), which in conventional farming is provided by artificial irrigation. Organic cotton grown in places like the valleys of southern India uses seasonal monsoon rains, which provide 95% of the water needed to cultivate the plant. The water conservation practice typically extends also to the factory, where a closed loop system filters and reuses over 90% of all the wastewater in the dyeing stage.
GMO-FREE Genetically modified seeds and plants are banned in organic systems.
BETTER FOR WORKERS IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD By staying away from toxic pesticides organic cotton workers avoid health problems and common deaths associated with conventional cotton production. Additionally, avoiding pesticides and GM seeds reduces production costs and farmer debts – the burden of pesticide debt has resulted in thousands of suicides in the developing world (according to the groundbreaking film Dirty White Gold nearly 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide to get out of debt in the modern age). Organic farmers also receive a premium price for their cotton.
NO HARMFUL MANUFACTURING CHEMICALS In UK organic textiles are certified to the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) by the Soil Association, which ensures that the chemicals used in processing textiles meet strict requirements on toxicity and biodegradability, and textile manufacturers also have a waste water treatment plant and a sound environmental policy. The whole supply chain from field through manufacture to final product must be certified, and the Soil Association checks against environmental and social standards.
HIGHER FACTORY CONDITIONS Poor working conditions and rights violations in the garments industry are commonplace and well documented. Manufacturers of Soil Association certified organic textiles must meet social criteria based on the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions. These cover payment of living wages, working hours, child labour, freedom of association, discrimination, harsh or inhumane treatment and more. These Code of Labour Practices are also often verified by another organization – the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF).
RESIDUE FREE GARMENTS Prohibiting and restricting use of harmful chemicals in organic textile production and processing ensures that the final product doesn’t contain allergenic, carcinogenic or toxic chemical residues from them. Tests on conventional clothing have revealed traces of pesticides, fire retardants, formaldehyde and toxic dyestuffs. These residues when inhaled or absorbed through the skin may cause allergies, skin rashes or respiratory problems. Babies in particular are vulnerable as their skin is much thinner.
EJF's Executive Director Steven Trent said: “The supply chain demonstrates the highest possible standards in an industry that is often criticised for falling short of the mark. The carbon footprint of the t-shirt’s manufacture is on average an incredible 90% smaller than that of a comparable product made using non-renewable energy. Our long-term supporter Lily Cole witnessed this for herself on a visit to the factory in India.”