Over the past couple of years, the word ‘organic’ has become a major buzz word for shoppers and retailers. Basically any product you might be in the market for even if it isn’t custom shirts – from coffee and toilet paper to cosmetics and carrots – has any organic option these days. It should come as no surprise the new-found love for all things organic has reached everyone’s favorite source of textile yarn, cotton.
Cotton has been used to make clothing for thousands of years and today it’s one of the world’s largest cash crops, with millions of bales being produced every year. While cotton is used in startling number of home products, a quick look through your wardrobe will confirm that it’s also widely used to make clothing as well.
Yet, despite its wide application, there are several problems with cotton production. Although it can grow in some pretty inhospitable climates and doesn’t require nutrient rich soil, cotton is one thirsty crop. Cotton production consumes about 2.6% of the world’s yearly water supply; and from field to finished product, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires approximately 2700 liters of water.
Although the water gulped down by cotton plants around the world is a huge problem for the clothing and agriculture industry, it can be argued that an even larger threat comes from the pesticides and chemicals used to help cotton grow. Over 16% of the pesticides used in the world today are used on cotton, a staggering number when you think about all of the thousands of different crops grown around the world. These chemicals can threaten nearby plant species, find there way back into water supplies or remain on cotton fibers after they’ve been used to make clothing.
Organic cotton though, by definition, does not involve the use of synthetic chemicals and pesticides, which has obvious benefits for farmers, consumers and the environment. Yet, organic cottons are also not genetically modified, which has both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, modified cottons are altered primarily to be resistant to harmful bugs and insects, thus cutting down on pesticide use. Furthermore, with genetic modification, cotton can be turned into a food source in areas where other crops might not be able to grow.
The down side to all this though is that genetically modified crops can lead to genetically modified (through adaptation) insects, which can cause just as much havoc as their progenitors. Another strike against modified crops in general is that they all too often create unequal relationships between farmers and producers of modified seeds. A lot of crops that have been tampered with in a laboratory are also genetically hardwired not create new plants – meaning that struggling farmers are forced to buy new seeds from a supplier every season rather than allowing fresh crops to grow via the birds-n’-bees.
But whatever benefits organic cottons can offer, it will likely be a while before they become as ubiquitous as conventionally grown cottons. As of 2007, there were only a little more than 250,000 thousand bales of organic cotton grown in 24 different countries; while the top three producers of non-organic cotton – China, The USA, and India – alone turned out more than 67 million bales. But despite the current imbalance, organic cotton production is growing by about 50% a year as more and more countries, farmers and shoppers are looking towards it as a source of sustainable clothing.