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Care What You Wear

Care What You Wear: Facts on Cotton & Clothing Production

We had written this post as the first in a series on organic cotton.  The second in the organic cotton series was "Cotton: African Savior or Curse". Somehow this blog post disappeared so we are reposting it again.

Cotton - From Field to Fashion.

There has been some confusion about what really are natural fibers used in textiles.  In some people's opinion, natural fiber clothing is the same as organic clothing.  In conversations, "natural clothing" is sometimes used to refer to organic clothing because the clothing is completely natural and was not grown with any toxic chemicals nor manufactured using toxic chemicals. But natural fiber clothing simply refers to clothing made from fibers found in nature, such as cotton, wool or hemp, which may not be grown or manufactured under conditions which would allow them to be certified as organic.

Natural fibers fall into three main groups: vegetable fibers which come from plants; protein fibers, which come from the wool and hair of animals; and the strong elastic fibrous secretion of silkworm larvae in cocoons which is used to create silk. The main ingredient in all vegetable fibers is cellulose, a carbohydrate found in all plant life. The most common natural fibers used to make clothing are cotton, hemp, ramie, linen, lyocell / Tencel, wool, and silk.

This article on cotton is the first in a series that examines each of these natural fibers in their journey from the field to the fashion runway as they journey to rise to ecofashion stardom or sink into conventional toxic Margarittaville.

Cotton: ­ hero or villain? 

When we think about global warming, growing cancer rates, deepening poverty in some of the world's poorest countries, and even increasing chemical sensitivities, our clothes closets are probably not the first villain that comes to mind, but our clothes can be a significant, quiet co-conspirator.

Cotton evokes images of white, fluffy purity and many people think of cotton as being a natural, pure fabric.  Cotton is a wonderfully versatile and globally important fiber that is used for a vast variety of fiber and food products, making it one of the most widely traded commodities on earth. Versatility, softness, breath-ability, absorbency, year-round comfort, performance, and durability are just a few of the qualities that have earned cotton its popular status.  Due to its unique fiber structure which can absorb up to 27 times its own weight in water, cotton breathes and helps remove body moisture by absorbing it and wicking it away from the skin.  Not only is cotton the most popular and best selling fabric in the world, due to its huge commercial value, cotton also represents an essential component of foreign exchange earnings for more than fifty countries.  The value and reach of cotton extends far past the fashion runway.

But, the global cotton industry has a worldwide Dark Side of which most of us are not aware as we fill our shopping bags with inexpensive cotton shirts from major clothing stores.  The simple act of conventionally growing and harvesting the one pound of cotton fiber needed to make a T-shirt takes an enormous and devastating toll on the earth's air, water, and soil that impacts global health.  Also, policies and practices within the cotton industry from crop subsidies to garment sweatshops create poverty and misery that stretch around the world. Cotton industry trade organizations such as Cotton Incorporated spend millions and millions of dollars attempting to convince American consumers of the hoax that conventional chemical cotton is pure and friendly to the health of the wearer.

Let's take a tour of the major steps in the journey of cotton from field to fashion.  At each step, we will compare the processes for conventional cotton and for organic cotton.  Ready?

There is a general four-step process to turn a cotton seed into cotton apparel.

1. Planting and growing
2. Harvesting
3. Cleaning or "ginning" of the cotton boll
4. Manufacturing

The manufacturing step consists of several important activities:

 * Spinning the cotton fibers to create yarn, 
* Weaving or knitting to create bolts of cotton fabric, 
* Fabric dyeing, 
* Finishing process to create the smooth fabric, 
* Cutting and sewing of garment for consumers.

Step 1.  Planting & Growing. 

The cotton fiber and seed grow in a pod called a boll which develops from the flowers of cotton plants and opens when the cotton plant is mature.  After cotton is harvested, the cotton boll is then taken to a gin which removes the fiber from the seed. The fiber is then packaged into bales weighing almost 500 pounds.  The seed is pressed into cottonseed oil and used in processed foods for people or it is fed to livestock.   A sample of cotton fiber from each bale is tested for strength, length and color. Cotton spinning mills buy the cotton bales based on these qualities, and then process the fiber into spun yarn.

