Organic Cotton: Growing Need and Supply

In the U.S., it takes about 1/3 of a pound of chemicals to grow enough conventional cotton for one T-shirt.

What if you could help eliminate 43,000 pounds of pesticides and 485,190 pounds of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, a major lake and waterway pollutant? If you have purchased organic cotton products since 1997 you have done just that. In 1997, large apparel companies purchased 2.15 million pounds of organic cotton, which resulted in the elimination of those chemicals in the environment. Since then, with the expansion of organic cotton, the total eliminated can only have gotten larger.

If that doesn't move you, consider these facts about conventionally grown cotton:

  • According to the Sustainable Cotton Project and Pesticide Action Network North America, cotton used about 23 percent of the world's insecticides and more than 10 percent of all pesticides.
  • In the U.S., it takes about one-third of a pound of chemicals to grow enough cotton for one T-shirt. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 53 million pounds of pesticides and 1.6 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers were applied to 11.9 million acres of cotton in 1996.
  • In California, five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton are cancer-causing chemicals.
  • Cotton is the crop with the third-heaviest pesticide use.
  • Dioxin (a by-product of bleaching, cotton defoliating, and starch sizing) was found in residual amounts on T-shirts in 1994 by a researcher.
  • In California, where over one million acres of cotton are grown each year, cotton production ranks second for total amount of pesticides used. (Rising Toxic Tide, The Pesticide Action Network)

And I thought the conventional produce industry was worrisome!

What about availability? Consider the following (from the Organic Trade Association's Organic Cotton Facts sheet and Fiber Facts sheet):

  • In 1997, almost 8,000 tons (16,000,000 pounds or 33,333 bales) of organic cotton were grown in 18 countries on all arable continents. Organic cotton was grown in Argentina, Australia, Benin, Brazil, Egypt, Greece, India, Israel, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Senegal, Turkey, Uganda, the U.S., Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The U.S., India, Turkey, Uganda, and Peru are the top 5 producing countries.
  • Closer to home, more than 4 million pounds (8,175 bales) of organic cotton (certified and transitional) were grown in the U.S. in 1998. It is grown on almost 9,000 acres in 5 states: Arizona (450 acres), California (1,275 acres), Missouri (450 acres), New Mexico (511 acres) and Texas (6,268 acres).

Are you thinking, "But it's only a small industry, and not everyone wants T-shirts?" There are now more than 150 companies offering organic cotton products. These include everything from business suits and button down oxford shirts for the office to personal hygiene items such as tampons, diapers and even cotton swabs -- not to mention the T-shirts, bath towels and sheets. You can even get an organic cotton stuffed animal for your best friend's baby shower gift.

There are also blends available, as apparel companies start to develop programs that are blending organic cotton with conventional cotton.

How do you get started in supporting this earth-friendly product? You can order the Organic Trade Association's organic fiber directory, a resource that can help you gather hard-to-find information on organic fibers (including wool and hemp). It lists companies, designers, producers and a wide range of products. To get your copy, call the O.T.A. at (413) 774-7511.

Once on your way, try sponsoring an organic fashion show and product review day. Invite companies found in the organic fiber directory to show off their wares. You can get your deli involved by having them prepare an organic lunch for the event. The produce department can make organic fruit baskets to raffle off. Get local colleges, senior citizens, and schools involved by asking them to model organic clothes. Make it a benefit for the OTA Fiber Council or the Sustainable Cotton Project.

Find out when the Sustainable Cotton Project is conducting tours focusing on organic and conventional cotton in California's Central Valley, and raffle off a trip. Even better, go yourself and learn first hand. Make a storewide commitment by having your logo put on T-shirts made with 100% organic cotton.

As individuals, we can make a resolution to buy an organic cotton product once a month or even once a year. Buy it for yourself or as a gift that represents your beliefs. The resources are there. Every intention that is turned into action makes a difference -- even starting with something as small as a cotton swab.


Mark Mulcahy of Organic Options, an organic education and produce consulting firm, can be reached at 707/939-8355 or at [email protected].

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