The Perils of Conventional Cotton

Cotton seems like such an innocent material. As “the fabric of our lives” the cotton industry led me to believe it was good for the environment and for my family.  When I saw something was 100% cotton, I felt good purchasing it.  That is until I began reading about cotton production and found that conventional cotton is a poison laden crop.

It does matter where our cotton comes from and how it is grown.  We cannot continue to pollute our world and feel there will be no repercussions!  I live in a state, California, where a significant amount of cotton is grown (second only to Texas).  Frightening to me is that the amount of pesticides used for cotton production is more than any other crop.  With cotton only growing on 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, it utilizes 16% of the insecticides.1

The United States Department of Agriculture reported fifty-five million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on the 12.8 million acres of conventional cotton grown in the United States in 2003 (4.3 pounds/acre).  In California, the 2002 Census of Agriculture noted that there were 1,393 cotton farms with an average of 500 acres each (~700,000 acres).  That is over 3 million pounds of pesticide in California alone, if all those cotton producers used an average amount of pesticides.

Approximately a bale of cotton is produced per acre, that’s 500 pounds of cotton.  In addition to pesticides, other environmentally harmful practices, such as synthetic fertilizers are used, increasing the nitrogen levels of our soil.  Estimates are it takes about 1/3 pound of synthetic fertilizers to grow a pound of cotton and takes just about a pound of cotton to make a t-shirt..2

A 2004 study at the Technical University of Lodz, in Poland, demonstrated hazardous pesticides applied during cotton production remained in clothing.  With clothing accounting for 60% of total cotton production and home furnishings another 20% you are likely to be wearing and sleeping with these pesticides.

The secondary production of cottonseed hull also can contain pesticides and are another way the poisons may end up in our food chain, in the form of oils or in the milk and meat of animals we consume.  In California, this ‘gin trash’, as it’s been called, has become an illegal form of feed for livestock because of the pesticide residues, which may not be the case in all states.  It’s now being diverted to make furniture, mattresses, tampons, cotton swabs and balls.  I’m not sure how feel making any item placed directly on individual’s skin from this pesticide-laden material.

The World Health Organization ranks the top three pesticides used in cotton production as detrimental to human health.  A powerful nerve agent, aldicarb, is one of the most toxic pesticides dominating United States cotton production.  It’s now been found in the drinking water of 16 states.1  In fact, the Environmental Protection Agent in August 2010 concluded that the aggregate dietary intake (between food and water) of aldicarb exceeds the level of concern, particularly for infants and toddlers.  Bayer CropScience, the manufacturer of aldicarb, has agreed to phase out its use, but not until August 2018.

If we know there is concern, why are we waiting?  My two year old will still be exposed to high levels for another 7 years, during a peak developmental period of his life.  Additionally, during the phase-out, it will still be used on many food products he may use or eat, including beans, peanuts, soybeans, sugar beets, and sweet potatoes.

Because children are particularly susceptible to the poisons used in cotton production, both directly from contamination in communities where these toxins are used and with these toxins also being found in fabrics, we need to consider where these items come from.  For their direct health and the health of the planet they will inherit from us, it is important to consider where their clothing and bedding come from. Of the estimated 85 million bales of cotton grown this year worldwide, it is estimated a mere 20,000 bales will be organic.3

I found an interesting story of a local California organic cotton farmer, Roger Sanders, who is making organic work and seemingly making economic sense. Sanders family has figured out a way to produce organic cotton that has allowed him to eliminate costs. “After five or six seasons you really figure this organic thing out,” he says. “You put one-third of your land in grain, one-third in cotton, and the other third in beans. With rotations you have a diversified crop strategy and ground that is naturally pumped up to grow a heavy feeder like cotton.” The Sanders are still financing their crops with less than a third of the funds that a conventional grower with loans requiring chemical use as a guarantee of production. “Most bankers show you the door when you mention the O-word,” says Mrs. Sanders. Sometimes yields aren’t as high due to environment but quality is what is important for organic products.3

California organic growers will fetch a minimum of $1.15 for each pound of cotton. Conventional growers earn approximately $0.72 per pound, including a 23¢ government subsidy.2  It may cost a little more, but the overall cost of standard cotton production is much greater.  If consumers speak with their pocketbooks, more cotton will be produced organically.  In 2006, there were 5,971 acres of certified organic cotton planted in the United States, increasing to 7,473 acres the following year.4

So, first and foremost speak with your pocketbook.  Look at the tags of items you are purchasing and only purchase those made of organic cotton.  Otherwise, buy used clothing and utilize hand-me-downs.  This is where most of my little one’s clothing has come from, with 12 other cousins it can easily be done.

Since these items are more expensive, in my own life the place I am starting is with my child’s clothing and furnishings. I most often utilize hand me downs and thrift store finds but if I buy anything new now, it will only be organic cotton. There are some companies that make an effort to provide 100% organic cotton children’s clothing.  Not only are these companies using organic cotton but are what I consider environmentally conscious companies in other ways, such as fair trade, local manufacturingUnder the Nile - Organic Plush Vegetables, community involvement, and sustainable practices in their facilities.

Under the Nile joined with an organic cotton farm in India and makes a wide range of clothing items but my favorite items from them are their stuffed vegetables since they are probably going in a little one’s mouth.

Coyuchi has many different types of products but for babies I particularly like the cute baby jumpers with embroidered animals.

Coyuchi - Baby Jumper

A company I like with really cute fairy girl’s clothing made from organic cotton is Happygreenbee.  It was started by the partner of “Burts Bees”.  Not only is she a woman with a purpose of conservation she created a cute, unique line of clothes.

Positively organic is a NY company where I love the yoga pants and printed tees.  A mommy run company with great graphic designs, modern prints and colors utilizes 100% organic cotton.

Tomat, another mommy run company in Los Angeles, has particularly cute modern prints.

These are companies providing clothing made from organic cotton and in many ways deserve cosmic karma to support them in their further endeavors.

Why organic cotton isn’t more prominent is a complicated question.  What lies at the root of conventional cotton lies as much with the power of pesticide corporations, the banking industry, and conventional agribusiness as it does with manufacturers and consumers.  Consumers, however, are a powerful force and the “fabric of our lives” should only apply to ‘organic cotton’ when we shop.

  • Share this knowledge with others.
  • Buy organic.
  • Write your representatives!



  1. 1) EJF. (2007). The deadly chemicals in cotton. Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK: London, UK. ISBN No. 1-904523-10-2
  2. National Cotton Council.  Accessed: November 25, 2011.  Last updated: March 2009.  Website-
  3. Sustainable Cotton Project Website.  Accessed: November 25, 2011.
  4. Organic Trade Association.  Accessed: November 18, 2011.