A textile mill will process the yarn into woven or knitted fabric. The fabric will then be transported to a garment manufacturing shop (often in a low wage region or country) where it will be cut and sewn into the final garment.  Cotton may be dyed at the fiber stage, the yarn stage, the fabric stage, or the final garment stage.

Conventionally grown cotton. 

Farmers in the United States apply nearly one-third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for every pound of cotton harvested. When all nineteen cotton-growing states are tallied, cotton crops account for twenty-five percent of all the pesticides used in the U.S. Some of these chemicals are among the most toxic classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In developing countries, where regulations are less stringent, the amount of herbicides and insecticides and their toxicity is often greater than in the U.S.

 * In California, five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton are cancer-causing chemicals (cyanazine, dicofol, naled, propargite and trifluralin). 
* In Egypt, more than 50% of cotton workers in the 1990s suffered symptoms of chronic pesticide poisoning, including neurological and vision disorders. 
* In India, 91% of male cotton workers exposed to pesticides eight hours or more per day experienced some type of health disorder, including chromosomal aberrations, cell death and cell cycle delay. 
* In the US, a 1987 National Cancer Institute Study found a nearly seven-fold higher risk of leukemia for children whose parents used pesticides in their homes or gardens. 
* The World Health Organization estimates that at least three million people are poisoned by pesticides every year and 20-40,000 more are killed. 
* Over 1 million Americans will learn they have some form of cancer and 10,400 people in the U.S. die each year from cancer related to pesticides:

Perspective, just 2.4% of the world's arable land is planted with cotton yet it accounts for 24% of the world's insecticide market and 11% of global pesticides sales, making it the most pesticide-intensive crop grown on the planet.  The pesticides used by farmers not only kill cotton pests but also decimate populations of beneficial insects such as ladybugs and parasitic wasps.   Because their natural enemies have been eradicated, these target insects, which were once only minor nuisances for farmers, become greater problems and ever-increasing quantities of toxic chemicals must be sprayed to keep them in check.  Farmers then become stuck on what is known as the 'pesticide treadmill'.

Pesticides not only disrupt the balance of nature in the field, but also harm people who come in contact with them.  According to the Organic Consumers Association, the use of pesticides, which includes insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, for conventional cotton production has created serious problems for human health and the environment in all cotton-growing regions worldwide.

The health of our planet has also been adversely affected by pesticides. The pesticides and synthetic fertilizers used on cotton routinely contaminate groundwater, surface water and pollute the water we drink. Fish, birds and other wildlife are also affected by the movement of these chemicals through the ecosystem.

 * In 1995, pesticide-contaminated runoff from cotton fields in Alabama killed 240,000 fish. 
* It is estimated that pesticides unintentionally kill 67 million birds each year. 
* 14 million people in the U.S. are routinely drinking water contaminated with carcinogenic herbicides and 90 percent of municipal water treatment facilities lack equipment to remove these chemicals.

The growth of industrial agriculture and consolidation in the seed industry has replaced hundreds of cotton varieties with only a handful.  The practice of planting thousands of acres all of the same variety is known as monoculture and has left the crop extremely vulnerable to pests and diseases which also forces cotton farmers onto the "chemical treadmill." Conventional farmers using toxic chemicals have found themselves embroiled in an endless battle with crop pests.  Over 500 species of insects, 180 weeds and 150 fungi have developed resistance to the chemicals used to kill them off.  Agricultural biotech companies continually develop new products to keep up with this resistance and keep farmers on the 'chemical treadmill'.

Organically grown cotton.  

Working with rather than against nature is the guiding principle behind organic farming. Organic farmers use biologically-based rather than chemically dependent growing systems to raise crops.  While many conventional farmers are reacting to the ecological disorder created by monocultures, organic farmers focus on preventing problems before they occur.

By focusing on managing rather than completely eliminating troublesome weeds and insects, organic farmers are able to maintain ecological balance and protect the environment.  Organic cotton is now being grown in more than 18 countries worldwide.  In the United States, approximately 10,000 acres of organic cotton were planted in 1998 in the Mid-South, Texas and California.

