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Taking the Mystery Out of Organic Cotton

There may be more going on behind your gingham curtains than you realize.

By Diane HelentjarisPublished 2 years ago 5 min read
Photo by author.

A few years ago, I decided any future baby clothes I sewed would be made from organic cotton (except, of course, for the occasional scrumptious Liberty of London Tana Lawn extravaganza.) If organic bok choy was good for you, shouldn’t organic baby clothes be best for babies? Well, maybe…

I had sleuthed out arcane fabric for years and knew the widest selection of odd-ball textiles was now online. Organic cotton held true to this. There was zero to nil organic cotton in children’s prints at my local fabric shop, yet the internet proved a cornucopia of choices. Though the price was higher for organic cotton, sales yielded right-sized cuts for kids’ clothes. The material was well-made and came in cheery, if not downright humorous, prints. My heavy-weight Singer breezed through it and churned out bibs and dresses and little toddler camp shirts. All looked great and felt good to the touch.

Organic cotton fabric scraps. Photo by author.

I noticed some selvages stamped with “GOT certified.” Mystified, I decided to sort out what the certification meant and what organic cotton was all about. Here’s what I found:

Unlike tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and all the other wonderful things originating in the New World, cotton arose in both the New and the Old World. Mexican caves hid cotton fabric from 7000 years ago. Cotton cloth was made over 3000 years ago in the Indus Valley of Pakistan. Columbus found cotton in the Bahamas.

The perennial shrub grows best in tropical and semi-tropical climates. The fibers, like the silky white floss in a milkweed pod, fill the protective boll. If not harvested, the cotton fibers give lift in the wind to disperse the seeds, just as dandelion seeds helicopter around a lawn. Though the cotton fibers are mostly off-white, they also can be colored. Naturally colored cotton in shades from russet to pumpkin to olive green are indigenous worldwide. The fibers are shorter and create a soft feel when woven. Today, naturally colored cotton is being explored by scientists and artists alike.

Cotton bolls in the field. Photo compliments of Karl Wigger on Unsplash.

As a crop, cotton is huge and thirsty and vulnerable to pests. According to the Pesticide Action Network UK, “cotton crops cover 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but use 6% of the world’s pesticides.” The largest single area of cotton production in the world is on the southern Plains of the United States.Growing organic cotton requires practices with a light imprint on the environment and a dedication to biodiversity. Specifically, organic farming avoids the use of genetically modified cotton plants, synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, and fertilization with sewage sludge.

In the United States, to be considered organically grown, cotton crops must meet the requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Each country has its own rules for certifying a cotton crop as organic cotton.

A common misconception is that organic cotton (and food and everything else now labeled “organic”) is created without the use of chemicals. That is false.

Hardlyanything happens in this world of ours without chemicals. I asked my husband, a chemical engineer, to define “chemical.” He declared a “chemical is merely a substance which has had its nature defined.”

For example, table salt is a sodium atom married with a chloride atom. Water is two hydrogen atoms attached in a specific way to an oxygen atom. There is nothing inherently evil about those chemicals. What is avoided in the organic cotton world is the use of blatantly toxic, harmful chemicals and substances. Specific chemicals, such as plant-based pesticides and insecticidal soap are permitted to be used by farmers raising organic cotton.

Cotton harvest on the Southern Plains near Lubbock, Texas. Photo compliments of Wikimedia Commons.

Organic practices are becoming more common globally as farmers attempt to meet a growing demand. According to the Organic Trade Association, an American advocacy group, there was a 31% increase in acreage dedicated world-wide to an organic cotton harvest in the 2019/20 harvest season. The United States ranked 7th in the 21 countries growing organic cotton. Compared to top-ranking India, which had 49.8% of its crop grown organically, the US had only 2.8% of its cotton crop grown according to organic standards.

This brings up the GOTS certification stamped on the selvage of the cloth I bought. What does that signify? It guarantees the fabric meets the current highest international standard for organic fiber.

The Global Organic Textile Standard certification kicks in after the crop has been certified as organic by the government. GOTS covers the fabric from farm to final product. It includes social standards as well as ecological ones. Specifically, GOTS certifies that no child labor was used, the working conditions were safe, hygienic, and free of discrimination. GOTS covers the manufacturing of the cloth, assured the use of low toxicity dyes and bleaches, and even demands safety in the final packaging.

Is organic cotton healthier? Is an organic cotton bib better for a baby or only better for the worker who harvested the crop? Or does it really solely impact the environment of the local cotton farm?

Science documents a number of poor health outcomes from exposure to chemicals associated with traditionally produced textiles. For example, rashes after contact with fabric treated with finishing agents are common. A dead give-away of this cause and effect is an itchy rash from waist to neck to biceps in a man who ripped open the new package of tee shirts and put one on without laundering it. Another well-documented irritant is formaldehyde. Used to create some “wrinkle free,” “stain free,” and “iron-free” clothing, formaldehyde, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, can cause “irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat. High levels of exposure may cause some types of cancers.”

Photo by author.

Children are more vulnerable to environmental toxins than adults. Their little hearts beat faster than ours and their lungs suck in air more rapidly. While an adult typically breathes 12 to 16 times a minute, an infant takes in 30 to 60 breaths of air per minute. Combined with their smaller size, this means children take in far greater “doses” than adults of any bad things floating around in the air.

According to a 2015 article in Advances in Wound Care by T. Oranges et al, a baby’s skin does not mature until age one. At birth, their skin is more absorbent, loses water more readily, and is more susceptible to chemical damage than an adult’s skin. Only over time does it become an effective protective barrier.

Intuitively it makes sense that clothes produced relatively free of toxins would be better for the wearer. While researchers follow up on this, consumers will need to make their own decision.


About the Creator

Diane Helentjaris

Diane Helentjaris uncovers the overlooked. Her latest book Diaspora is a poetry chapbook of the aftermath of immigration.

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