I grew up in a family and community that was very aware of environmental issues, and pretty active in the environmental movement. My mom started the first recycling truck in our neighborhood, we were members of the local health food co-op, and I learned how to make solar panels in my third grade class. So I knew about the benefits of organic products, and I would buy organic cotton when I could, but it always seemed hard to find, and with limited options. I was interested in supporting organic cotton, but it didn’t seem easy.
In 2009 I had just started licensing my designs for fabric when I heard a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered that profiled the health effects of pesticide use by cotton farmers in India. It really personalized the issue for me, and prompted me to learn more about conventional cotton farming and the alternatives that organic cotton could offer. What I learned surprised and impressed me. Here are some facts:
-Conventionally farmed cotton is one of the most chemically dependent crops, using up to 25 different pesticides and fertilizers, several of which are toxic to humans or are known carcinogens
-Organic cotton is grown without the use of toxic synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and without synthetic, nitrogen-based fertilizers. Instead, organic production uses farming techniques that focus on soil and plant health, including crop rotation, companion planning, local plant varietals and beneficial insects to produce a better crop.
-The synthetic, nitrogen-based fertilizers used in conventional cotton farming dramatically increase the carbon footprint of the cotton crop. Excess nitrogen can escape into the atmosphere, streams and groundwater, contaminating the water supply and contributing to the proliferation of greenhouse gasses.
-Alternately, organic cotton farming represents a significantly smaller environmental footprint. It releases less greenhouse gas, does not contaminate groundwater, uses less energy and, due to the improved quality of the soil, uses significantly less water. There is an interesting blog post on this issue here.
-Conventional cotton farming can pose serious health risks to the farmers and farming communities, particularly in areas where proper use guidelines may not be followed. In addition, the finishing process for conventional cottons can involve numerous toxic chemicals, exposing mill workers to health risks as well.
-Conventional cotton can contain residues of pesticides and finishing agents, particularly formaldehyde, that can cause skin irritations and health affects to the end user.
-In contrast, GOTS-certified organic cotton is produced using no toxic chemicals throughout the entire production process, ensuring a healthier working environment for the farmers and mill workers, and a healthier, higher-quality product for the end user. Additionally, the GOTS certification signifies that the product is fair-trade, ensuring that it was produced under safe, healthy and equitable conditions. Read more about the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and what it covers here.
After learning all this, I realized that I wanted to help promote organic cotton farming in whatever way I could, and I decided to launch my own organic cotton company, Monaluna. Although the first few collections were too small to use the GOTS-certified dyes, we – my husband Dave and I – are now producing GOTS-certified collections exclusively, and we are committed to supporting organic and sustainable farming practices.
These days, organic fabric is much easier to find, and the choices are wonderful and varied. They are still more expensive, but in light of the above points, the benefits are vast. Next time you’re in the market for fabric, do yourself and the environment a favor and try an organic alternative.