|Cotton worker in India. CC Photo by Jeremy Evans Thomas on Flickr|
All the cotton bolls which are processed into such textiles start off full of seeds which have to be removed. The spare seeds are use up by conversion to animal feed. Other cotton by-products of textile production consist of 'gin trash', a mess of seeds, stalks, leaves, burrs, twigs and dirt.
Gin trash is sold on to food processors to create cotton seed oil (a common component of 'vegetable' oil), vitamins, food additives, and bulking agents.
So, besides the cotton derivatives which end up inside you via your gut, there's a lot of cotton textile dust in the air which ends up inside you via your lungs.
The implication of all this is that every part of your body can be exposed to cotton, cotton derivatives, and to animals whose physiology has been altered by cotton in their feed.
Along with these various forms of cotton come lashings of toxic chemicals. Conventional cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world:
“Cotton accounts for 25% of the world's insecticides and 11% of global pesticide sales, making it the most toxic crop grown on the planet” (Organic Consumers Association).
The processing of cotton into textiles can involve all sorts of toxic chemicals, for example petroleum compounds, heavy metals, ammonia and formaldehyde. Add to this is that 93% of cotton grown in India and 95-98% of cotton grown in America is now GM, designed to generate 'Bt' insecticidal toxins, or to accumulate Roundup herbicide, or both.
Textile factory workers and cotton-farmers are, of course, exposed to very high levels of these chemicals, but residues still remain in the end-products and can end up in the end-user (you).
There are also a number of ethical issues surrounding 'cheap' cotton products:
- “Most of the world's cotton clothes are produced in sweatshops, where people are paid low wages to work long hours in unsafe working conditions” (Organic Consumers Association).
- US cotton production and export are subsidised, artificially depressing global prices in the 'free' market.
- Multinational companies have been allowed to take out patents on GM seeds to gain control in major cotton-growing countries at the expense of locally adapted strains and small farmers.
- Loans to farmers to buy biotech seeds which fail to meet promises are being blamed for rising suicide rates in rural India.
In August, Indian farmers responded to Monsanto's decision to pull out of GM crop development in Europe by telling the Company to “now quit India”. On Independence Day, farmers from 20 states and civil groups staged a protest during which they presented non-GM, organic cotton Indian national flags to government ministers. Their representative explained “Cotton and the cloth made from indigenous cotton are a symbol of our freedom struggle”.
Cumulative health problems from toxins in textiles, in the air and in the food chain are a high price to pay for cheap clothing and bedding. Sweat-shop workers and small farmers pay an even heavier price.
It won't give you a T-shirt for a pound, but organic cotton avoids all the above problems, and it's cheap at the price. Show solidarity for Indian farmers, check out America's Organic Consumers Association's global campaign - Clothes for a Change.
* Clothes for a Change is a global campaign to raise awareness about the negative health and environmental effects of conventional and genetically engineered cotton and the institutionalized exploitation of clothing sweatshops.”
- Gargi Parsai, You have quit Europe, now quit India, farmers tell Monsanto, The Hindu, 9.08.13
- Jyotika Sood, Quit Monsanto protest near parliament, Down To Earth, 8.08.13
- Clothes for a Change: Is Your T-Shirt GMO? Organic Consumers Association Organic Bytes, 29.18.13
- Simi Summer, A Tangled Weave, In Good Tilth, U24:2, Summer 2013