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Why should we buy organic clothing as opposed to conventional clothing?

Conventional or non-organic cotton and polyester make up approximately 80% of all fiber production globally. This production is about equal between cotton and polyester (Acordis in Sheffer, 2005). First, let’s talk about conventional cotton.

Cotton requires lots of water. For example, approximately 10,000 – 17,000 L of water is required to produce 1 Kg of cotton lint. This heavy water requirement has led to water shortages in many areas of the world with the Aral Sea area being a notable example.

Over 73% of cotton fields world wide are irrigated (Kooistra and Termorshuizen, 2006). Improper irrigation techniques such as flood - furrow are leading to salinisation issues for the land. Salinisation is a condition which occurs through evaporation. Water contains minerals such as salt. If water is not allowed to penetrate the soil but rather sit on top of the soil, that water evaporates, leaving behind the mineral salts. If this happens repeatedly, as is the case with flood-furrow irrigation, minerals will build up in the soil top layer. Over time this process of mineral salt build up or salinisation will make the soil inhospitable to continued agriculture activity. In fact, an estimated 100 million hectares (8% of world total arable land) has been abandoned by farmers due to over-exploitation with the main cause being salinisation. Cotton is considered to be the main crop involved in this arable land loss.


Conventional cotton consumes 11% of the world's pesticides and 24% of the world’s insecticides, despite the fact that cotton only uses 2.4% of total arable land. Additionally pesticide and insecticide use is difficult to control due to its broad / blanket application. Approximately 13% of farmers employ aerial spraying while hand spraying accounts for 52% of farms and the remaining 35% is by tractor spraying (Kooistra and Termorshuizen, 2006).

Because land application of pesticides and insecticides is difficult to control serious collateral damage to the surrounding environment is common. For example, pesticides end up in aquatic organisms (Kumar et al., 2003; Muschal & Warne, 2003; Erdogrul et al., 2005) and have been shown to bioaccumulate (Zhang et al., 2005) in birds (Eason et al., 2002). Pesticides applied in cotton production have also been documented as adversely affecting river ecosystems in Australia, leading to lower quantities and lessened diversity of water organisms (Hose et al., 2003). In 1995, pesticide-contaminated runoff from cotton fields in Alabama killed 240,000 fish (Lotus, 2004). It is estimated that pesticides unintentionally kill 67 million birds each year (Lotus, 2004).

Pesticides are highly persistent and as such, will stay around in ground water for a long time. This can lead to pesticides entering our drinking water and slowly poisoning ourselves and our children. For example, Tariq (2003) reported pesticide contamination of groundwater due to cotton cultivation in Pakistan and India (Shukla et al. 2005). CSE (2003) reported pesticides in the main brands of cola and packaged drinking water in India. Pesticide contamination isn’t just a third world problem. In an ongoing study being conducted on Prince Edward Island, Canada, 110 domestic wells have been monitored since 2004 for pesticides. Pesticides were detected in 7.5% of domestic wells in 2004 and has steadily increased to over 15% in 2007 (Government of PEI, 2008).

These types of low level exposures to pesticides in drinking water won’t likely have immediate effects on our health but in the long term, a variety of health effects are possible. In one study, all research conducted since 1992 on the potential impact of pesticides on human health was reviewed and summarized (Sanborn et al, 2004). From this review a variety of convincing connections between pesticides and human health were identified. For example, the review demonstrated an increased risk of developing a variety of solid tumors such as brain cancer, kidney cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, and other cancers such as non-Hodgkins lymphoma, leukemia as well as reproductive effects including: birth defects, fecundability, fetal death, and intrauterine growth retardation.

Unfortunately, children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pesticides. Children eat and drink more per kilogram of body weight than adults. Their skin is more permeable and their livers do not excrete as efficiently as an adult. Their hand-to-mouth behaviour increases the chance of ingestion and their dermal contact is increased because of a proportionally larger skin surface, and because they play on the ground outdoors and on the floor indoors. Parents track pesticides indoors on their shoes, inadvertently exposing their children (Sanborn et al, 2004).

And these are just the long term effects of chronic or low level exposure to pesticides. In many third world countries, application of pesticides by hand spraying is common and this type of close contact with highly concentrated pesticides can have far more dramatic consequences. It has been estimated that at the global level 300,000 lives are lost annually due to pesticide application (Fleming Konradsen, 2007), representing 10% of all casualties in the agricultural sector (ILO, 1997).

Now let’s discuss polyester. For starters, the main raw material used to produce polyester is oil. Oil is a non-renewable resource so obviously, polyester production is not sustainable. Polyester is also not biodegradable and as such, any polyester textiles that end up in the land-fill will remain there for a very long time.

Close to 12 billion pounds of post consumer textile waste ends up in our land-fills every single year (EPA, 2008). With approximately half of this textile waste being non-biodegradable polyester, the implications are obvious.

Polyester production is an energy hog. Approximately 80 GJ of energy is required to produce one metric tonne of polyester. This amounts to green house gas (GHG) emissions of approximately 5.5 mt CO2 per mt polyester (Robert J Smith, Lenzing Fibers).

There may also be health implications associated with wearing polyester. Polyester develops a significant electrostatic charge while it is worn (due to the friction of the fabric across the skin). This electrostatic charge has been associated with reduced sperm count in men who wear polyester underwear (Shafik et al, 1992; Shafik, 1994 and Shafik, 1992).

In terms of its economic impact clothing is a high value sector, globally worth over $1 trillion and ranked the second biggest global economic activity for intensity of trade. It contributes to 7% of world exports and employs approximately 26 million people, supporting a significant number of economies and individual incomes around the world. The textile industry is especially important to developing countries. For example, in Pakistan, cotton accounts for 60% of total export value.

In other words, the textile industry is here to stay and it is very important, especially to developing economies. However, in its current state it is simply unsustainable. Conventional cotton is polluting our eco-systems, destroying our bio-diversity and poisoning our populations. Polyester is a big contributor to GHG emissions and chocking our land-fills.

As our populations continue to grow and as developing countries enter the middle class, demand for textiles will continue to grow. To meet this demand without sacrificing our health and the health of our planet, we simply must find sustainable textile solutions. Those sustainable solutions are there in the form of organic cotton, organic wool, hemp, Tencel, silk, bamboo, etc. It is just up to us to make the conscious choice to change our purchasing decisions.


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