The Soil:  Organic Farming starts with healthy soil.  The soil is seen as a living system and not simply a growing medium for plants.   Compost, efficient nutrient recycling, frequent crop rotations and cover crops replace synthetic fertilizers to keep the soil healthy and productive.

 * In Peru, cotton farmers have saved over $100 per acre in pesticide and fertilizer costs by switching over to organic production. 
* In Tanzania organic cotton farmers plant sunflowers to encourage beneficial ants that feed on the larvae of the bollworm, and fertilize the soil with manure from their cattle. 
* In India organic farmers intercrop cotton with pigeon peas and make insecticidal sprays from garlic, chili and the neem tree. 
* In California, organic cotton farmers plant habitat strips of vegetation such as alfalfa near their fields as a refuge for beneficial insects.

Weed Control:  Organic Farmers have many options to control weeds including: hoes and other mechanical weeding implements, crop rotations, planting several crops together (intercropping), more efficient use of irrigation water, the use of mulches, and even adjusting the planting dates and densities of their crops.

Pest Control:  By encouraging biological diversity, farmers create conditions which reduce the likelihood of any insect, bird or mammal doing any major damage to their crop.  To control pests, organic farmers may use beneficial predator insects, crop rotations, intercropping, and biological pesticides such as neem oil.

Step 2.  Harvesting.

Conventionally Harvested Cotton. 

After the toxic debacle of the growing season, the chemical woes only continue. During harvesting, herbicides are used to defoliate cotton plants to make picking easier. The global consequences are that chemicals pollute ground water and rivers with potentially carcinogenic compounds.  Large harvesting machinery compacts the ground reducing soil productivity.

Organic Harvested Cotton.

Organic cotton is often hand picked, especially in developing countries, without the use of defoliants, machinery, or chemicals.  Hand picking also means less waste.

Step 3.  Cleaning & Ginning. 

So far, we have journeyed only to the end of the cotton field, but the story doesn't end there.  Manufacturing cotton fiber into fabric and garments consists of several major processes ­ cleaning, spinning, knitting or weaving, dyeing, cutting and assembly, finishing, and cleaning.

Before cotton fiber can be manufactured from cotton plants, several cleaning steps are required. After the plants have been processed at a cotton gin, the product is distributed to fiber producers. The fiber manufacturer further removes plant material and other debris by dividing and carding the lint. The waste from this process is a mixture of stems, leaves, soils, and lint.

Cotton is also an important food source for humans and animals.  Cotton is comprised of 40% fiber and 60% seed by weight. Once separated in the gin, the fibers go to textile mills, while the seed and various ginning by-products are used for animal feed and for human food, mostly in the form of cottonseed oil.  Cottonseed, which is rich in oil and high in protein, is a common ingredient in cookies, potato chips, salad dressings, baked goods, and other processed foods.

Conventional Cotton By-Products. 

With conventionally grown cotton, the pesticide residues from the cottonseeds concentrate in the fatty tissues of these animals, and end up in meat and dairy products.

Organic Cotton By-Products. 

Organically grown cotton can be used to produce organic food products for people and animals.  Organic cotton is important not just in the clothing chain but also in the food chain.

Step 4.  Manufacturing ­ Spinning, Weaving, Knitting, Dying, & Finishing

Conventionally Manufactured Cotton.

Conventionally manufactured cotton must be chemically processed to become the soft fiber that consumers love. Although cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the United States, much of the pesticide and herbicide is bleached out or washed away during the manufacturing process, but a variety of toxic chemicals, oils, and waxes are used to manufacture, knit and weave convention cotton fabrics. The chemical residues of these processes constitute the major sensitivity problems experienced by people suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivities.

Only in the spinning process where cotton fibers are spun into yarn is cotton untouched by chemicals or oils.  After spinning, the yarn receives a polyvinyl alcohol sizing to make the yarn easier to weave. After weaving, the fabric is then bleached.  Half the companies in the U.S. use hydrogen peroxide, but half still use highly toxic chlorine.  Companies outside theU.S. and Europe, where most garments are produced, are more likely to use chlorine.  The sizing is then removed from the fabric with a detergent. Next, it is washed or "scoured" with sodium hydroxide. Finally, it is piece-dyed, often with formaldehyde-fixing agents.  An additional washing is needed to attempt to remove the formaldehyde-fixing agents.

