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Care What You Wear

Can China Turn Cotton Green?

That "all-natural" cotton T-shirt in your closet? The one with the eco-friendly message brightly printed on the front? Ounce for ounce, it could be the most environmentally toxic item of clothing you own. From the water and agrichemicals lavished on cotton grown in some of the world's driest regions (approximately one-third of the pesticide and fertilizer produced worldwide gets sprayed or dusted on cotton), through multihued rivers of waste streaming from textile mills to landfills bulging with castoff clothing, the life cycle of the humble cotton tee has left ecological wreckage in its wake.

As both the world's leading producer and biggest importer of raw cotton and its top exporter of cotton fabrics and apparel, China has experienced much of the damage. The expansion of industrial-scale cotton farming in the arid western Xinjiang province has been linked to the advance of the vast Taklamakan Desert, whose dunes have swallowed entire towns. In China's industrial heartland, untreated dye wastes stain drainage ditches in vibrant synthetic hues, contributing to pollution that renders most Chinese rivers undrinkable and a few even dangerously toxic to the touch. So when China's leaders sought advice from international researchers on how to reduce the ecological cost of their country's trade, it was natural for cotton to be put atop the list for scrutiny.