If, for some strange reason, the veritable compendium of own it till you die goods known as Kaufmann Mercantile isn’t already on your list of daily reads, I highly recommend adding it. In fact, why don’t you go ahead and do so right now. I’ll wait… Done? Great. Founded in 2009 by Sebastian Kaufmann, the site is a must-visit for anyone who seeks / owns / loves items of the hand-me-down-to-be variety. From features on kitchenware and personal electronics, to mini-profiles of significant artists and designers, to thoughtful ruminations on the virtues of various construction materials, to full-on foodie geek-outs, Kaufmann, along with his crack team of local and international contributors, has put together one of the net’s best responsible shopping resources. For this latest edition of On Good Authority, Mr. Kaufmann himself has composed an excellent primer for anyone curious about organic cotton. Read on to learn the pros, cons and just about everything else you’d ever want know about one of the cornerstone materials of sustainable apparel.
Cotton plant, via Ethical Style
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 US Colonies, to its current boast as one of the most environmentally disruptive crops on the planet.
African American Cotton Workers, via 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 usage for cotton runs “3 to 5 times greater per hectare than applications of pesticides to corn.” That’s a whole lot of chemical gook per acre.
Grades of cotton, via 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 flesh.
Roll That Cotton Bale, postcard 1947, via Mary Carol
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 plant, via Mrs. Cotton
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 such as 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.
Map of the “Cotton Kingdom,” via 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. But, 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 boom to the few American upstart farmers who can offer certified organic, it has also helped to reduce the material’s expense.
Men opening bales of cotton at the White Oak Mill in Greensboro, North Carolina, via National Museum of American History
So, while difficult to produce, and an underdog on the market, organic cotton is still 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?