The last step is finishing and this is where many chemical sensitivity problems begin.  A urea-formaldehyde product which cross-links molecules is routinely applied to all United States cottons to reduce shrinkage and wrinkling.  Cotton is a fiber designed by nature to absorb, and heat is used to lock finishes into the fiber.  When heat is applied, this molecule expands and becomes permanently bound in the fiber.  That is why it cannot be washed or dry cleaned out.

"Pure finish" indicates that nothing has been applied to the fabric at this point, but this does not always guarantee that people who are chemically sensitive will be able to wear the garment.  Detergents and softeners are heavily used in making fabrics, and some of these will leave a residue that will never wash out completely.

Knitted fabric goes through similar processes.  To be knittable, yarn must be waxed and oiled.  The knit fabric is then washed in detergents and softeners.  An anti-curl chemical is added to the wash for all jerseys and many fleeces.  Knit goods that are piece-dyed after knitting follow the same course as woven fabrics.  Yarn-dyed knits are washed, framed, steamed, and finished with heat and, usually, formaldehyde resin.

Sweaters and some circular knits are just washed with detergent and softeners and tumble-dried to remove oils and to reduce shrinkage.  No finish is put on them, but again their wearability depends on the chemicals used to wash and soften them.  The low-foam industrial detergent Aresolve is one of the worst offenders around.  As with woven fabrics, heat is used as part of the processing and can actually lock chemicals into the fiber.

It is impossible to knot yarn without waxing and oiling and the oil must be washed out with some kind of detergent.  Jerseys must be de-curled to lie flat on a table for cutting.  Traditional cotton fabrics are often scoured, washed, and bleached with chlorine, APEO (alkylphenoloxylate, a hormone disrupter), EDTA (ethylenediamine tetra-acetate which binds with heavy metals in rivers and streams), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone. These toxic chemicals are slow to biodegrade and recent research has shown links to the production of "probable" carcinogens.

The dyeing and printing of conventional cotton fabrics often use compounds of iron, tin, potassium, VOCs and solvent-based inks containing heavy metals, benzene, and organochlorides that require large quantities of water to wash out the dye residues.  This waste water is polluted by these heavy metals.  The toxic residues found in the waste water can cause problems of the central nervous system, respiratory system, and skin, as well as head-aches, dizziness, and eye irritations.

"Finishing" is the final processing step for many conventional cotton garments to create easy care clothing that is soft, wrinkle-resistant, stain and odor resistant, fireproof, mothproof, and anti-static. Chemicals often used for finishing include formaldehyde, caustic soda, sulfuric acid, bromines, urea resins, sulfonamides, halogens, and bromines.  The resulting waste water has a high acid content. Residual chemical traces on the fabric can cause burning eyes, nose, and throat, as well as difficulties with sleep, concentration, and memory and they can increase susceptibility to cancer.  The emissions from these residual chemicals in conventional cotton fabric increase with temperature.   Unless clothes are 100 percent organic, you should always wash new clothes or bedding first before wearing or putting on the bed. That "new" smell is a potent mixture of chemicals such as formaldehyde and urea resins that can be reducedS through repeated washings.

Some imported clothes are now impregnated with long-lasting disinfectants that can be identified by the smell alone. These disinfectants are very hard to remove and the healthiest action is to not buy the clothes.

Manufacturing organic cotton. 

At each manufacturing step, organic clothing manufacturers do not add petroleum scours, silicon waxes, formaldehyde, anti-wrinkling agents, chlorine bleaches, or other unauthentic materials. Natural alternatives such as natural spinning oils that biodegrade easily are used to facilitate spinning; potato starch is used for sizing; hydrogen peroxide is used for bleaching; organic color grown cottons and low-impact dyes and earth clays are used for coloration; and natural vegetable and mineral inks and binders are used for printing on organic cotton fabric. These natural alternatives are used to reduce and eliminate the toxic consequences found in conventional cotton fabric manufacturing.

