Organic cotton as important as organic food

Mica Quintana

Mica QuintaOrganic food is beginning to infiltrate the mainstream. Safeway has its own line of organic products. Even Costco has brought in some organics. Although a majority of people still reject organics as overpriced, many average folks buy at least some organic groceries. According to the Organic Trade Organization, 39 percent of the U. S. population uses some amount of organic products. While my conservative grandparents thought “organic” was a meaningless money-making scam until a few years ago, even they are slowly coming to the point at which they might actually deign to eat something organic without feeling like they were supporting a conspiracy.

On the other hand, when someone compliments me on my sweatshirt and I tell them it’s made out of organic cotton, I usually get a certain look or comment that subtly expresses the sentiment of “Oh, good for you, miss goody two-shoes.” Perhaps because of organic clothing’s scarcity and high price, there is a sense that it is somehow pretentious and over-the-top.

But why should organic clothing be any different from organic food in terms of its respectability or importance? For some reason, food has gotten almost all of the attention in the organic movement. In the wave of counter-culture of the 1970s, the organic and health food movements took off together. Their conceptual interconnection has apparently never left us.
Perhaps the fact that food goes into our bodies and thus has the greatest ability to contaminate us has something to do with this. Maybe it comes down to the level of self-preservation again. Consumers just don’t want pesticides to go into their own bodies. Never mind the rest of creation. Perhaps the same value system explains why some of the most popular organic cotton products are underwear, bras, diapers and bedding. People don’t want pesticides next to their sensitive skin.

On the other hand, selfish consumers may not in fact be the reason that organic food is more popular than organic clothing. It may have more to do with the fact that cotton is extremely difficult for farmers to grow organically. It is highly susceptible to insect infestations, so yields often drop significantly when farmers switch over to organic. According to, organic cotton is “just not as economically viable” and may leave 25 percent of the world’s textile needs unmet.

However, our needs cannot really be “met” by drugging the land and poisoning the insects. It will stop working eventually. And just because it is so susceptible to insects, cotton is one of the crops that is pushing the land most quickly toward collapse. According to the Organic Trade Association, cotton uses about 25 percent of the world’s insecticides. In the U.S. in 2003, cotton ranked lower than only corn and soybeans in amount of pesticides sprayed.

The threats to human and environmental health are horrendous. The Organic Trade Organization Web site states that, “the Organic Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 in the United States as ‘possible,’ ‘likely,’ probable,’ or ‘known’ human carcinogens.” If these pesticides are dangerous to humans, they must be truly deadly to smaller forms of wildlife. And severe damage has, in fact, been recorded. Pesticide Action Network North America states, “In 1995, pesticide-contaminated runoff from cotton fields killed at least 240,000 fish in Alabama.” In another case, “a breeding colony of laughing gulls near Corpus Christi, Texas, was devastated when methyl parathion was applied to cotton three miles away.”

Thus, if anything, we as consumers should be more adamant about the sustainability of our clothing than that of our food. I have met a lot of people who are aware that particular foods like strawberries get sprayed more than others and therefore make it a point to buy at least those particular foods organic. But hardly anyone thinks of cotton.

It’s time to start asking the question “How was my sweater grown?” and placing as much importance on the answer as we do when we wonder about the origin of our bananas. Cotton can be grown organically. The only reason it isn’t yet economically viable is because it can’t compete with conventional. Change often begins with the consumer. As long as people are willing to pay the difference, the market will expand. The proof for this is the development of the organic food movement and also of the small organic cotton movement that has managed to establish itself. In order to support this movement and send it on its way, you can start ordering organic clothes from one of the many internet-based companies like Gaiam and Blue Canoe. The Sustainable Cotton Project ( also invites you to start an organic cotton campaign in your community.