If you’re living an eco-conscious lifestyle these days, you put out your recycling each week, dispose of any chemical wastes from your house properly, and you seek out organic options when you shop for groceries. But if you’re doing all of these earth-friendly activities wearing a cotton t-shirt, you could be hurting the environment more than you’re helping it.
Years ago, people might not have thought beyond the clothing rack, but as we become more aware of the effects of planting and harvesting practices, we can see that cotton is one of the most damaging materials to grow.
The boll weevil, long the enemy of cotton farmers and other damaging cotton pests, require a large amount of pesticides to kill and control. While just 2.4% of the world’s arable land is used for cotton-farming, they account for 24% of the world’s insecticide market. But the chemicals don’t stop there. During cotton harvesting, they move on to herbicides to defoliate the cotton plants to make picking them easier.
Take these figures into consideration before your next shopping trip:
- Cotton farmers apply nearly one-third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for every pound of cotton harvested. If you take into account all 19 of the cotton-producing states, they account for 25% of total pesticide use in the United States.
- In California, five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton are cancer-causing chemicals (cyanazine, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin).
- Also in California, cotton ranks third among crops for total number of worker illnesses caused by pesticides. In September 1996, 250 farm workers were accidentally sprayed with a mixture of highly toxic pesticides when a crop dusting plane applied them to a field adjacent to a field where the workers were harvesting grapes. Twenty-two workers were rushed to the hospital.
- Over 1 million Americans will learn they have some form of cancer and 10,400 people in the U.S. die each year from pesticide-related cancers
- Some of the chemicals used in cotton growing are among the most toxic classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency. In developing countries with their more lax regulations, the amount of herbicides and insecticides and their toxicity is often greater.
And if the effects on your personal health aren’t frightening enough, consider what the abundant use of pesticides and herbicides are doing to Mother Earth:
- In 1995, pesticide-contaminated runoff from cotton fields in Alabama killed 240,000 fish. Cotton farmers had recently applied pesticides containing endosulfan and methyl parathion to their field and a heavy rain washed them into the waters. Sadly, there was no evidence of illegal use of the pesticides.
- An estimated 67 million birds in the US are killed by pesticides each year. In one case, a breeding colony of laughing gulls near Corpus Christi, Texas, was devastated when methyl parathion was sprayed on a cotton field three miles away. More than 100 adult birds were killed along with 25% of the colony’s chicks.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the use of chemicals for cotton growing and harvesting has created a self-perpetuating problem. Farmers use heavy pesticides to kill the “bad” pests attacking their crops but in the process, they also kill off many beneficial insects that are the natural enemies of the very bugs farmers are trying to eliminate. Once these helpful insects are gone, the “bad” pests continue to flourish, requiring more use of pesticides to eliminate them. And because cotton farmers have developed the practice of planting with the same type of cotton variety, crop pests (including bugs, fungi and weeds) have been able to develop a resistance to the chemicals used in the pesticides, forcing companies to develop newer and stronger chemical pesticides to combat them.
The cycle of destruction will continue until we, as consumers, put our buying power to work to stop it. One way to do this is to think of alternate clothing materials and one of the best alternatives to cotton is bamboo fabric.
In comparison to cotton growing and harvesting, bamboo is a more organic and sustainable option:
- BAMBOO requires ZERO pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or irrigated water for its growth. Farmers are able to grow it using only the sunlight and rainfall that Mother Nature provides.
- Bamboo is a highly renewable resource, able to regrow itself at 3-4 feet per day.
- Bamboo harvesting requires cutting from the stem rather than pulling from the ground so there is no soil disruption required.
- Bamboo helps maintain the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance by taking in CO2 from the environment and producing oxygen at a rate 30% more effective than an equivalent stand of trees.
While the commercials may say that cotton is the fabric of our life, the growing and harvesting process is not conducive to the lifestyle that many of us are trying to live today.
Take a look at our bamboo facts section for more information on this miracle plant that produces the softest sheets, duvet covers, organic clothing, baby clothes and cozy bath towels. It will soon become your favorite fabric – Bamboo is the fabric of our future!