Organic Consumers Association


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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 ( 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 ( is targeting a Mexican factory that produces Levi Strauss apparel; and Behind the Label ( 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);; 800-609-8593.

All of Patagonia's cotton lines, for babies, kids and adults, are organic (; 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 (; 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 (; 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 (; 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 (; 888-934-WILD).

Resources/For More Information

Pesticide Action Network North America,

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals,"

The Sustainable Cotton Project,

Environmental Working Group, "Mother's Milk" report,

Organic Consumers Association, Clothes for a Change campaign,

Clothes Campaign,

Behind The Label,