Posted by: A Part of the Solution | January 16, 2013

The Problem with Cotton

I feel like the Grinch. I don’t want to take natural, breathable, washable cotton away from anyone. I don’t.

I like cotton. I like cotton a lot. But cotton carries collateral baggage. Cotton is paying all kinds of overage fees on its baggage.

The problem with cotton starts where it grows.

Cotton represents 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land. Cotton uses 16% of the world’s insecticides. Cotton grows in nations with emerging economies. Many cotton farmers in developing nations store pesticides in the same room where they prepare food and/or sleep. Some of these farmers reuse the pesticide containers for family drinking water. Are you looking guiltily at your Chucks yet? What about your bath towels? Your favorite t-shirts? Your prize hoodie? Your best three pairs of jeans?

With every piece of non-organic cotton you buy retail, you’re signaling your approval of this disproportionate, under-regulated use of pesticides in developing nations. Check the numbers on the link above.

The problem with cotton has its roots in the seed-stock.

Commercial cotton is also in thrall to Monsanto. Like all other GMO crops, the Bt Cotton (resistant to bacillus thuringiensis) yields are low.  The kindest estimates, those pulled from Monsanto’s own site, are 17 percent lower than non-Bt  Cotton. Unkinder estimates, often provided by the farmers themselves, demonstrate the GMO cotton creates debt to seed and pesticide providers in addition to bale counts 30 to 70 percent lower than those recorded before its introduction. Yields from this Monsanto product are so consistently low that cotton farmer suicides are now tracked as a discrete mortality category in some states of India. Aggregate estimates vary from 20,000 to 125,000 such suicides to present.

Because of the way cotton crops are cooperatively shipped, if your cotton isn’t organic, you’re spending money in support of Monsanto’s neutered GMO seed programs in India, Brazil and 53 other countries, including the US. Follow the link above to check the necessary references.

The problem with cotton spreads as it’s processed.

Cotton goes through many stages between the field and the consumer. Cotton is cleaned using heavy detergents and plenty of BTUs. Then the cotton is bleached. Sometimes the cotton is dyed before it’s spun, sometimes after. Either way, those dyes contain azos and other classes of dye not sanctioned for use in the developed world. Warmed water and appalling effluents are the by-products of cotton ginning, milling and garment production. Worse even than the environmental impact of cotton production are the conditions, wages and ages of the laborers in the cotton processing industries.

What would you pay for a pair of jeans not sewn by a six year old? What would you pay for a bath towel with a carbon footprint smaller than your Prius? What would you pay for a tee shirt which doesn’t expose you as  a dupe for Monsanto?

You can help create a market for organic cotton. You can buy most of your cotton used at local thrift shops, yard sales and on-line resale sites. Put the money you would otherwise have spent aside. Once a year, purchase yourself organic cotton sheets–which are worth every. single. penny.–or organic towels, or limited edition organic cotton Chucks. You can decide that convenience and cheapness are not substitutes for stewardship and creating a healthy future for all the inhabitants of the earth. You can make a difference. Every dollar you spend is a vote.


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