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Green Garment & Furnishing - Cotton's Environmental Impact

Last time in the Greenies Blog we discussed natural fibers versus manufactured fibers. This time let's look more closely at one natural fiber - cotton. Cotton is the fiber most often used world wide, and is the number one fabric in the United States. The cotton fiber and seed grow together in a pod called a boll. The seeds are crushed and separated to be used in oil, meal and hulls. Cotton seed oil is used in salad dressings, shortening, and in a wide variety of processed foods. The meal and the hulls are used in livestock and poultry feed and also in fertilizer. The fiber is separated from the seed and made into bales that are sold to textile mills. Because cotton naturally evokes the image of softness, whiteness, and therefore a sense of purity, most people think of conventional cotton as a very natural fabric. Is the white, puffy image really representative of something pure?

Consider these statistics when growing cotton conventionally:

  • It can take almost a 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizers to grow one pound of raw cotton in the US, and it takes just under one pound of raw cotton to make one t-shirt
  • Cotton is considered the world's 'dirtiest' crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world's cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world's insecticides, more than any other single major crop
  • It is estimated that as much as 65% of cotton production ends up in our food chain, whether directly through food oil or indirectly through the milk and meat of animals 

When conventional cotton fiber is manufactured, it is chemically processed to become the soft material that consumer's want. The spinning process, when cotton fibers are spun into yarn, is the only stage when chemicals are not used. Chemicals are added after spinning to make it easier to weave, then the fabric is bleached, some companies still use chlorine for this part of the process. Fabric is often piece dyed with formaldehyde-fixing agents. A urea-formaldehyde product is routinely applied to all United States cottons to reduce shrinkage and wrinkling. Much of the processing results in large amounts of toxic wastewater that carry away residues from chemical cleaning, dyeing, and finishing. Our textile industry has developed into a highly toxic procedure.

Just like purchasing organic food supports a cleaner food production system, buying organic clothing supports a cleaner method to produce clothing. Not only is the growing of organic cotton more sustainable to the earth, but the manufacturing of the fiber is less toxic. Potato starch can be used for sizing, hydrogen peroxide for bleaching, low-impact dyes and earth clays for colors. The by products of organic cotton such as the cottonseed oil and animal products also end up safer for the food chain and for animals. Currently, only a small percentage of organic cotton is produced compared to the total, however, our purchasing votes can change that statistic.

Reference: www.fabrics.net, www.organicexchange.org, www.organicclothing.blogs.comwww.ota.com

Camey Jenson‘s background in finance and as a CPA allowed her to gain experience in many different industries. Her passion & interests have led her away from the corporate environment toward ways of being in the world that are more sustainable. She owns www.greenearthwear.com