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Cotton: Organic, Unfinished
by Diane di Costanzo
The Green Guide

Although favored for its natural appeal, cotton, when conventionally grown, is responsible for the use of nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides annually—more than any other crop, according to Pesticide Action Network North America (www.panna.org). These include organophosphate and carbamate pesticides, potent nervous-system toxins, which sicken agricultural workers and contaminate the soil and ground water.

The chemical dyes used to color cotton fabric can contain toxic heavy metals, which further pollute water. A number of commonly used fabric finishes can also be unhealthy (see "Slick Finishes"). The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) requires that all children's sleepwear be either fire-retardant or snug-fitting, as a loose-fitting garment is more likely to catch fire. Luckily, snug-fitting, untreated organic stretchies abound.

Another issue that clings to clothing: the garment industry's reliance on sweatshop labor. Apparel giants such as The Gap and Levi Strauss continue to turn a blind eye to working conditions in some factories, according to watchdog groups. The Clean Clothes Campaign (www.cleanclothes.org) is targeting a Mexican factory that produces Levi Strauss apparel; and Behind the Label (www.behindthelabel.org) is investigating a Guatemala factory that manufactures Gap clothing-and where workers report forced overtime, physical harassment and poverty wages.

What to Look For:

Cotton labeled "certified organic," "sweatshop free" and "fairly traded." OCA's Clothes for a Change campaign is urging organic-cotton users to adopt fair-trade standards.

Untreated fabrics. Ideally, the cotton will have been "color-grown" (meaning that the fiber is naturally that shade), undyed or colored with natural dyes in a process sometimes labeled as "phosphate-free" or "fiber-reactive," resulting in less dye going down the drain.

Top Organic Cotton Product Choices

Maggie's Functional Organics are manufactured in worker-owned cooperatives that adhere to fair-trade principles. Cotton camisoles ($14), socks ($8) and crib sheets ($17); www.organicclothes.com; 800-609-8593.

All of Patagonia's cotton lines, for babies, kids and adults, are organic (www.patagonia.com; 800-638-6464).

Under The Canopy sells sheets and towels made from organic cotton colored with low-impact dyes according to fair-trade policies. About $30 for a twin fitted sheet and $36 for a bath towel (www.underthecanopy.com; 888-226-6799).

Garden Kids has organic cotton infantwear, baby blankets, snug-fitting (CPSC-compliant for fire-safe) pyjamas and clothing up to children's size 8. Multi-Color Stripe Jammies come in sizes newborn to 2/3 ($32). All made according to Fair Wage Labor practices in Oregon (www.gardenkids.com; 541-465-4544).

Looking ahead: American Apparel, a wholesale T-shirt manufacturer with a sweatshop-free mission, is now converting to organic cotton as well, according to OCA. Available retail are "Sustainable Edition" shirts (www.americanapparelstore.com; 213-488-0226).

Wildlife Works currently gives 100 percent of its profits to benefit conservation organizations. Yoga clothes include a bra tank ($40) and bootcut pant ($62); T-shirts are styled with illustrations of endangered animal species ($24 and up); beautiful sisal bags ($40) are handcrafted by a women's cooperative in Kenya (www.wildlife-works.com; 888-934-WILD).

Resources/For More Information

Pesticide Action Network North America, www.panna.org

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals," www.cdc.gov/exposurereport

The Sustainable Cotton Project, www.sustainablecotton.org

Environmental Working Group, "Mother's Milk" report, www.ewg.org/reports/mothersmilk/release_20030923.php

Organic Consumers Association, Clothes for a Change campaign, www.organicconsumers.org/clothes

Clothes Campaign, www.cleanclothes.org

Behind The Label, www.behindthelabel.org