Cotton’s Hidden Costs

Clothing prices have increased dramatically over the past two years, and not just due to the bad economy. From August 2010 to February 2011 cotton prices rose over 137% because of bad weather conditions in China, India, and Pakistan. This obviously impacts people through the clothing and linens industry, but it also indirectly affects people through other costs as well. For example, a hotel stay may be more expensive since the hotel is forced to pay increased costs for bed sheets and towels. The high price of cotton is also the reason that many advocate for the use of a dollar coin because coins are now much cheaper to produce than actual dollar bills.

Organic Cotton

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     Sadly, cotton production also has hidden costs, mainly its incredible environmental impact. Cotton is considered “the world’s dirtiest crop” because even though it accounts for only 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, it uses 16% of the pesticides! Traditional cotton growers often use pesticides and herbicides that are known human hazards. These dangerous toxins, such as aldicarb, then leach into ground water systems. 16 states have found aldicarb in drinking water supplies. Synthetic fertilizers are also used to grow cotton, which create an entirely different hazard. When fertilizers enter waterways, they add excess nutrients which lead to algae blooms. The algae absorbs much of the water’s oxygen, making it impossible for marine life to remain in the area. The best known example of this phenomenon is the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Since many farms line the length of the Mississippi River, lots of fertilizer travels downstream to the gulf, putting not only wildlife, but also the gulf coast economy, at risk.

Hypoxic Zone Map by Stephanie Clark

Cotton is also a very water-intensive crop which adds to the cost and the environmental impact. It is also an expensive crop to spin to produce into final consumer goods. The United States is the second largest cotton grower, but most of the cotton is exported to countries that have cheap labor costs. This practice adds to the carbon footprint of cotton and to the humanitarian impact. Avoiding fast fashion and paying fair prices for cotton goods is one way to purchase cotton responsibly. Another way, of course, is to stick with organic cotton goods. Cotton is a great natural fiber and has a wide variety of applications, so it is hard to avoid altogether. However, purchasing organic, local, or fairly traded materials helps minimize your negative social and environmental footprint.

Cameron Bruns is a contributor to Merida, the premier source for distinctively designed natural rugs with a conscience for sustainability. Merida was founded on and is committed to a tradition of integrating the finest quality natural fibers with innovative textile design to create beautiful collections of custom rugs.