Cotton has a long history of being an immensely destructive crop, both ecologically and culturally, from its integral role in inciting the massive slave trade between Africa and the U.S. Colonies, to its current boast as one of the most environmentally disruptive crops on the planet.

African American workers in a cotton field. (Image courtesy of Voices Education Project)

African American cotton workers. (Image courtesy of Voices Education Project)

Traditionally farmed cotton employs the use of a massive amount of pesticides. While cotton accounts for only 2.5% of the globe’s total cultivated land, the crop uses a whopping 16% percent of the world’s insecticide. In fact, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, pesticide use for cotton runs “3 to 5 times greater per hectare than applications of pesticides to corn.” That’s a whole lot of chemical goop per acre.

Grades of cotton. (Image courtesy of Lowell Mills)

Samples of grades of different kinds of cotton. (Image courtesy of Lowell Mills)

Which is all the more troubling when you realize that all of that chemically tainted cotton will be used to make everything from baby pajamas to bedsheets – everyday items that come into direct and constant contact with sensitive human skin. One conventional cotton T-shirt, for example, uses almost a third of a pound of pesticide – practically the weight of the shirt itself. That’s 140 grams of insecticide pressed against your body.

On the upside, this has led to a boom in organic growing alternatives; methods of production that negate the use of harmful chemicals. The transition to organic cotton begins with the seed. Certified growers must abandon genetically modified seed in favor of traditional seeding techniques. It also requires healthy soil development, and aggressive, but biologically sound pest control, including compost, mulch, hand weeding and crop rotation. The resulting cotton is markedly kinder to the environment.

Cotton plants. (Image courtesy of Earth Wear)

Cotton plants in a cotton field. (Image courtesy of Earth Wear)

However, that is not to say it is without its drawbacks. Firstly, the majority of organic cotton is grown abroad, mainly in South East Asia, India and China. This means a hefty carbon footprint in getting that t-shirt from here to there. Thankfully, this may soon change, as states like New Mexico and California up their domestic organic cotton production. But, with 71% of our 15 million cotton acres in the States still grown with genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” and “Bt” varieties, there is still a long way to go.

The cotton industry in 1850. (Image courtesy of The New York Public Library)

Map of the “Cotton Kingdom,” dated 1850. (Image courtesy of The New York Public Library)

Secondly, between the laborious growing methods, and the manufacturers’ defiance of old school industrial sweatshop production, items made from organic cotton can cost between 10 and 45 percent more than conventional cotton products. As demand grows, there’s good reason to believe those numbers will decline. Sales of organic cotton have increased rapidly in the U.S., climbing from $69 million in 2002 to $521 million in 2009, which has led major brands like Patagonia and Nike, as well as a fast-growing number of smaller, independently owned companies, to embrace the use of more organic materials. The result has not only been a boon to the few American upstart farmers who can offer certified organic, it has also helped to reduce the material’s expense.

Cotton workers in a cotton mill. (Image courtesy of National Museum of American History)

Men opening bales of cotton at the White Oak Mill in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Image courtesy of National Museum of American History)

So, while difficult to produce, and an underdog on the market, organic cotton is much better for you and the environment, which means a calmer conscience all around. I admit that, “doing the right thing” does come with a price. But really, isn’t it worth it?

Article first published at COMMERCE WITH A CONSCIENCE


– Commercial Appeal
– Epoch Times
– Green Living Tips
– Grist
– National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
– Organic Exchange
– Organic Trade Association

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  1. Nins
    Posted August 3, 2010 at 6:41 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for the article! Also important to bear in mind is the fact that this kind of immense usage of pesticides often goes hand in hand with appalling working conditions.

  2. KJL
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 9:53 AM | Permalink

    I find it annoying that most brands only have the guts to create an organic line with a small number of products. Where's the first major to completely switch to organic?

  3. Jonathan
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 3:37 AM | Permalink

    "140 grams of insecticide pressed against your body." – Disgusting!

  4. tati
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 4:01 AM | Permalink

    It's a wonder, how folks haven't put cancer and insecticides together.

  5. thosdot
    Posted November 1, 2015 at 5:24 PM | Permalink

    Whilst I’m in complete agreement with an organic approach (see the DDT-spraying part of the 1970s movie ‘The Hellstrom Chronicle’), somehow I doubt that 140g of pesticides remains in the cotton of the shirt.
    Unfortunately though, nearly all of it would be in the soil or the water table.

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