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The poisoned legacy of the cotton T-shirt

Posted on April 26, 2000

Organic fabrics are good for both consumers and producers.

By Cally Law, Times Newspapers Ltd

If you buy 100 per cent cotton sheets and shirts and think you are doing the environment a favour, think again. You could hardly be more wrong. Cotton crops are responsible for a quarter of all the insecticides dumped on the earth every year. Only tobacco soaks up more. The cotton needed to make just one T-shirt, about a pound in weight, uses one third of a pound of chemicals — killers that will stay in the earth long after the cotton has been plucked.

Pesticides used on cotton can enter the human food chain through cottonseed oil used in processed foods. They can also end up in meat and milk from cows fed on cotton products. All of which begins to explain why organic cotton has become so popular. It is also particularly soft to the touch and is not much more expensive than the contaminating variety.

Gina Moore owns texture, London’s first interiors shop to stock organic and eco-friendly fabrics. “I had been asked to write a book about natural fabrics, from the ecological point of view,” she says. “I did some research and was horrified. Pesticides are unregulated in the Third World. People don’t realise the dangers and the effect is cumulative.”

So last October she opened her shop in Stoke Newington, North London, selling organic cotton, fabrics, bedding and towels in natural cream, and much more. She sold out of hemp slippers within days, and her super-pure Babygros are practically walking out of the shop.

In Organic Cotton (Intermediate Technology Publications, £14.95), Suzanne Goldenberg tells a disturbing tale: “In the state of Andhra Pradesh, South India, at least 80 cotton farmers committed suicide between June 1997 and January 1998 by taking the pesticide which they were using on their cotton crop.”

“The crop has no government price support and increasing yields drove prices down. Farmers used massive amounts of fertilisers and pesticides in efforts to raise their output and eliminate the pests and diseases. Inputs were supplied on credit at interest rates as high as 36 per cent.”

“After massive infestations and increased spraying the pests had become resistant and attacked food crops, leaving farmers with no food for their families and no prospects of income. Farmers were heavily indebted to pesticide suppliers, landlords and moneylenders.”

Organic cotton production started about ten years ago, mainly in Turkey, Egypt, India, the United States and Peru. The main consumer markets are Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, America and The Netherlands. Italy and Britain are beginning to show interest. As the massive interest in organic food slowly transmutes into a general quest for an organic lifestyle, we can expect organic cottons to become commonplace over the next decade.

And in addition to the concern over farmers’ livelihoods and damage to the environment, eczema and severe allergy sufferers are increasingly wary of easy-iron, waterproof and fire-retardant finishes, which are also absent from organic fabrics.

Germany already has organic mail-order catalogues, organic toys, make-up, even organic flowers. Britain is catching up fast, however. The Natural Collection in Bath sells a mail-order range of organic cotton clothes, and Marks & Spencer is rumoured to be testing the waters.

Copyright © 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.