Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Do you know the difference between Conventional Cotton versus Organic Cotton Fabrics?

In this article we will discuss cotton in agriculture, the historical use of cotton, and conventional versus Organic cotton cultivation and textile manufacture, and Aquarian Bath's switch from conventional to organic cotton fabrics.

The Cotton Plant
Cotton (genus Gossypium) is a native plant to tropical and semi-tropical places around the world. Cotton plants can be perennial, however for optimal cotton production they are grown as annuals. The cotton shrub requires lots of sunlight and around a five month long growing season. Cotton is highly susceptible to temperatures below freezing, so it does not grow well in the United States above the latitude of 46 degrees north. Also, the seeds take longer to ripen than the growing seasons found in much of the U.S. The plant itself reaches two to six feet tall, with branching stems and hairy leaves. The ideal growing temperature for cotton is 90°–95°F. The flowers of the cotton plant range in color from white or yellow with purple spots near the center, with some flowers turning rose color with age. After the flower petals fall, a hard capsule or boll remains, within which the cotton develops. Once the bolls are ripe, they burst open, revealing the cotton fibers. The cotton seeds are buried deep within the fibers, and can be pried out with some effort. The cotton crop requires significant fertilization. Drought, including droughts caused by climate change are a significant concern to Cotton farmers, both Organic and Conventional. The water requirements of this crop put it in direct competition with crops grown for food during severe drought periods.

In the U.S., the process of commercially picking and processing cotton is entirely automated. In others countries, such as India, farmers still rely on the handpicking process for harvesting the cotton in their fields. Here in Florida, Aquarian Bath raises what was received in a trade as a "native Florida cotton," pictured below. We grow the cotton for use in doll making, first aid, and for seed sharing and preservation.

Flowering Cotton plant in Florida.

A Brief History of Cotton
Cotton has played a big part in human history as far back as 7000 years ago in the Middle East, and cotton cloth dating to around 5800 BC has been identified in a cave in Mexico. Although different cultures around the world used cotton even in ancient times, huge production of cotton did not really start until the Industrial Revolution in Britain at the end of the 18th Century. At that time in 1738, Lewis Paul and John Wyatt, of Birmingham, developed spinning machines able to create large quantities of cotton cloth. To feed these spinning machines, the British relied on cotton raised in the U.S. South. After Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a mechanical device or “engine” which performed the function of removing the seeds from the cotton, the production of cotton in the South boomed, as did the dreadful use of slaves to handle this labor intensive crop. During the U.S. Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, Britain lost its primary source of cotton and had to look for other places around the world where cotton could grow, including Egypt and India. Cotton remains one of the staple crops in the Southern U.S. today. Other countries that supply a significant amount of cotton for the world market today include Brazil, Australia, India, China, Turkey, Argentina, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Oklahoma Cotton Field 1897--98.
Modern Conventional Cotton Cultivation
Did the cotton industry ever recover morally and ethically from the days of commonplace slavery in the US south? Today cotton growers who would like to be certified as up to Global Organic Trade Standards must also be compliant in terms of fair trade and, labor must also not be forced. These standards also set forth a living wage, prohibition of child laborers, and provision of hygienic conditions. Below you will find some of the hazardous materials that conventional cotton farm workers are exposed to during cultivation.

The level of toxins generated by the cotton industry is frightening. One of the most disturbing aspects of conventional cotton cultivation is the large amount of chemicals needed to raise cotton from seed to harvest. Three of the top 10 pesticides used in conventional cotton agriculture, Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho, are among the most dangerous. According to the Organic Trade Association, cotton is the worlds dirtiest crop with around 45 million pounds of pesticides used on 11 million acres of cotton planted in the U.S. in 2010 alone, which breaks down into 4.1 pounds of pesticide per acre. Approximately 90 percent of cotton seed raised in the U.S. is genetically engineered to be “Roundup ready.” Roundup, the flagship herbicide for the U.S. chemical company Monsanto, is the most popular herbicide used on cotton fields in the U.S. The studies of its key ingredient, glyphosate, show that this chemical causes birth defects in study animals, as well as genetic damage, cancer and endocrine disruption in mammals. Despite Monsanto’s claim that glyphosate passes through the human body without leaving any residue, a recent study shows that glyphosate is found in human breast milk. Also, scientists have discovered significant levels of glyphosate in both water and air samples in the watershed of the Mississippi River, which means this chemical leaves the field where it is applied and enters the wider environment. Besides round up ready GMO cotton seeds, GMO Bt cotton crops, which are cotton plants engineered to create their own pesticides, are failing in India.

