When it comes to naturally-derived clothing fibers, cotton is one of nature’s most precious gifts. In fact, it’s the most widely used material in the world for making fabric (superseding wool and other materials), which is why it appears to be so inexpensive and readily available.
Unfortunately, I’ve learned things aren’t always that simple when it comes to our beloved cotton because, as with many things in life, it’s the journey that this fluffy fiber takes from farm to fabric that matters the most.
The reality is that growing and manufacturing conventional cotton can negatively impact the health of our environment at large because it requires the use of many toxic pesticides and chemicals. These hidden toxins often decimate the soil and can influence the health of those exposed to them, from those who farm and sew conventional cotton fabric, to those who wrap it around their skin.
It is why we’re so passionate about using GOTS certified organic cotton as often as possible and why every fabric and dye we use is OEKO-Tex® certified. It’s a more sustainable choice for farmers, better for our planet, and the healthiest option for our children (and ourselves).
Allow me to fill you in on the truth about cotton and why choosing to purchase certified organic makes a difference for your child and our world.
Toxic Chemicals in Conventional Cotton
The first place to start when looking at becoming more conscious of your clothing and textiles is to ensure they are natural, and that there are no synthetic fabrics like polyester anywhere to be found. The next step is to become aware of how those natural materials come into being and how they reach your doorstep. Ask yourself this question, “If cotton is everywhere, how exactly can it be grown, manufactured, and sold for such a bargain?”
The reality is conventional cotton growers typically rely on synthetic chemical pesticides and weed killers to help bring their cotton from the fields to your closet. It’s said that conventional cotton is only about 73% cotton (the rest is a mix of toxic pesticides), and in researching the reality behind cotton production, it’s easy to believe it.
Cotton fields represent just 3% of all cultivated land on earth yet use 22.5% of chemical insecticides and 10 percent of pesticides in agriculture. Soaked in chemical pesticides, cottonseed and its oil are not regulated by the FDA and are routinely used in human food and fed to cattle.
Many of these chemicals are hazardous to our personal health—and to the well-being of our entire planet—because they’re designed to kill microorganisms. They remain in the soil, enter our food chain via cottonseed oil, and can influence the delicate skin of those who make and wear them.
To give you some idea of the scope of this issue, here are just a few of the many toxic chemicals routinely used in conventional cotton farming:1
- Aldicarb (Temik): This pesticide, which targets insects and nematodes, is carcinogenic to humans, may cause genetic mutations, and is toxic to fish.
- Methyl Parathion (Parathion, Metaphos): Used to control insects, methyl parathion is associated with human birth defects, fetal damage, mutations, and harm to the immune and reproductive systems—as well as toxicity to bees, birds, crustaceans, and fish.
- Naled (Dibrom): This insecticide, which is also believed to kill ticks and mites, is carcinogenic, causes reproductive damage, and may also cause mutations and tumors. In the environment it’s toxic to birds, bees, amphibians, aquatic insects, crustaceans, and fish.
- Chlorpyrifos (Lorsban): Used as an insecticide, Chlorpyrifos is associated with brain damage, impotence, sterility, and fetal damage. It also puts aquatic insects, bees, birds, crustaceans, and amphibians at risk.
- Cyanazine (Bladex): This weed killer is carcinogenic, can cause birth defects, and is toxic to fish, crustaceans, bees, and birds.
- Ethephon (Prep): Used to enhance and regulate the growth of cotton plants, Ethephon may cause genetic mutations and is toxic to crustaceans, birds, bees, and fish.
Add to this list the numerous synthetic dyes and bleaches used to brighten and color conventional cotton products, and you’ve got a toxic mix that’s not safe for people, animals, or the environment, not to mention the quality is often incredibly poor.
In fact, the reason conventional cotton breaks down so quickly after a few washes is because it goes through a lot of processing before it reaches its final destination. Dyeing, bleaching, using flame retardants, softeners, formaldehyde sprays, scouring, and other harsh processes break down the cotton fiber at the molecular level and make it unwearable and needing replacement within a few short weeks. The quality suffers and the end result is laden with who knows what.
Organic cotton, on the other hand, comes with a much higher quality because it is free of the damage of over-fabrication and can hold its value over time. It’s also without many of the harmful pesticides used in conventional cotton farming, which is why it’s more sustainable and practical for our children’s delicate skin. The skin itself is a sensitive organ that’s highly absorbent. It’s important to remember that children have thinner, more porous skin that can leave them more vulnerable to the effects of toxins that can manifest as allergies or irritation.
