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Clothing with a Conscience : 4 Things You Need to Know About Cotton

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I am a big fan of cotton. It is usually my fabric of choice for everything from clothes to underwear to curtains and bedsheets. Perhaps this is due to my partiality for natural fabrics. Unlike petroleum derived fabrics like polyester, natural fabrics just feel better against the skin. There is a certain sense of ease in wearing cotton especially in climates like ours, where cotton reigns king for its supreme breathability. Not to mention, cotton is 100% biodegradable.

Thus, when I first learnt about the impact of conventionally grown cotton on the environment, I was stunned. Indeed, the word cotton is often associated with a gentleness to the likes of babies’ bottoms, pastels and garments to cover the most sensitive parts of the human body. However, the truth of cotton garment production reveals a trail of exploitation, ecological devastation and immense environmental pollution.

Here are some facts that you might not know about cotton:

1. Conventional cotton farming uses more pesticides per acre than any other crop. Cotton is considered the ‘world’s dirtiest crop’ requiring heavy use of insecticides that are most harmful to humans. Additionally, while cotton uses 2.5% of all cultivated crop land, 16% of all pesticide use is attributed to cotton farming.

2. An increasing percentage of all cotton today is genetically modified. Genetically Modified (GM) cotton has been shown to decrease bacterial activity in the soil that is necessary for the protection and regeneration of humus to ensure soil health. GM cotton shares have increased from 11% in 1997 to 49% in 2009. As GM seeds are manufactured in labs, suppliers of the seeds, large corporations like Monsanto, are slowly staking a monopoly on cotton production.

3. GM cotton has been linked to farmer suicides in India. Yes, this is true. It is a classic case of profits over people. To put it simply, farmers trade their traditional and sustainable closed system method of farming for a way of farming that requires increasingly higher inputs. Swayed by the promise of higher yields, farmers get sucked into a cycle of increasing debt as they are forced to purchase the equipment, pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are required to keep up production.

4. Conventional cotton is treated using heavy chemicals that pollute the environment. In the large scale production of non-organic cotton, raw materials have to be harvested, treated, bleached and dyed. Conventionally, harmful chemicals (silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde) are used in each step. These chemicals are frequently released into the environment, polluting waterways. In organic cotton production, only non toxic alternatives are used.

Thankfully, increased consumer awareness has resulted in a higher demand for organic cotton. Not only is organic cotton grown in a sustainable manner without the use of harmful insecticides, the raw cotton is also treated using natural methods that do not pollute. Additionally, all organic cotton is grown from non-GMO plants thereby assuring soil health and protecting natural biocycles.

While Malaysia is no longer a cotton producing country, we are most certainly consumers of large quantities of cotton. Thankfully, organic cotton clothes are no longer beyond the reach of Malaysian consumers with a conscience. For a while, the only option for shoppers was to keep an eye out for the rare occasions that certain retailers carry organic tees.

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