Conventional Cotton Textile Processing
The chemical bath for conventionally grown cotton does not end in the field. Once the conventionally grown cotton is taken to the factory to be made into cloth, the cotton is whitened with chlorine bleach, which can potentially be released into the environment. The warp fibers are stabilized using toxic waxes. The cotton is finished with synthetic surfactants in hot water, along with other chemicals, including the possibility of formaldehyde and arsenic. To make all the pretty colored cloth, conventional cotton material is dyed with heavy metal based dyes and sulfur content with the possibility that the pigments enter rivers and streams through water runoff. Residue from these chemicals can remain in the finished fabric.

Organic Cotton Cultivation
The answer to cleaner, better quality cotton lies in organic cotton cultivation using non-GMO seed. The problem of cotton pests, such as the cotton boll worm, is solved by a combination of methods. First, organic cotton farmers practice crop rotation, which eliminates a constant supply of food for harmful insects, along with adding increased organic matter to the soil. Organic cotton farmers also introduce beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, lacewings, spiders, parasitic wasps, beetles and ants to their fields to help destroy the harmful insects. Trap crops like okra, sorghum, sunflowers and hibiscus are grown next to the cotton. The trap crop attracts otherwise harmful insects and spares the cotton. If an insecticide is thought necessary, organic cotton farmers use organically sound products made from natural ingredients, such as neem spray, which is an extract from neem seeds (Azadirachta indica), or pyrethrum, which is made from extracts of chrysanthemum flowers. Organic cotton is now grown in 23 countries with most production is being made in India, Syria, China, Turkey, and the United States.

Organic cotton farmers and conventional cotton farmers considering to switch to Organic farming methods face various issues. A major problem farmers face is finding enough organic cotton seed. The vast majority of seed available is genetically modified seed, and many organic farmers report saving at least a portion of their cotton seed to replant next year. Other problems for organic cotton production include pressure from neighboring conventional cotton farmers, friends and family who don’t accept the benefits of organic farming. As other types of organic farming grow more popular in an area, organic cotton farmers find it easier to switch to organic practices. Also, organic cotton farmers still struggle with getting the word out about the environmental benefits of Organic cotton and advantages of Organic cotton textiles, therefore we are writing here to educate others about this industry.

GOTS Organic Cotton Textile Production
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is an international organization that sets the definition of what Organic fabric should be. During organic cotton textile production, the warp fibers are stabilized using non-toxic cornstarch. To whiten the fibers, organic manufacturers use peroxide instead of bleach, a safer alternative. To finish the fabric, it is put through a soft scour of warm water and soda ash, which changes the pH of the water to 7.5-8. Dying and printing occurs using natural dyes or low impact fiber-reactive dyes, neither of which contain heavy metals.

Aquarian Bath now offers Hot and Cold therapy pillows made with GOTS Organic cottons
With the amount of organic cotton raised as of 2011 (the last available statistic) at less than 1.5 percent of total cotton production, we have worked very hard to locate the Organic cotton fabric suitable to be used in our line of single layer hot/cold therapy pillows. These flax seed neck wraps or facial pillows can be heated in the microwave for warm therapy, or put in the freezer for cold therapy relief. Our selection of therapy pillows now includes pillows made with GOTS Organic cotton, with eight new prints from the companies Harmony Art and Cloud 9 Fabrics. These fabrics are a bit more expensive to buy, but they are guaranteed GOTS cotton, which means they are certified Organic cotton, without pesticides and without tons of harmful chemicals used in processing of the cotton.  The fabrics are also produced without child or forced labor.
Here is one of our favorite canvas pillows made with GOTS cotton. The Line Leaf print is designed by Eloise Renouf for Cloud 9 Fabrics, and is available from us in black or blue.

Aquarian Bath also has a few pillows made from a base of blended organic cotton and hemp, and a washable pillow cover created from GOTS certified organic fabric like the one below.  We will be writing more on hemp and how it compares to cotton next month.  We added these double layer pillows to our line in 2013, and the added pillow cover makes them a bit more expensive. Aquarian Bath is in the process of phasing out all conventional cotton products used in our hot and cold therapy pillows.
Please be sure to follow our blog for a chance to win 2 of our Harmony Art flax seed pillows. We will be giving away 2 pillows for Mother's Day. One pillow will go to one of our blog followers, and one to that follower's favorite mom. The contest will start next week.
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