What’s the Big Deal About Organic Cotton

How fashionable is it to stroll down the street in a cocktail of known carcinogenic chemicals? Or to drape yourself sexily in a petroleum product?

Increasingly, the fashion industry is asking (or being asked) these questions. As we awaken to the effect our actions have on the environment, we look for ways to limit both our personal exposure to chemicals, and the amount of chemicals that are released into the environment on our behalf.

Many fabrics these days – particularly “technical” ones – are synthetic, made from petroleum derivatives. Polyester, nylon, microfiber, Lycra, acrylic – these fibers come from fossil fuels! And, like any other plastic product, they don’t biodegrade. Even if you live to be 100, that hot pink stretchy top you wore just once is going to be sitting on the planet long after your death.

There are efforts in place now to create “recycled” fabrics – generally polyester made from recycled plastic bottles. It’s important to understand something here. True recycling means that you get the same product at the end as you got at the beginning. So glass bottles get recycled and become new glass bottles. Paper gets recycled and becomes new paper. But in the case of plastic, it’s more accurate to say that it gets “downcycled”. A plastic bottle can’t be recycled into another plastic bottle. It can be restructured into a lower quality plastic that happens to work as a fiber in knitting yarns and clothing. But that fiber may not be able to be recycled again.

For those who are not sensitive to the energy of synthetics against the skin (in many cases, synthetics can aggravate rashes or disturb meditation practice or energy work, in which case it is best to avoid them entirely), recycled fibers and fabrics can be a better choice than new synthetic fibers. But it would be far better not to have the glut of plastic waste from which to make recycled fibers in any case. Be aware of industry attempts to “greenwash” and say that recycled fabrics are environmentally friendly. They’re no more biodegradable than plastic bottles are. They’re just keeping the synthetic out of the landfill for a little while longer.

In the face of all this, natural fibers like cotton start to look appealing. The cotton fiber grows in what’s known as bolls, around the seeds of the cotton plant. It functions much as dandelion gossamer does, allowing the seeds to be carried on the wind. Cotton is inexpensive and biodegradable. It can be snuggly soft, satiny smooth or sturdy and strong. But it’s really important to choose organic cotton wherever possible, and here’s why.

Conventionally grown cotton is one of the most pesticide-intensive crops on the planet, commonly using several known carcinogens. In fact, in California it is now illegal to feed the leftovers of cotton production – the “gin trash”, or leaves, stems and short fibers – to livestock, because these items have so much pesticide residue. Instead these items are used in the making of furniture, mattresses, tampons (yes! really!), cotton swabs and cotton balls – things that spend time in close proximity to, or even inside, human bodies. Ecological fashion doesn’t support these industry practices.

Organically grown cotton fabric is increasingly available and affordable. It tends to come most often in soft jersey knits (ideal for t-shirts, pyjamas and active wear) and is more slowly becoming mainstream in woven fabrics such as denim. The soft drape of jersey knit organic cotton is cool, comfortable and flattering, though it can take some skillful fashion design to make it look elegant and not overly casual.

As demand increases for organic cotton and people speak out against pesticide use, industries will be increasingly pressured to switch to more environmentally friendly practices and the price differential between organic cotton and conventional cotton will continue to drop. The crisp, tailored lines we expect in conventional cotton clothing will be more widely available in organic cotton as well, at a similar price point. It just falls to all of us as consumers to make choices that support ecology, and to call on industry to make changes.