Cotton is one of the most popular fibers in the world and is used in nearly half of all clothing today. Cotton has been used for fabric since prehistoric time and has been found in civilizations from Mexico all the way to Ancient India over 5000 years ago. What made cotton so widespread in popularity was the invention of the cotton gin, which lowered the cost of production and lead to high profits.
What most consumers don’t know about this fluffy crop is that the production of cotton is extremely taxing on water and land resources--it can take more than 5000 gallons of water to produce 1kg of cotton:
That is equal to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans.
If those facts aren’t enough to make you rethink the benefits of conventional cotton, here are 5 more reasons why cotton is bad for you:
1. Conventional cotton production also accounts for 18% of worldwide pesticide use and 25% of total insecticide use. While pesticide use isn’t as concerning in clothing as in food, our skin is the largest organ and it is covered with tiny pores, so we literally ingest what we wear. That means that trace chemicals can be passed into our bloodstream every time we wear conventional cotton these clothes.
2. Producers of conventional cotton are being poisoned by the heavy pesticide use: more than 10,000 US farmers die each year from cancers related to such chemicals. Even people who drink from water supplies near cotton farms run the risk of ingesting pesticides that have seeped into the ground. Pesticides have been shown to not only harm the earth and its natural resources, but to also cause severe health problems like ADHD, weakened immune systems, and birth defects.
3. More than 200,000 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1997. In India, one of the biggest cotton exporters in the world, around 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide (about one every thirty minutes) since the mid 1990’s. Two factors have transformed this ancient livelihood for farmers: the rising of costs of cotton production and the falling world prices of cotton. Both these factors are rooted in the policies of trade liberalization and corporate globalization of fast fashion. Cotton farmers will poison themselves with insecticides because they are in so much debt due to falling cotton prices because of shame and despair.
4. Conventional cotton growing is heavily subsidized by public funds, which drives prices down to ridiculously cheap levels, but at what cost? The toll on the environment and the farmers who grow the cotton is not reflected in conventional cotton prices and so doesn’t reflect the true cost of the fabric. In addition, we as Americans don’t get the chance to vote on how those public funds are allocated or who is receiving our money, so the negative impacts of the government’s choices are far reaching and nebulous, to the point where we can’t account for who is impacted or to what extent.
5. Conventional cotton fabric is processed with chlorine bleach. Hydrogen Peroxide and formaldehyde are also applied in the processing of the fabrics--It takes one-quarter of a pound of chemicals to produce one conventional cotton T-shirt, and one-quarter of a pound of chemicals to produce 2 pairs of conventional men's boxer shorts. That’s a LOT of nastiness in your undies. And if you purchase dyed fabric, you can be pretty sure that carcinogens derived from the bleach were used. Blech.
As you mull these points over, remember that we aren’t trying to make you feel bad for your wardrobe or the great deal you got on that cute top last week. We are just trying to present the facts to you so you can make more sustainable choices for yourself this year. Conventional cotton has really negative impacts on so many individuals, and the more you buy, the more the environment and its people feel the effects.
There are a ton of alternatives for you to consider, like thrift stores or Organic Fair Trade cotton clothes and bags that have positive effects on the environment with your purchase.
Educate yourself and make an informed choice the next time you update your wardrobe because hey, spring is just around the corner.