Why organic cotton?
We have all been brought up to believe that cotton is a "natural" fiber. Natural, clean, fluffy and white - the picture postcard of healthy, environmentally friendly materials, right? Of course cotton is natural in the sense that it is grown in our environment and not synthetically derived, but really that's as far as its “naturalness” goes. Unfortunately, nearly all cotton production is reliant on nasty pesticides derived from petrochemicals as it is transformed from plant to fiber to fabric. Residues from these chemicals remain in the fabrics even after multiple washes and remain in our environment for years to come.
While 2.5% of all farmland worldwide is used to grow cotton, 10% of all chemical pesticides and 22% of insecticides are sprayed on cotton. A full eight times more pesticide is used on one hectare of conventional cotton than on any other crop.
THE IMPACTS FROM CONVENTIONAL COTTON
- Environmental destruction: Heavy pesticide use reduces biodiversity, disrupts ecosystems, and contaminates water supplies. Keeping the chemicals flowing, pests exposed to synthetic pesticides build up a resistance to them. So each year, farmers have to buy and use more pesticides to grow the same amount of cotton - increasing the annual damage to the environment.
- Spiral of debt: Pests build up resistance to chemicals, farmer borrows money to buy more chemicals than before, farmer gets less profit from crop, repeat until farmer is destitute. In parts of India agricultural chemicals take up 60% of the farmer's production budget. More than 250,000 conventional cotton farmers have killed themselves in India since 1995 because they were inescapably in debt (see organic cotton in India section to learn more).
- Health: Many chemicals used in cotton farming are acutely toxic. At least three of them are in the "dirty dozen" - so dangerous that 120 countries agreed at a UNEP conference in 2001 to ban them. So far this hasn't happened. The World Trade Organisation estimates 20,000 deaths and three million chronic health problems each year are the result of the use of agricultural pesticides in developing countries.
- Water: If environmental destruction, the spiralling of debt of farmers, and the impacts on the health of millions wasn't enough, conventional cotton farming also uses vast amounts of precious water. The Aral Sea has almost disappeared as the water courses that flowed into it have been diverted to grow ‘white gold' in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This has been catastrophic for the fishing industries in those countries, and has also proved totally unsustainable. Years of rapid saturation/evaporation in these semi-desert soils has left salt residues, making the land un-fertile.
And the problems with textile production do not stop in the field. During the conversion of conventional cotton into clothes and other goods, numerous toxic chemicals are added at each stage - silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, brighteners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia and formaldehyde - to name just a few. Each of these chemicals impacts the individuals using them - from the farmers through to the manufacturers producing the end products - as well as the surrounding environment.
ORGANIC COTTON: A HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Where conventional cotton is destructive, organic cotton is restorative. Organically grown cotton is cotton cultivated in soil that has been certified free from pesticides, herbicides and other cytotoxins for at least three years; by its very nature it cannot be grown from genetically engineered seed. Crop rotation - usually marigold and maize - is adopted to enhance the soil’s fertility and to control sucking pests. In India, natural pesticides such as neem seed, cow’s urine (holy cow!), buttermilk and datura are used, with farmyard and green manure replacing synthetic fertilizers. Organic farming uses roughly 50% less fossil fuels than conventional agriculture and 50% less water!
- Environmentally friendly: Organic cotton farming uses natural pesticides to keep pests off the crops, but does not destroy their natural predators - which survive to control their numbers naturally. Intercropping is also used. This is where secondary crops (often sunflowers or millet) are grown between and around small plots of cotton. These create a natural barrier against the boll weevils, which cannot sniff out their favourite snack through the extra foliage. These secondary crops may also provide another cash crop or food for farmers, a useful backup in case of a poor cotton harvest. In stark contrast to conventional methods, this way of farming actually promotes biodiversity; organic cotton fields contain a significantly higher number of insect species (especially those that are beneficial).
- Farmer friendly: Conscious people like you are prepared to pay a bit more for the quality and provenance of organic cotton. That's why we can pay our organic cotton farmers a 30% premium above conventional cotton prices. We also commit to buying the cotton before the crop is grown, so farmers have security of income too. Our cotton is produced by a cooperative in India working with small-scale farmers, using Fair Trade principles to support them in the conversion to organic farming. We think that makes organic cotton all the more worth the extra money.
- Sustainable: Unlike the insatiably thirsty conventional methods of cotton production, our organic cotton is largely rain-fed. The soils are fertilised with natural organic materials, which help to give the soil higher humus content - making it better able to retain moisture, thereby improving soil fertility and helping to sequester carbon in the soil.
Organic farming safeguards farm workers' health, provides a fair livelihood for people in disadvantaged communities and preserves the quality of our environment for future generations.