Choosing organic helps ensure these chemicals stay out of our soil and our garments, reducing incidents of accidental poisoning (which can happen to those working in conventional farming fields), keeping manufacturers clear of chemical-related illnesses, and helping our children live their best, healthiest lives.
The Environmental Impact
Conventional cotton requires a significant amount of nutritional elements from the ground where it is grown, and the soil is often rendered useless after about three or four seasons due to the large amount of industrial fertilizers and chemicals needed. The soil needs five pesticide-free years to pass before earthworms (a sign of healthy soil) begin to return. Its global consumption releases about 220 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. That’s a huge carbon footprint!2
Further, manufacturing conventional cotton clothing requires a massive amount of water, squandering a valuable limited resource. Shockingly, over 2,700 liters of water are used to make one conventional cotton single tee shirt, and making a single pair of conventional cotton jeans uses almost 11,000 liters.3 Rainwater runoff from cotton fields contributes significantly to the growth of ocean dead zones.
The hazards of conventional cotton are alarming enough on their own, but unfortunately there’s the additional issue of genetically engineered cotton to consider.
As of 2016, 93% of cotton seeds planted upland are genetically modified. These GMO plants, which are engineered to be herbicide tolerant and/or insect resistant, have led to a dramatic increase in resistant weeds—and likely resistant insects as well.2 During the time between 2000 and 2015, the introduction of GMO farming resulted in an 80% increase in the amount of herbicides used on cotton.3 The bottom line is that the conventional cotton you buy today is likely GMO, which means even greater chemical exposure risk.
Cotton is a small crop, so you can imagine a large crop duster pouring down this chemical rain, and more than half of it ending up in neighboring fields and streams. Conventional fields contribute to millions of metric tons of greenhouse emissions every year, and none of it is necessary. Cotton was never grown this way prior to World War II, and we can spiral back by choosing cotton that’s grown from organic seeds and harvested sustainably.
Organic cotton farmers use natural fertilizers to grow their crops and the result is much healthier for the land. Additionally, organic cotton manufacturing is far cleaner, and uses dramatically less water than conventional methods.3 This can sometimes mean more manpower, a smaller output, or a shorter season (making it more expensive for the consumer), but the end result is better for all of us.
Organic Cotton: The Ethical, Sustainable Choice
The truth of the matter is that using organic and certified organic cotton keeps your family protected and helps pave the way for a more ethical and sustainable model where less is more, quality is prioritized over quantity, and toxins are consciously considered (and avoided) at every step.
We’re proud to be on the forefront of this movement where slow, earth-friendly fashion is taking its rightful place in all of our lives. We’re opting out of GMO cotton and choosing conscious awareness in every step of the process from the farmers field to your closet.
We take safe, non-toxic childrenswear, sustainability, and ethical production very seriously, which is why all of our fabrics and dyes are OEKO-Tex® Standard 100 certified, meaning that they are free of the top 100 harmful chemicals and toxins common in standard manufacturing.
We are also proud to offer GOTS certified garments, which is the worldwide gold standard for the processing of organic fibers. GOTS certified products must contain a minimum of 95% natural organic fibers—as opposed to just 70% for a product to simply be labeled “organic.”
Choosing OEKO-Tex® and GOTS certified clothing and accessories helps preserve our wonderful planet by setting guidelines for the way the production process impacts the environment. Procedures and goals must be in place to keep waste and discharges to a minimum, and extensive records must be maintained detailing water consumption, waste disposal, and energy use, so seek out these labels on your future purchases.
The bottom line is that our choices really do matter. Embracing beautiful, soft clothing made from certified organic cotton and wrapping your little ones in only the best fabrics for their skin is one gentle way to decidedly keep their world safe for joyful play, exploration, and discovery.
1. Organic Trade Association. (2017). Cotton and the environment. Retrieved from https://ota.com/sites/default/files/indexed_files/CottonandtheEnvironment.pdf
2. United States Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). National Agricultural Statistics Service - Surveys - Chemical Use. Retrieved from https://www.nass.usda.gov/Surveys/Guide_to_NASS_Surveys/Chemical_Use/
3. UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education. (2005). The water footprint of cotton consumption. Retrieved from https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report18.pdf