The Dirty Side of Cotton

Conventional cotton isn’t “The Fabric of Our Lives,” though industry group America’s Cotton Producers and Importers have spent big bucks to make us think this is the case.

Wait a sec! Cotton is a natural material. What could be dirty about that? When you take a look at conventional cotton’s social and environmental impacts, this 100 percent natural fiber starts to feel like not such a natural choice. Let’s talk about some of the problems with conventional along with some much more ethical alternatives.

Environmental Impacts

Cotton’s environmental issues are probably the most common problem that consumers know about. Conventional cotton is a very water- and pesticide-intensive crop. A full 16 percent of the pesticides sprayed worldwide are sprayed onto cotton crops. Of course, those poisons don’t stay on the plant. When farmers water or when it rains, those pesticides wash into the soil and into rivers and streams, where they pollute waterways and damage fragile ecosystems.

All of those chemicals are also terrible for cotton workers. Check out the video at the top of the page for more on how pesticides harm cotton farmers.

In Uzbekistan, pesticides have decimated the environment and are causing widespread cancer and tuberculosis among populations there. This video from Earth Justice Foundation gets into more details about how cotton production is hurting the land and people in Uzbekistan.

Pesticides aren’t the only part of cotton production that’s bad for farmers. On the next page, read about how Monsanto’s genetically modified cotton destroyed the lives of so many Indian farmers.

cotton field

Social Impacts: Monsanto’s Cotton and Indian Farmers

Almost all of the conventional cotton grown here in the U.S. and abroad is genetically modified, and much of that GM cotton is Bt cotton from Monsanto. Like Bt corn, the plant is modified to produce its own pesticides. Even setting aside the intrinsic problems with GMOs like crop cross-contamination and the rise of resistant superweeds, this GM cotton is bad news.

Thousands of Indian farmers are committing suicide because they are so deeply in debt from Monsanto’s Bt cotton, which didn’t deliver the benefits it promised. These farmers borrowed money to invest in GM cotton seeds, because Monsanto promised higher yields with less water and fewer pesticides. Andrew Malone reported for The Daily Mail on this problem back in 2008 that “The price difference is staggering: 10 for 100 grams of GM seed, compared with less than 10 for 1,000 times more traditional seeds,” but salesmen promised that the benefits were worth the higher price tag.

What they got instead was despair.

In the video below, activist Vandana Shiva talks about the hundreds of daily suicides among Indian farmers because Bt cotton didn’t live up to salesmen’s claims:

Is that 100 percent cotton tote bag or t-shirt feeling like less of a green choice? Don’t worry! There are some great alternatives to conventional cotton. Check out a few of my favorites on the next page.

organic cotton

Alternatives to Conventional Cotton

Got the conventional cotton blues? The best way to break this cycle of pollution and suffering is to vote with our wallets! Say no to conventional cotton when you’re shopping for clothing, fabric, and household items. These are a few of my favorite alternatives to dirty conventional cotton.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton doesn’t have the social and environmental problems that conventional cotton does, so buy organic to your heart’s content! The bonus when you choose organic cotton is that you’re sending a clear message to cotton producers: you don’t want the chemical-laden, genetically modified stuff in your life.

Look for organic cotton clothing and housewares in stores and online, though I’ve had better luck online.

Organic cotton for crafting is tricky to find in brick and mortar stores, but it’s worth phoning your favorite fabric store to ask. Online fabric sellers are a great resource for organic cotton, and there are lots of Etsy sellers that create their own lines of organic cotton that’s either screen printed or block printed.


Like organic cotton, you can find organic hemp clothing and housewares most easily online.

Hemp is kind of a wonder-plant. It requires very little water and few pesticides to grow, and it actually improves the soil where it’s planted. The only big downside to hemp is that, because of ridiculous laws here in the U.S., farmers can’t grow it here. Any hemp you buy in the States is going to most likely come from China or from Canada.

For crafting, Etsy is once again a great hemp resource! My favorite source for hemp is probably Noonday Textiles. I’ve been ordering from Jay, the owner, for years, and her quality is consistent. She hand-dyes all of her hemp in small batches, and she’s got a great selection of colors and weights to fit any project you’re working on.

Get Thrifty

The main downside to organic cotton and to hemp is the price tag. I totally understand that not everyone can afford to buy all organic clothing, tea towels, bedding, etc, and that’s where your local thrift store comes in.

When you buy second-hand clothing and housewares, you’re diverting waste from the landfill and opting out of the cotton production process. Even crafters can get in on the second hand goodness. Lots of thrift stores sell second hand fabric, but you don’t need yardage to craft with! Vintage linens, maxi skirts, and old mumus are all great resources for cheap fabric that doesn’t support Monsanto.

Do you have a favorite alternative to conventional cotton? I’ve love to hear your ideas in the comments!

10 Ways to Take Action Against Monsanto
Organic Farming vs. Industrial Agriculture: Which Method Wins?
Craft Store Politics & Greener Craft Shopping

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Karen R.
Karen R.2 years ago

that sucks, I can only wear cotton

Ana Passos
Past Member 2 years ago


Les M.
Les M.2 years ago

some good info. i went to the etsy site for hemp but they're closed this weekend.

Jacolin S.
Jacolin S.3 years ago

Thank you for the information!!!

Evelyn W.
Evelyn W.3 years ago

If we just got rid of Monsanto.....

Anne F.
Anne F.3 years ago

Organic cotton! even cotton with some color in it (plants bred to be greenish or tan)! Thanks for the article.

Beata R.
Beata R.3 years ago

i was not impressed actually. there are no more good and natural things left or maybe very little. anyway, thanks for sharing ;)

Robert O.
Robert O.3 years ago

There always seems to be a dirty side to everything. Thanks for the article Becky.

Janine F.
Janine F.3 years ago


Georgeta Trandafir