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Organic Clothing:

Wear with Awareness

by Mary Capone

When picking cotton clothing, today's ecologically minded consumer has several choices. Once believed to be a pure, natural fabric, today's cotton is dosed with harmful chemicals that pollute our environment. Today, thanks to strong media awareness and a revitalization of old techniques, we have alternatives. Organically grown cotton, naturally colored cotton and recycled cotton products give us three choices for truly natural clothing. It may cost a little more, but by supporting the natural cotton industry's growth, we're supporting ourselves and the future of our planet.

Problems with Conventional Cotton

The use of cotton dates back to the Egyptians some 4,500 year ago. For thousands of years, cotton, grown using natural methods, was the primary source of textiles. Today, cotton production is far from natural. The United states alone dumps 8.5 million tons of pesticides on cotton fields annually. And that's not all. Conventionally grown cotton accounts for nearly 25 percent of the total insecticide use for crops worldwide. This chemical onslaught harms our environment by polluting ground waters and soil, resulting in the death of wildlife and natural habitats.

Most of the cotton garments sold today are made from cotton grown with chemical pesticides, bleached and then colored with chemical dyes containing toxic heavy metals. About a third of a pound of chemicals are used to make one adult T-shirt; two-thirds of a pound of chemicals can go into a pair of jeans.

Three Eco-Friendly Alternatives

Concerned consumers are choosing clothing made from organic cotton, naturally colored cotton, and recycled sources. Here are details on these three environmentally healthy ways of producing cotton clothing and other textiles.

Organically Grown Cotton

Organic cotton is grown without the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides or defoliants. By incorporating farming practices that increase fertility and diverse eco-systems, organic farmers rely on time-honored techniques. Crop rotation, cover crops, organic fertilizers, integrated pest management, and human labor for weed control are a few of the methods used. To be certified organic, the soil must be free of synthetic pesticides for at least three years. Farmers and processors are required to pass yearly inspections.

With the obvious environmental and health benefits of growing cotton organically, why aren't more farmers doing it? In the past, demand for organic cotton has been limited due to higher production costs. However, in recent years media attention has been strong. Some major industry players such as Levi Strauss, Nike and The Gap are blending organic cotton fibers with conventionally produced cotton. The growing public awareness of the toxicity of conventional farming methods has resulted in an increase in both the demand for organically grown cotton and the amount of acreage planted.


Naturally Colored Cotton

Until recently, chemical dyeing was counted as the only viable way to color cotton clothing. This process requires several steps, each of which creates toxic waste. Cotton is often bleached before it is dyed and heavy metal mordants are used to adhere the dye to the fabric. Because dyes have a hard time adhering to cotton, at least half of the chemicals end up as waste water in rivers and in the soil. Even in small amounts these heavy metals are lethal.

In 1982, entomologist Sally Fox reintroduced naturally colored cotton, eliminating the need for dyeing altogether. Cottons of different colors have always existed in nature. Like our eyes or hair, cotton is genetically encoded with colors ranging from brown to tan. Native peoples have used these wild cottons for weaving and hand spinning for centuries. Because of its short fibers and inherent weakness, however, it was unable to be processed by modern textile machinery and had limited commercial value.

With a program of plant breeding, Fox developed a strong, long-fiber, colored cotton that can be used commercially. Today, colored cotton is grown on the stem in shades of brown, reddish brown, green and yellow, totally eliminating the need for dyes.

In the long run, no dyeing means a savings in our pocket. The cost of one pound of dyed cotton including dyestuff, water, energy costs and toxic waste disposal is 20 to 40 percent higher than that of colored cotton. And with colored cotton there are no hidden costs to the environment.

In addition colored cotton offers:

  • An eco-friendly solution. Since there is no bleaching or harmful dyestuff involved in manufacturing, no waste water is produced.
  • Unlike dyed material, the color of the fabrics made from colored cotton actually deepens with washing.
  • Colored cotton is naturally pest and disease tolerant, making it easier to grow organically.
  • Colored cotton is suitable for chemically sensitive people.
  • Colored cotton provides new yarn and fabric design potentials.
  • Without the need for abundant water or energy sources, new mill sites have many more choices for location.

In recent years, the demand for colored cotton has increased. Large companies like Esprit and Levi have launched popular "green lines" of cotton outerwear using dye-free, unbleached, organic green cotton. The demand for these items far exceed the supply. Colored cotton is now being grown in the United States, Europe and Australia.

Recycled Cotton

Another ecological choice when purchasing cotton clothing is Eco Fibre. Eco Fibre is a recycled cotton fabric made from recovered cotton that would otherwise be cast off during the spinning, weaving or cutting process. There are no harsh chemicals used in the processing of this fabric.

The next time you are shopping for cotton clothing, choose garments made from organic cotton, naturally colored cotton or recycled cotton. By buying from these natural sources, you are supporting the demand for a new earth-friendly textile industry. Your choice makes a 




Mary Capone . is a freelance writer from Boulder, Colorado.

  Mary Capone


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