Why you should buy organic cotton.

If you follow my fashiony creations at all, you probably know I use pretty nearly only organic cotton fabric. One thing I never do is buy new non-organic cotton to use in my studio. For some reason organic-loving people seem to be thought of as either overly-earthy people who wear comfy green, brown, mustard, and terracotta clothing with no underwear. They are usually yoga instructors. While this (maybe unfairly stereotyped) little section of humans may have been the first to really attach to the idea of eating and wearing organic things, it's arrogant and prejudiced to turn up your nose at something that actually affects every person on the planet in serious ways.

When I was trying to come up with my shoot-you-in-the-eye reasons for supporting the organic cotton industry I realized I've read and heard a lot without ever trying to really memorize the main facts of the issue. After doing a little research I came across the Organic Trade Association's website, and it has an incredibly eye-opening list of facts about the whole cotton industry that are pretty hard to stomach. For example,

"Cotton is considered the world's 'dirtiest' crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world's cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world's insecticides, more than any other single major crop (1)."

"Aldicarb, cotton's second best selling insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans, can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin, yet it is still used in 25 countries and the US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater (1). "

"The cottonseed hull, where many pesticide residues have been detected, is a secondary crop sold as a food commodity. It is estimated that as much as 65% of cotton production ends up in our food chain, whether directly through food oil or indirectly through the milk and meat of animals (1)."

"The developing world is home to 99% of all cotton farmers and produces 75% of the world's total cotton, so it bears the brunt of cotton's environmental and health concerns (1)."

"US cotton subsidies artificially lower cotton prices while production costs for Biotech (Bt) seeds and pesticides are rising, causing financial stress in the rest of the world's cotton-producing areas. India's once prestigious cotton belt is now referred to as the "suicide belt" due to farmers unable to accept growing debts. Since 2003, the suicide rate has averaged one every eight hours in Vidarba, India (7)."

The OTA's page has a lot more information as well as the source list for these facts, but what I copied gives a good summary of my main concerns. We need to realize that with every new cotton product we buy- clothing, socks, towels, curtains, bedding- we are participating in these issues.

There isn't a totally obvious way to "fix" all these problems- if we stopped using cotton we'd have to replace it with something else, and I'm not in favor of synthetic or even bamboo materials which involve a lot of other chemical processing. Part of the problem is over-consumption. I think we are all guilty of owning more clothing than we really need, or even wear. I think it's very easy to buy things you WANT but don't really need or even always like a whole lot when they're not very expensive- Forver 21 case in point. Sorry. (Forever 21 used to be my favorite store... but I won't shop there any more.)

I think for a lot of people you can spend the same amount of money and buy either

a) a vast and varied wardrobe of
*Factory produced synthetic or non-organic clothing
*Designed to follow the current trends which will probably change in 3 months
*Produced cheaply enough that you can impulse buy without regret

b) a much smaller and more selective wardrobe of pieces
*Designed for Versatility, Functionality, and long lasting wear;
*Made by workers who are paid fairly;
*Are produce in consideration and respect for the limited resources of the earth;
*AND are designed to creatively express the person wearing it.

I realize that a lot of people would probably love to buy clothing in the latter group but honestly feel like they can't afford to. I think my family growing up belonged to that group. When I think of people like my parents I don't know what do say. They had 5 kids and my dad was a pastor at a small church which meant we had to live pretty simply. I think my parents tended to skimp on themselves in exchange for giving us the best childhood and chance in life that they could. And they did a damn good job. But I can guarantee that they would not have been able to afford organic, handmade clothing for all of us. In fact, we wore a lot of hand-me-downs. Which I am happy to say that, even as a kid, I loved getting.

I don't know how to reconcile some of the clothing industry issues to families like mine, but there are too many causes and effects involved in any issue to try to solve everything. All I can say is, there are some things going on that are indefensibly wrong, and addressing them means some sacrifice- ever read Little House on the Prairie? Back then you had one dress a year which you wore and patched until it didn't fit or couldn't be worn any more. Nowadays in America (though not in a lot of other places) if you wear the same outfit twice in a week it's practically considered an embarrassment. We can change that if we're willing to eat a delicious piece of humble pie. We all need to allow our ideas of what is a normal and happy life to be challenged and modified. (And if the economic issues of the past years hasn't caused you to do that yet, you're wearing some pretty thick rose-colored glasses.)

I also want to say that a lot of power comes with being a purchaser. (I am going to ban the use of the word "consumer" here because it has such a negative connotation, and I don't want to oversimplify and condemn the fact that we as humans have to take things in to keep living, or to live well. It can be done modestly or excessively; "consuming" in itself is not a bad thing.) You as a purchaser have a lot of voting power with your money. (Side note: does anyone feel like once you get out of college you realize how little you know about using money? Why doesn't anyone teach regular people how to manage money well when you're in school? Money management isn't just for corporations and rich people!) When you choose to buy or not buy something, the market will feel it. You are supporting, intentionally or not, whatever is connected to whatever you are buying.

On the other hand, I have come to realize more and more that "purchasers" often don't know most of what is involved in producing things that we use every day. The designers and suppliers of our life-objects are even more responsible for what and how things are made, and the following consequences. We are also responsible for informing our customers and clients about why and how we do what we do. If people knew the true effects of probably any industry they buy into, they would be in for a major surprise. And not a good one, most likely.

For now I'll curb this unending network of questions and problems and ideas and just say that there is no easy answer and no single solution, but we need to start taking some issues seriously and trying different, more informed and conscientious decisions about all of this. That is my main goal here.

p.s. photo credit http://www.bellaseraorganicmattress.com/organic-materials.php

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Melissa, thanks for your thoughts. Something to consider and a challenge to us all.