A Guide to Cotton

Organic Cotton Vs. Traditional Cotton? Ordinary cotton is treated with a variety of chemicals as it goes through the processes from plant to fabric, and residues remain even after washing. This interesting and informative chart, found in Your Naturally Healthy Home, follows the myriad of traditional cotton chemical treatments involved in cotton cultivation, harvesting, scouring, dyeing, printing, and finishing, and compares them to the methods of processing organic cotton.

Cultivation
*Traditional Cotton
Chemicals Used: Synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers that may be highly toxic and cause environmental problems.
Global Consequences: Chemicals cause decline in soil fertility and erosion; aerial spraying affects other crops; high water use and water supplies polluted.
Health Consequences: Traces of chemicals remain and are potentially carcinogenic.

*Organic Cotton
Organic matter fertilizes soil and renews soil productivity; less water used.

Harvesting
* Traditional Cotton
Chemicals Used: Herbicides used to defoliate and make picking easier.
Global Consequences: Chemicals pollute ground and rivers; harvesting machinery compacts the ground and reduces soil productivity.
Health Consequences: Traces of chemicals remain and are potentially carcinogenic.

* Organic Cotton
Hand picked (no defoliation, machinery, or chemicals); hand picking means less waste.

Scouring, Washing, and Bleaching
* Traditional Cotton
Chemicals Used: Chlorine (see xxx on care2), hydrogen peroxide, APEO (alkylphenoloxylate, a hormone disrupter), EDTA (ethylenediamine tetra-acetate; binds with heavy metals in rivers and streams and activates them), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone.
Global Consequences: Synthetic disinfectants are slow to biodegrade; chlorine emissions pollute atmosphere.
Health Consequences: Traces of chemicals are carcinogenic and can affect the nervous system.

* Organic Cotton
Natural spinning oils biodegrade easily; natural processing such as potato starch used; no chlorine used.

Yarn Dyeing
* Traditional Cotton
Chemicals Used: Compounds of iron, tin, potassium, and VOCs.
Global Consequences: Large quantities of water used for washing out dyes.
Health Consequences: Water polluted by heavy metals.

* Organic Cotton
Natural vegetable dyes or low-impact synthetic dyes; or cotton is color grown.

Printing
* Traditional Cotton
Chemicals Used: Solvent-based inks containing heavy metals, benzene, and organochlorides.
Global Consequences: Waste water is polluted with heavy metals; emissions form harmful ozone.
Health Consequences: Toxic residues cause problems of the central nervous system, respiratory system, and skin, as well as head-aches, dizziness, and eye irritations.

* Organic Cotton
Natural vegetable and mineral inks and binders are used.

Finishing (easycare, stain resistance, fireproofing, mothproofing, softening, deodorizing, anti-static, and mercerizing treatments)
* Traditional Cotton
Chemicals Used: Formaldehyde, caustic soda, sulfuric acid, bromines, urea resins, sulfonamides, halogens, and bromines.
Global Consequences: Waste water has a high acid content; emissions to atmosphere.
Health Consequences: Chemical traces on the fabric can cause burning eyes, nose, and throat, as well as difficulties with sleep, concentration, and memory. Can increase susceptibility to cancer; emissions of chemicals from fabric increase with temperature.

* Organic Cotton
No enhancement fishes used.

Transportation
* Traditional Cotton
In addition to the above, there are environmental consequences of transporting huge quantities of chemicals from the manufacturing plant to the place of cultivation, as well as the additional journeys involved for all stages of cotton production, from the raw material to place of manufacture, finishing, and then to distributor and user.

* Organic Cotton
Fewer processes so fewer journeys.

Adapted from Your Naturally Healthy Home: Stylish, Safe, Simple, by Alan Berman. Copyright (c) 2001 Frances Lincoln Limited. Reprinted by permission of Rodale Press.
Adapted from Your Naturally Healthy Home: Stylish, Safe, Simple, by Alan Berman.

8 comments

Tourism R.
Past Member 5 years ago

great amount of info you offered us here, but how about organic cotton ?

Geneva N. Daniels

I too wish I could get organic cotton at a low price. I also wonder where in Philadelphia, PA I might even see this kind of cotton?

Miranda R.
Miranda Lee R.6 years ago

Fabric made from organic hemp is so soft and luxurious as well as inexpensive to produce. I wish more of it was available in our textile industry!

Deborah Barnes
Deborah Barnes8 years ago

Was in a fabric store where a clerk told me an Oregon quilter had died of liver failure allegedly due to formaldehydes in the unwashed cottons she was using in her art. I am accepting the truth of her words as I see the immense damage that dances around the cotton industry. Thanks and see the rcyked anti-damage alternative at http://fashionethos.blogspot.com

Gottfried G.
Gottfried G.8 years ago

rganic colored cotton are grown naturalywithout pesticides, comes in 4 colors,
braunish greenish yellowish and natural, all this 4 colores can be mixed in the spinningprocess to make a variaty of different shades of yarns, enduse for clothing knitting and weaving fabric, we make chenille and novelty yarns since 1985 and suplier the american textilemarket, mostly for homefurnishingfabric, handknittingyarns and others, the organic colored Cotton when hot washed give it a darker color,need to know more write me, regards Gottfried

Katie Spooner
Past Member 8 years ago

I just wish it wasn't so expensive to buy. You think less chemicals would mean it would be cheaper, though I guess you might get smaller yields and require alternative technology to produce the cotton.

Pamela Lewis
Past Member 8 years ago

very interesting info- still looking for clothing made from organic cotton.