Cultivating Poverty Globally. 

Conventional cotton is also involved in a further global social tragedy: the devastating economic impact on some of the poorest people and countries in the world caused by subsidized cotton in the U.S. and the proliferation of garment sweatshops located in developing countries.  An unfortunate combination of large U.S. subsidies to U.S. cotton growers and corporate greed in outsourcing garment manufacturing to sweatshops has created economic hardship for cotton farmers and garment workers throughout some of the world's poorest countries and most vulnerable people in the world.

Cotton is a global crop native to Southern Africa and South America and is grown on over 90 million acres in more than 80 countries worldwide.  The millions of tons of cotton produced each year account for 50% of the world's fiber needs with wool, silk and flax together accounting for only 10%. Besides being the world's most popular fabric, cotton is widely used as livestock feed and in food products such as salad dressing and crackers. The United States is the second largest cotton producer in the world after China and the world's largest cotton exporter.  Approximately 19 million bales of cotton were grown in 18 U.S. states.  A major factor in cotton's popularity with American growers and exporters is that the U.S. Government heavily subsidizes American growers for growing cotton.  The result is that American growers can sell their cotton cheaply because they are also receiving generous payments directly from the U.S. Government which paid U.S. cotton farmers $2.3 billion in 1999 and $2.06 billion in 2001, according to the Department of Agriculture.

American cotton subsidies are destroying livelihoods in Africa and other developing regions.  By encouraging over-production and export dumping by U.S. cotton growers, these subsidies are driving down world cotton prices on an inflation-adjusted basis to their lowest levels since the Great Depression.  While American cotton barons get rich on government subsidies, African farmers suffer the consequences.  Meanwhile, America's share of world cotton exports has risen from under 20% in 1999 to more than 40% in 2004, estimates the International Cotton Advisory Committee. Estimates indicate that United States cotton output would have fallen by 29% between 1999 and 2002, and world prices would have risen by 12.6% if it were not for America's offending subsidies.

Many cotton growing countries around the world such as Brazil and Central and West African countries, including Burkina Faso, Benin and Mali, are heavily dependent on cotton for the bulk of their export earnings.  More than 10 million people in Central and West African countries depend directly on cotton production with many more millions being indirectly affected. According to the World Bank, these African regions are among the lowest-cost producers of cotton. Yet despite this comparative advantage, they are losing world markets and their farmers are suffering rising poverty.  They have been hit hard by sharp falls in cotton prices in recent years and contend that U.S. subsidies distort prices and harm competition.   Recent rulings by the World Trade Organization find that the U.S. has been illegally using domestic cotton subsidies to bolster its dominant position in the market.

The scale of government support to America's 25,000 cotton farmers is staggering, reflecting the political influence of corporate farm lobbies in key states. Every acre of cotton farmland in the U.S. attracts a subsidy of $230. In 2001/02 farmers reaped a bumper harvest of subsidies amounting to $3.9billion ­ double the level in 1992.  To put this figure in perspective, America's cotton farmers receive more in subsidies than the entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Burkina Faso ­ a country in which more than two million people depend on cotton production. Over half of these farmers live below the poverty line.

The small size of the Central and West African cotton producing countries and their high level of dependence on cotton magnify the effect of US policies.  The economic losses inflicted by the U.S. cotton subsidy program far outweigh the benefits of the financial aid that they receive from the U.S. Mali, for example, received $37million in U.S. aid in 2001 but lost $43million as a result of lower cotton export earnings due to depressed cotton prices and competition from subsidized U.S. cotton growers.

Notwithstanding constant references to the 'family farm' on the part of U.S. policy makers, farm subsidies are designed to reward and encourage large-scale, corporate production. The largest 10% of the U.S. cotton farms receive three quarters of total cotton subsidy payments.  One of the biggest subsidy gatherers in the U.S. is Tyler Farms, an Arkansas-based corporation that controls 40,000 acres ­ an area almost as large as the District of Columbia. The farm also grows corn, rice, sorghum, and oilseeds. All of these crops generate a healthy return by way of government subsidies. However, cotton is Tyler Farms' major subsidy crop, generating almost $6million in 2001. This one farm receives subsidies from the U.S. Government equivalent to the average income of 25,000 people in Mali.

