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Is Your Cotton Tee a Chemical Weave?


Fact: It takes about one-third of a pound of chemicals to grow enough cotton for one T-shirt, according to the Sustainable Cotton Project in California

Fact: It takes about one-third of a pound of chemicals to grow enough cotton for one T-shirt, according to the Sustainable Cotton Project in California.

There's something about cotton that's reminiscent of homegrown goodness. What could feel more natural than slipping into your favourite pair of cotton pajamas after a stressful day of work? Perhaps one reason we feel this way is because humans have cultivated cotton for more than 4,000 years.

What many people don't know is that cotton is the third-highest crop in pesticide consumption. Although the total US cotton acreage accounts for less than one percent of the country's agricultural lands, it guzzles about 10 percent of the world's pesticides, including 23 percent of insecticides chemicals that not only pollute the water, air and soil, but also have been shown to leave residues in commercial products, sneak into the food chain and end up stored in human tissues.

From Seed to Shirt

The chemical cycle begins when cottonseeds are treated with fungicides to prevent rotting. Then growers add synthetic fertilizers to sterilize the soil, extra fungicides and pre-emergent herbicides to take care of unwanted weeds. After the plants sprout, there's another round of sprays, and then again before harvest. Take all that into account and it's not surprising that cotton consumes more than $2.6 billion worth of pesticides each year.

For farmers and their families, the risks of dealing with dangerous chemicals, many of which are known to be carcinogenic, can be especially high. Exposed workers have reported
experiencing symptoms of pesticides poisoning, which include headache, dizziness, vision problems, numbness, psychiatric disorders, and joint and low back pain.

Another series of processes typically occurs before cotton reaches your doorstep as a finished product. In order to offer you the colours and textures you desire, manufacturing companies may subject fabrics to chlorine bleach or heavy metal dyes, which can contain cobalt, chromium, lead, copper and nickel, not to mention formaldehyde resins (for easy care treatment).

Go Organic

Just as organic food has arrived on the supermarket scene, so has organic fabric impressed eco-friendly shoppers. Cotton is the most popular organic fibre. In 1999, US farmers planted about 16,500 acres of organic cotton, a 75 percent increase compared to 1998. The top producing countries are the US, India, Turkey, Uganda and Peru.

Approximately one yard of organically grown fabric saves about half a pound of chemicals from being used.

With the help of third-party certification groups, organic producers keep their methods and materials up to standard. Generally, organic cotton is grown in fields nourished with manure and compost. Farmers rely on techniques such as crop rotation, dual-crop planting and beneficial bugs to keep plants healthy and to ensure soil quality. During the growing season, weeds are uprooted manually or by tractor. Come harvest time, farmers allow plants to die naturally without applying quick-death agents.

Earth-Friendly Orders

Because organic growing is quite labour intensive, organic products can cost more than their conventional counterpart. And yet, people are opening their hearts and their wallets to this earth-friendly form of cultivation. According to the Organic Fiber Council, large apparel companies purchased 2.15 million pounds of organic cotton in 1997.

During manufacturing, the organic cotton is washed with either citric acid or soap to avoid chemical bleach or detergents. As for colour, naturally pigmented cotton grows in shades including beige, brown, green and mauve. Sometimes hydrogen peroxide is used as a whitening agent. If extra colour is desired, then dyes from plant and insect sources are preferred. When reading labels, keep in mind that terms such as green, pure and natural don't necessarily mean that the cotton is organic, only that it may not have been exposed to chemical bleaches or colouring agents.

For environmentally conscious consumers or those wanting to cut back their personal exposure to any chemical residues, some health food stores and specialty shops carry lines of organic clothing and personal care items. For more selection and larger-ticket items, such as mattresses, bedding and furniture, check out the online resources listed below, many of which offer information on organic fibre producers and mail-order companies.

Bug Bites

  • Of all insecticides used on a global scale, the amount used on cotton: 25 percent.
  • According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the most highly toxic pesticide registered: aldicarb (used on cotton).
  • Number of pesticides currently being used that were registered before being tested to determine if they caused cancer, birth defects or harm to wildlife: 400
  • Number of active ingredients in pesticides found to cause cancer in animals and humans: 107
  • Percentage increase in cancer rates between 1950 and 1986: 37 percent
  • Percentage increase of pesticide use in the United States since 1940: 3,000 percent
  • Percentage increase of US crops lost to insects: 37 percent
  • Percentage of US crops lost to insects in 1940: 31 percent

Hemp it Up

Another eco-friendly fibre, hemp, is making an appearance on the fashion scene or, should we say, reappearance?

The first Levis blue jeans were actually fashioned from ship sail canvas made of 100 per cent hemp. Imported from N?s, France, or "de N?s," the fabric became known as "denim."

From an environmental perspective, hemp is superior to cotton. The crop actually suppresses weeds and nourishes the soil. It requires virtually no pesticides and less water, yet produces 250 percent more fibre, which is extremely versatile and can be used for everything from apparel to carpets to rope. Perhaps best of all, Canada's hemp industry is growing, with local, American and overseas markets reaping the rewards.



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Leah PayneLeah Payne