The Cotton Clothing Blues

by updated 2008/09/13

According to the OCA, only 2-1/2% of the world’s agricultural land is growing cotton. However, 24% of the world’s insecticide use and 11% of herbicide and fungicide use is in cotton fields. The insecticides, in particular, are generally applied with crop dusting airplanes, definitely not the most targeted approach to killing bad bugs. The pesticides kill everything, including the beneficial insects, and their use is heavy and constant throughout the cotton growing cycle. Because of problems like spray drift, contaminated runoff, and farm worker contact with the chemicals, the adverse consequences spread far beyond the cotton fields. The problems associated with the conventional methods of cotton farming are the same problems associated with chemical use in the growing of fruits and vegetables. As I wrote in The Dirty Dozen of Food, it is a very dangerous harvest indeed.

Cotton is also a crop that has been highly genetically modified. One source says that GMO cotton seeds are used for 70% of the cotton grown in the U.S. One genetically modified strain even produces its own insecticide. This may sound like it would reduce insecticide use, but because the insects seem to eventually develop a resistance to the modified cotton’s insecticide, future insect control may require more and more potent chemicals. Another couple of cotton varieties are tolerant of the herbicides farmers use in cotton fields. Since these cotton varieties are tolerant, heavy use of a chemical approach to weed control is the result.

One fact that surprised me is that cotton is also a food! In the harvesting process cotton seed is separated form the fiber. This cotton seed is used is everything from animal feeds to foods processed for human consumption. I have used cotton seed meal as an “organic” fertilizer in the past. Now I wonder if this fertilizer is made strictly from organic cotton seed, or if it is the byproduct of conventionally produced cotton?

I think the biggest roadblock to a wider acceptance of organic cotton is the extra cost. U.S. consumers, even environmentally conscious consumers, put aesthetics, quality and price at the top of the list when buying clothes. I have seen estimates that organic cotton clothes cost 20 to 50% more than conventional clothing. In this day of Wal-Mart, Ross, and other discounters, this additional cost is viewed as making organic clothes a hard sell.

Where does the extra cost of clothes made form organic cotton come from? Not necessarily from increased farming costs, except maybe the increased cost of paying farm workers a more sustainable wage. The OCA says that in Peru, cotton farmers have cut $100 per acre in pesticide and fertilizer costs by switching over to organic production. This is a very significant savings. I suspect that much of the increased costs are a result of organic, sustainable producers of organic cotton clothes not using sweatshop labor manufacturing. Educating consumers as to the reasons for the added cost may help, just like it does with organic food.

Unfortunately until consumers, and consequently retailers, start requesting more choice in organic clothing, the selection will remain limited. If there is an increased demand, the producers of organic cotton clothing may start to realize cost benefits associated with economies of scale. If the cost as compared to conventional clothing remains the same, it may just have to be accepted that only a certain percentage of the clothes buying public will ever be willing to pay the premium for organic clothing.

Will Sig

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