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The World According to Cotton

Alden Wicker

History has been written on the blank face of cotton: a white, fluffy, endlessly malleable material that is the base for everything from seersucker suits to luxury sheets. Cotton has caused and funded wars, led to economic expansion and collapse, enriched landowners and enslaved the rest. However, we’re not here to talk about cotton’s rich history, as interesting and crucial as it is. We are here to detail cotton’s role in your wardrobe. Did you know… 68 percent of women’s clothing contains cotton, and 85 percent of men’s clothing as well? U.S. textile manufacturers move 3.8 billion tons of cotton, and just over half of that goes into apparel alone.

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Cotton Plants with rows of cotton

If you care about eating organic food, you may also care about organic cotton; cottonseed is also used extensively in our food. In the US, 154 million gallons of cottonseed oil are used for food products like margarine, cooking oils, and salad dressing. It’s also fed to livestock. Cotton is traded so extensively as a commodity that it has its own ticker symbol: CT. We’re sure if you’re reading this on Zady, you want to know all the gritty details—where it comes from, who produced it, and how to find the best quality—so you can shop wisely.

Where It Comes From

Cotton is one of those American industries that has survived outsourcing just fine, thank you. It thrives in hot climates; find it across the South, from North Carolina through Mississippi and Texas and all the way up to Oakland California. But the U.S., home of the cotton gin, isn’t the boss of cotton anymore. Cotton is grown in more than 100 countries on about 33 million hectares, or about 2.5 percent of the world’s arable land. China and India beat us out in term of sheer tonnage grown. And in 2012, the U.S. imported 204 million pounds of cotton from China, and 64 million pounds from India, according to the USDA. Other high- producing countries include Pakistan, Brazil, Turkey, Australia, and Greece. There are also many African countries who produce small amounts of cotton. Oh, and a country called Benin produces cotton. Where the heck is Benin? It’s nestled right next to Nigeria. You learn something new every day.

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Cotton farmer picking a bush of cotton from a field

Who Made It

OK, so which country makes the best cotton? There’s a good argument to be made for cotton produced in the U.S. where labor laws are tighter, and where the cotton produced is of high quality. Some of the highest quality cotton is pima (brand name Supima), a relative of Egyptian cotton with long fiber lengths that yield a higher thread count. It’s grown in parts of the U.S., Peru, and Australia. Cotton produced in other countries can come with some ethical problems. While child labor in Uzbekistan dropped off after an effective boycott, the government now conscripts grown professionals into service picking cotton for a few months a year under threat of fines and jail, a modern form of slavery. In Egypt children work in the fields picking bollworms off the plants. Knowing that many other countries with loose labor laws and struggling economies grow cotton, it’s safe to say these practices are widespread.

It’s important to note that it is very hard to tell where the cotton in your garment was made unless you buy it from a company fully transparent about their supply chain. There is no labeling system to tell you whether your cotton came from Uzbekistan or California. For now we must rely on the brand to convey the truth.

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An environmentally conscious cotton t-shirt by Sundry, made in California

How They Made It

There’s also the problem of pesticides and herbicides used on cotton. The conventional cotton industry uses more synthetic chemicals to kill pests and insects any other agricultural crop industry in the world. The conventional cotton industry presently uses 6 percent of the world pesticides despite covering between 2 and 2.5 percent of arable land. And many of these pesticides are sprayed by hand by farmers and workers. In Ghana, for example, conventional cotton workers lose an average of 20 work days per season to acute poisoning. In the U.S., pesticide use has dropped by half, though it is by no means, nonexistent. A little less toxic—but no strawberry pie—is the herbicide glyphosate. (You may know it as RoundUp.) Glyphosate has also been shown to interact with other environmental toxins to induce diseases like Parkinson’s, infertility, and cancer.

As weeds have become resistant, the amount of glyphosate sprayed on conventional crops in the U.S. has increased by over 200 percent between 1996 and 2007. There has been talk of reverting to more toxic alternatives to keep the weeds at bay. Remember how we said that cotton production hasn’t been outsourced? Well, it hasn’t, technically, but while there are still plenty of big farms in the U.S., the labor has almost entirely turned over to tractors and chemicals. A single farmer with a (giant, modern, equipped with a GPS and computer) tractor can manage thousands of acres by her lonesome, leading to the loss of employment across broad swaths of the south.

That’s not where it ends. While cotton advocates claim that all pesticide and herbicide residues are washed away by the time they reach the consumer, there are more (sometimes different) chemicals applied before the garment reaches a store rack. For example, apparel companies achieve wrinkle-free cotton by applying formaldehyde to the textile, which means you could be breathing in those fumes.

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Cotton field in Texas

The Case for Organic

Organic cotton attempts to address these problems by forbidding the uses of all synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. It uses locally-adapted varieties, local inputs, natural manures and composts, crop rotation, and other strategies to keep the crop in balance with nature, preserve biodiversity, local water quality and soil health. It also benefits the workers on the farm, who don’t get exposed to chemical inputs. And finally, organic cotton farmers can command a premium for their product, which is a good thing for smaller farmers.

The global market for organic cotton is projected to exceed $19.8 billion by the year 2015, mainly driven by increasingly conscious and educated consumers. But even organic cotton supporters concede that we couldn’t switch completely over to organic cotton in the next five years and meet demand—organic cotton requires twice as much land to grow. Still, organic cotton offers the important benefit of resilient production that is more likely to bounce back after drought, floods, or other natural shocks and supply chain disruption. Conventional cotton, on the other hand, focuses on short-term maximization of production at the expense of the long-term health of the ecosystem.

With climate change piling more extreme weather on us each year, organic cotton will be an important part of the global portfolio—and your closet.