If youâ€™re living an eco-conscious lifestyle these days, you put out your recycling each week, dispose of any chemical wastes from your house properly, and you seek out organic options when you shop for groceries. But if youâ€™re doing all of these earth-friendly activities wearing a cotton t-shirt, you could be hurting the environment more than youâ€™re helping it.
Years ago, people might not have thought beyond the clothing rack, but as we become more aware of the effects of planting and harvesting practices, we can see that cotton is one of the most damaging materials to grow.
The boll weevil, long the enemy of cotton farmers and other damaging cotton pests, require a large amount of pesticides to kill and control. While just 2.4% of the worldâ€™s arable land is used for cotton-farming, they account for 24% of the worldâ€™s insecticide market. But the chemicals donâ€™t stop there. During cotton harvesting, they move on to herbicides to defoliate the cotton plants to make picking them easier.
Take these figures into consideration before your next shopping trip:
â€¢ Cotton farmers apply nearly one-third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for every pound of cotton harvested. If you take into account all 19 of the cotton-producing states, they account for 25% of total pesticide use in the United States.
â€¢ In California, five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton are cancer-causing chemicals (cyanazine, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin).
â€¢ Also in California, cotton ranks third among crops for total number of worker illnesses caused by pesticides. In September 1996, 250 farm workers were accidentally sprayed with a mixture of highly toxic pesticides when a crop dusting plane applied them to a field adjacent to a field where the workers were harvesting grapes. Twenty-two workers were rushed to the hospital.
â€¢ Over 1 million Americans will learn they have some form of cancer and 10,400 people in the U.S. die each year from pesticide-related cancers
â€¢ Some of the chemicals used in cotton growing are among the most toxic classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency. In developing countries with their more lax regulations, the amount of herbicides and insecticides and their toxicity is often greater.
And if the effects on your personal health arenâ€™t frightening enough, consider what the abundant use of pesticides and herbicides are doing to Mother Earth:
â€¢ In 1995, pesticide-contaminated runoff from cotton fields in Alabama killed 240,000 fish. Cotton farmers had recently applied pesticides containing endosulfan and methyl parathion to their field and a heavy rain washed them into the waters. Sadly, there was no evidence of illegal use of the pesticides.
â€¢ An estimated 67 million birds in the US are killed by pesticides each year. In one case, a breeding colony of laughing gulls near Corpus Christi, Texas, was devastated when methyl parathion was sprayed on a cotton field three miles away. More than 100 adult birds were killed along with 25% of the colonyâ€™s chicks.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the use of chemicals for cotton growing and harvesting has created a self-perpetuating problem. Farmers use heavy pesticides to kill the â€œbadâ€ pests attacking their crops but in the process, they also kill off many beneficial insects that are the natural enemies of the very bugs farmers are trying to eliminate. Once these helpful insects are gone, the â€œbadâ€ pests continue to flourish, requiring more use of pesticides to eliminate them. And because cotton farmers have developed the practice of planting with the same type of cotton variety, crop pests (including bugs, fungi and weeds) have been able to develop a resistance to the chemicals used in the pesticides, forcing companies to develop newer and stronger chemical pesticides to combat them.
The cycle of destruction will continue until we, as consumers, put our buying power to work to stop it. One way to do this is to think of alternate clothing materials.
What can the clothing material alternative to cotton?