When measured by cost per acre, farmers in Africa are among the most cost-efficient in the world, despite climatic uncertainties, limited infrastructure, and high levels of poverty. On a level playing field, they could compete with U.S. cotton farms. What they cannot compete with is U.S. cotton farms selling cotton on international markets at prices that bear no relation to the costs of production, courtesy of corporate welfare checks underwritten by the world's most powerful treasury.

Sweatshop Apparel.

Sweatshop apparel ­ that is clothing and shoes produced under sub-standard labor and environmental conditions ­ is so all-pervasive as to be almost invisible. The availability of cheap, almost throwaway clothes that change with each fashion season has become deeply embedded in our culture and yet there is a face behind the $150 pair of Nike sneakers or the Kathie Lee blouse.  Since it's now considered "too expensive" to pay a living wage and protect the environment, US, European, and Japanese textile and clothing manufacturers, have, for the most part, closed down production and moved to "outsource" their production overseas, preferably in the lowest-wage countries like Viet Nam, China and India. Since women and children are the easiest to exploit, they are the preferred workers in these sweatshops. Rights of free speech, free association, and the right to form a trade union are routinely repressed. Water pollution, air pollution, social dislocation, and economic exploitation are too often the consequences of the global marketplace.

 * A United Nations study in 1997 found that in 80% of developing countries, manufacturing wages are now lower than they were in the 1970s and early 80s. 
* Hourly wages paid by clothing giants such as Wal-Mart, Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, Esprit, Liz Claiborne, Kmart, Nike, Adidas, J.C. Penney and others in China's "special economic zones," are as low as 13 cents an hour, well below the estimated 87 cents an hour minimum living wage for an assembly-line worker in China. 
* More than 200 American textile mills have closed since 1998.

Organizations such as The Sustainable Cotton Project,, are committed to promoting fair trade organic and sustainable cotton clothes. They are building a large network of consumer activists, designers, students, labor unions, farmers, social and economic justice groups, clothing manufactures, and environmentalists to increase consumer demand for organic and sustainable cotton apparel in our communities, companies and campuses.  The key element is the consumer.  More and more people are demanding products made without exploitative labor ­ Fair Trade made, not sweatshop made.

For more information on this and related topics, please visit these sites:

Organic Consumers Association 

An informative site that campaigns for food safety, organic agriculture, Fair Trade, and sustainability.

Institute Of Science In Society 

For articles on the science related to the hazards of genetically engineered cotton and other agricultural products.

Unified Sustainable Textile Standard 

Unified Sustainable Textile Standard is an emerging standard. The purpose of the standard is to provide a market-based definition for a Sustainable Textile, establish performance requirements for public health and environment, and address the triple bottom line, economic-environmental-social, throughout the supply chain. The Standard is inclusive, is based on life cycle assessment (LCA) principles, and provides benchmarks for continuous improvement and innovation.

USDA Organic 

Rules implementing the U.S. Organic Foods Production Act were finalized in December 2000. The word "organic" on U.S. products means that the ingredients and production methods have been verified by an accredited certification agency as meeting or exceeding USDA standards for organic production. In addition to food, the final rule allows for certification of organically produced fibers such as wool, cotton, and flax. However, the processing of these fibers is not covered by the final rule. Therefore, goods that utilize organic fibers in their manufacture may only be labeled as a "made with..." product; e.g., a cotton shirt labeled "made with organic cotton."

Organic Trade Association 

The Organic Trade Association has developed standards for the processing of organic fibers. OTA's organic fiber processing standards, approved January 2004, address all stages of textile processing, from post-harvest handling to wet processing (including bleaching, dyeing, printing), fabrication, product assembly, storage and transportation, pest management, and labeling of finished products. They also include an extensive list of materials permitted for, or prohibited from, use in organic fiber processing under the standards.



July 29, 2007 in Fiber & Fabrics