I've been partial to cotton since I was young. Back then, synthetics were incurably tacky and wool gave me an intolerable itch. Cotton was not only comfortable and good-looking, but a versatile chameleon that met all my needs. It was sturdy in blue jeans, crisp in button-down shirts and wonderfully soft in flannels, velvets and corduroys. I also liked the fact that, coming from a plant, it was pure and natural. That's where I was wrong.
Maybe the cotton plant is natural, but what's done with it is certainly not. Cotton is grown with more insecticides than any other crop. These include relatives of nerve agents developed for chemical warfare in World War II and other broad spectrum insecticides. "Broad spectrum" means that the chemicals are effective against a wide array of organisms, including beneficial insects and other innocent bystanders. The honeybee, for instance, is one beneficial species that both loves cotton and is susceptible to some of the chemicals used on it.
It is not only organisms in the fields that suffer from exposure; farm workers do, too. Moreover, insecticides and other pesticides often drift, when sprayed, into neighboring areas where wildlife or people may live. They also wash into waterways and seep into groundwater, where they can contaminate drinking water supplies.
Nor does the use of chemicals stop at the farm. Additional toxins are applied during processing, as cotton is transformed into clothes. Chlorine is used to bleach the fabric, heavy metals to dye it and formaldehyde to make it wrinkle-free. All of this nasty stuff ends up in our air and water.
Other so-called natural fabrics (such as linen and hemp) are grown and processed with chemicals, too -- though with much smaller amounts. So they're a considerably better alternative, environmentally speaking, but still not perfect. Wool production, which involves chemicals at different stages, has a particularly ugly side: the sheep are dipped in an insecticide bath to remove parasites.
It's a pretty grim picture, but not hopeless. Here are some important steps you can take:
Buy organic. Clothes made with organic fabrics are increasingly available. The labeling is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just as it is for organic foods. One hundred percent organic is obviously best, but blends of organic and conventional fabrics are still a step in the right direction -- and often easier to find.
Avoid "easy-care" clothes. Features that make clothes easier to care for, such as wrinkle and stain resistance, require additional chemicals. Avoid these features when possible.
Try hemp and linen in place of cotton. Both come from hardy plants that are less susceptible to pests than cotton and so, require fewer pesticides.
Look for recycled fleece. Polar fleece is soft, lightweight, warm -- and made from petroleum, which puts it on the environmentally unsustainable list. However, some fleece is made from recycled materials (including soda bottles). This is the kind to buy. When shopping, check the list of materials on the labels for recycled content.
Recycle your clothes. Hand them down when possible to family and friends or drop them off at a clothes bank or thrift shop.
Buy less. It goes without saying that most of us in America have many more clothes than we need. I doubt we'd even notice the difference if we cut back by a few items a year, but the environmental savings would be substantial -- in energy and water use as well as chemical abuse.
HARD TO GET
The plant that produces industrial hemp is a cousin of the marijuana plant -- same species, different variety. Although it doesn't contain enough of the psychoactive agent, THC, to make anyone high, its cultivation has nevertheless been banned in the United States since 1970. This is why hemp clothes are a relative rarity here. Clothing is only one of many useful products that hemp can be used for, with paper, fuel and food being others. Hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years around the world and is grown today in more than 30 countries, including China, Germany, England and Canada.
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
Out of balance? The cotton that goes into a t-shirt is grown, on average, with a third of a pound of pesticides. The t-shirt ends up weighing about the same.
Where they come from...
Denim: probably from serge de Nîmes, meaning a serge fabric from Nîmes, France. If this is the derivation, then the fabric evolved at some point from a wool-silk blend to cotton, possibly when it came to be made in America where cotton was abundant. Denim is a sturdy twill (cloth with diagonal lines). The threads going one way are colored and the threads going the other are white.
Jean: from jean fustian, meaning a fustian fabric from Genoa, Italy, where sailors wore it. A cotton twill like denim, jean has colored threads going both ways. Levi Strauss created the jeans we know today, which are made of denim, not jean.
Khaki: from Urdu khaki, meaning "dust-colored," from Persian khak, meaning "dust." A yellowish-brown or olive-colored fabric that was first introduced in uniforms for British colonial troops in India in 1848. Khakis can be made of cotton, wool, a synthetic or a mix.
On my shopping list. For sportswear and outerwear, I like to shop at Patagonia. All its cotton is 100 percent organic -- you don't even need to check the label to be sure. It also offers recycled fleece items, under the "Synchilla" brand name, and some organic wool clothes.
False promises? Bt cotton is genetically engineered by the Monsanto Corporation to produce its own pest-fighting toxin (the naturally occurring Bt). The idea is that use of this product will allow farmers to get off the "pesticide treadmill." But already there are signs that pests are developing resistance. As Bt's effectiveness declines, farmers will be back to spraying chemicals as usual.
--------------------------------- Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.