Baby clothes made from organic cotton not only keep dangerous pesticides out of the environment, they keep them off your baby's sensitive skin as well.
Before you buy
Cash constraints: Similar to purchasing other organic products, making the eco-friendly choice isn't always the cheap choice. Expect elevated prices when choosing between non-natural clothing and clothing made from organic cotton. For example, a shirt, pants and hat set in organic cotton from Sage Creek Naturals costs $44, while a comparable three-piece clothing set made by Fisher-Price from conventional cotton costs just $12.99.
Check for fair labor: Often, baby clothes made from organic cotton will additionally be labeled as "fair trade" or "sweatshop-free". Although these are increasingly common labels as fashion companies move toward socially conscious production methods, one cannot assume an organic onesie or sleeper is also fair trade and/or sweatshop-free unless it's labeled as such. Reversely, it should not be assumed that because an article of clothing is fair trade or sweatshop-free it's also organic. Simply put, organic branding relates to an agricultural movement, while fair trade and sweatshop-free labeling correlates to economic and labor movements.
Choosing organic cotton baby clothes helps you go green because…
- The production of conventional cotton results in about $2 billion worth of harmful chemical pesticides and fertilizers being sprayed on the global cotton supply each year.
- Organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration.
The production of conventional cotton involves several serious environmental problems — overuse of chemicals and water being the two biggies — most of which the organic cotton industry is trying to solve. Another eco-boon for the organic cotton movement: carbon sequestration.
Conventional cotton's environmental hurdles
The detrimental environmental impact of baby clothes is rooted in the farming of conventional cotton, considered to be the world's most pesticide-intensive crop. In the United States, an estimated one-third pound of agricultural chemicals are used to produce a single cotton T-shirt. Thus, a 100 percent cotton T-shirt is actually comprised of 73 percent cotton — the remaining 27 percent is made up of chemicals and chemical residues.
The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife — including fish, birds, and livestock. Additionally, up to 70 percent of genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds are used in conventional cotton farming in the United States.
The farming of cotton is also water-intensive. Approximately 400 gallons of water are required to produce a single cotton T-shirt. Organic cotton farming is not exempt from this reality either. Organic cotton may be chemical-free, but its production still requires significant amounts of irrigated water (though on the plus side, water supplies aren't at risk of being contaminated).
Environmental benefits of organic cotton
Along with eschewing the use of chemicals and GMOs, organic cotton production nurtures soil health and fosters biologically diverse agriculture. From 2000 to 2001, an estimated 14 million pounds of organic cotton was harvested in 12 countries — about .03 percent of total global cotton production. The United States and Turkey were the top growers, producing 79 percent of the world's organic cotton supply (along with China and India) for the 2005-2006 harvest. Domestically, Texas is the leading organic cotton producing state. In the US alone, 6,577 acres of organic cotton were planted in 2005. Despite being a leading producer, there are only 12 organic-certified cotton producers in the country and domestic cotton farming — both conventional and organic — is in decline.
To gain official organic certification in the US by a government-approved certifier, cotton must adhere to the same criteria established by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for edible crops since cotton seeds and oil are commonly used in food products: 95 percent of the ingredients must be grown in soil that has been free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years and cannot contain GMOs. So, while the cotton fiber used to make clothing can be certified as organic under USDA standards, an organic certification program for the clothing itself has not been established.
As reported by the Organic Trade Association's 2004 Manufacturer Survey, sales of organic cotton fiber grew a total of 22.7 percent from 2002 to 2003. Sales peaked at around $85 million dollars. In that period, organic men's clothing grew by 11 percent and organic women's clothing grew by 22 percent. It was estimated that the total sales of organic fiber products in the US would grow an average of 15.5 percent each year from 2004 to 2006.
In March of 2007, two mega-retailers with locations worldwide and significant fashion industry leverage, Sweden's H&M and San Francisco-based Gap Inc., introduced lines made from organic cotton. Both companies are also currently on the steering committee of the Better Cotton Initiative, whose mission is to encourage farmers worldwide to use methods that reduce environmental impacts.
Organic farming and global warming
Organic farming may also be key in fighting global climate change. During a 23-season study of conventional versus organic farming methods, the Rodale Institute discovered that organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration. In agricultural applications, the more organic matter that is retained in the soil, the more carbon is sequestered. While conventional farming depletes organic matter through the use of chemical fertilizers, organic farming uses animal manure and cover crops, which actually build soil organic matter.
Organic farming further reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by using 37 percent fewer fossil fuels than conventional farming. The Rodale Institute estimates that if all 160 million acres of corn and soybean farmland in the US were switched to organic farming methods, it would be equivalent to removing 58.7 million cars from the road, and would satisfy 73 percent of the proposed US Kyoto targets for CO2 reduction.
Questioning organic farming's land-use efficiency
The move towards organic farming has received a fair amount of criticism. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, believes that organic farming techniques are detrimental to the environment. In a December 2006 issue of The Economist he suggests that low yields from organic farming results in the destruction of more land, while the use of synthetic fertilizers allows farmers to harvest vast amounts of, for example, cotton, in a small area of cultivated land. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on high-input crops that have increased world food supply, but has been criticized because of the resulting increase in reliance on monoculture cropping and inorganic fertilizer use. His stats have also been challenged by a 2008 report by the Agronomy Journal, which concluded that many organic, low-input crops can yield as much dry matter as conventional crops (and sometimes more) given the right weed control conditions.
Outsourcing organic cotton production
The domestic cotton industry has felt pressure in recent years as the US apparel industry — from milling to sewing to the planting and harvesting of cotton — is outsourced to countries that can grow fibers and produce garments at a lower cost. Fashion companies often turn to cheaper offshore growers in India, for example, for organic fiber. Additionally, US apparel firms may be interested in buying organic cotton fiber from domestic farmers, but are likely to find it more cost-effective to ship the fiber overseas to be milled and sewn, and then ship it back for sale, an environmentally impractical, fuel-intensive process.
- carbon sequestration: The process by which carbon is captured (in the form of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere and incorporated into soil, ocean, and plant matter.
- fair trade: A movement that seeks to establish healthy and stable economic partnerships between buyers and disadvantaged producers.
- genetically modified organism (GMO): Created by merging the genetic make-up of two organisms, resulting in a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.
- Sage Creek Naturals - Why Organic?
- Sustainable Cotton Project
- Organic Exchange - Consumer Marketplace Listings of consumer goods made with organic cotton, searchable by brand or product type.
- Earth Justice Foundation - The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton
- Organic Consumers Association - Clothes for a Change: Background Info
- Pesticide Action Network North America - The problems with conventional cotton
- Organic Exchange - About Organic Cotton brochure
- US Geological Survey - Water Facts
- Green Living Tips - Cotton and the environment
- PAN Germany - Directory for Organic Cotton and Organic Cotton Products
- Organic Exchange - Organic Cotton Fiber Report: Executive Summary, Spring 2006
- Organic Trade Association Organic Cotton Facts
- Grist - A Loom With a View
- BusinessWeek.com - Green Threads for the Eco Chic
- Organic Trade Association - Organic Cotton Facts
- Food and Society Policy Fellows - Organic Farming Fights Global Warming
- Straus Communications - Organic Farming Sequesters Atmospheric Carbon and Nutrients in Soils: The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trialåš Findings
- The New Farm - Organic farming combats global warming … big time
- The Economist - Food politics: Voting with your trolley
- Answers.com - Norman Borlaug
- Agronomy Journal - Organic and Conventional Production Systems in the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials: I. Productivity 1990ÛÒ2002