PICK YOUR COTTON
A look at just four of the top ten chemicals used on cotton:
* Methyl parathion, which flowed from cotton fields into Big Nance Creek in Lawrence County, Alabama, during heavy rains in 1995, is one of the pesticides responsible for killing more than 245,000 fish.
* Trifluralin, an herbicide made by DowElanco, can disrupt the endocrine and reproductive systems of wildlife; it is highly toxic to aquatic organisms, which are harmed by water runoff from cotton fields.
* Cyanazine, an herbicide made by DuPont, will be phased out of domestic use by the end of 1999 due to its ability to cause breast cancer in laboratory animals and contaminate drinking water supplies.
* Tribufos (also known as DEF and Folex), made by Bayer, is a defoliant that can cause asthma-like respiratory problems. Both tribufos and trifluralin have been listed as possible human carcinogens by the EPA.
Processing Hazards: Sizing, Bleaching & Dyes
Dioxin was found in cotton t-shirts in 1994 by scientists at Bayreuth University in Germany. According to the scientists, the source was pentachlorophenol, used overseas as "a defoliant of cotton leaves, in starch sizing baths during cloth production and as a preservative to prevent mildew." Dioxin is also produced during chlorine bleaching. Ironically, many cotton garments are first bleached white before they are dyed another color.
Heavy metals such as chromium and copper are commonly used to "fix" darker colors. Due to cotton's natural resistance to dyes, roughly half the chemicals used end up as waste in rivers and soil.
Organic Cotton: The Whole-Lifecycle Solution
Fortunately, more and more farmers are growing cotton without toxic chemicals. In 1989, about 100 acres of organic cotton were planted in California; by 1994 the number had risen to 15,000. Organic cotton acreage has also expanded in Texas and Arizona. According to Will Allen, director of the Sustainable Cotton Project, "These organic farmers are leading the way to developing what is truly a natural product. Given the problems of worker health, pest resistance and increasing costs of using pesticides, it's only a matter of time before conventional cotton growers change as well."
While the USDA is finalizing standards for "organically grown," U.S. companies are following the laws of California and Texas as well as private certification organizations such as the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Texas also has a certification program for "transitional" cotton, which is grown without pesticides for a three-year period, at which time it can be certified as organically grown.
For a product to have been grown "organically," farmers may not use any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers for one to three years. Instead of pesticides, organic farmers employ such biological controls as beneficial insects. They also rotate crops to alleviate soil-borne pathogens, and weed by machine or hand. Compost and cover crops are used to improve soil health and fertility.
There are currently no uniform guidelines for the use of sizing agents, bleaches and dyes on organic cotton. According to Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of Seventh Generation, "There are people who dye organic cotton with what they call 'low impact' reduced heavy metal dyes. They say these heavy metals occur in nature. They're still toxic!" Luckily, indigenous people have been growing cotton in natural colors like brown and green for years. FoxFibretm sells fabric from organic cotton grown in colors. Other companies, such as Allegro, use heavy-metal-free natural dyes derived from plants and insects.
Some organizations and corporations have balked at the higher cost of organically-grown products. Much of the difference in price comes not from the price per pound of cotton (roughly $1 for conventional and $1.25 for organic), but from the far smaller economic scale at which organic cotton is produced-a scale which demands higher processing costs by mills as well as cut-and-sew operations. Still, those who have made the change see it as a long-term commitment. Yvon Chouinard says of Patagonia's switch to organic, "Given what we now know about conventional cotton, there is no going back on this decision, regardless of the impact on the company's sales or profits."
Unbleached: Going Only Halfway
Many companies and even environmental organizations, in response to the chlorine controversy, are offering clothes, bedding and tote bags made from unbleached, conventionally-grown cotton. The off-white appearance of the fabric, and labels touting the product's "naturalness," can make consumers believe they are buying a truly ecological item.
"Going just part way does not deal with the whole problem," says SCP's Will Allen. Lynda Grose agrees, "In reality, some companies are just taking advantage of the public's interest in being green."
What You Can Do
Ask every organization you belong to, or clothing store where you shop, to offer organically grown or transitional cotton products. The item should be labeled certified organic or transitional cotton. Reach for organic cotton goods and wear them with comfort and peace of mind.
Written by: Sandra Marquardt
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