Right. This is a post I've been wanting to write for about six years. The reason it has taken me so long to actually get something down in black and white is that my thoughts and feelings have fluctuated a bit and I was never sure exactly what I wanted to say. I'm not sure I've nailed it now exactly, but here goes...
Organic cotton sounds like a great idea, doesn't it? We have all (hopefully) read or heard about the damage done to ecosystems and communities by the pesticides that are used in the production of cotton. Now we can buy clothing and fabric that doesn't contribute to that aspect of pollution and damage? Fabulous! Or is it? Let me tell you my concerns.
About six years ago I read 'Confessions of an Eco Sinner: Travels to find where my stuff comes from' by Fred Pearce (pictured above). Mind. Blown. I can't recommend this book enough. Fred Pearce is a journalist who in this book investigates what kind of impact the things he owns has on the world. He takes lots of everyday items and investigates their production, and sometimes also their disposal. It's freaking fascinating, eye-opening and, at times, alarming. But knowledge is power and all that.
Anyways, one of the chapters is about the environmental and social impact his clothing has, and as part of that he looks into both organic and regular cotton production. He found that organic cotton, although obviously superior to regular cotton in its lack of pesticide usage, actually requires more water than regular cotton to grow and process. Cotton production is responsible for serious drought in various parts of the globe, included the truly frightening shrinkage of the Aral sea to just 10% of its former size (pictured below). So perhaps you could argue that the 'benefits' of organic cotton are somewhat outweighed, and maybe swapping all cotton production to the organic model would have even more dire consequences.
(image source: Wikipedia)
That is the perspective on organic cotton that I have carried with me for a number of years, but it was challenged at the end of last year when I attended a talk by Gina Pantastico, the Director of Operations at Cloud9 fabrics, which took place at the Village Haberdashery. She spoke a lot about the growing and processing of the organic cotton used in their fabric ranges. She assured us that the growing methods used by their suppliers in fact uses less water than conventional, non-organic cotton production. I have no cause to think that either she nor Fred Pearce is lying, so I conclude that either some cotton growers, including Cloud9's, have figured out superior methods, or that organic cotton growing in general has improved is the six+ year period since Fred researched and wrote 'Confessions of an Eco Sinner'.
What does still require a large amount of water, however, is the processing and dying of the cotton, even when the dyes that are being used have been certified as safe for local ecosystems and the workers that are exposed to them. As she described the rest of the production process, from raw cotton crop to finished rolls of beautiful printed fabric, I couldn't help but think about all the energy that would also be used to power each stage. And then all the oil used to transport the cotton at its various stages of processing and to distribute the final product. I can't see that the amount of fossil fuels burned would be much, if at all, different from non-organic fabric production.
(image source: Cloud9 Fabrics)
I sometimes feel that when the word 'organic' is written on a garment or fabric label, it is perceived by some as a magic word that absolves us from any impact that the production, processing and transportation of it has had at all. I know that not everyone has the time or inclination to really look into what is involved in fabric production (myself included, I've only read a book and a few articles over the years), but it's important not to feel like we are wearing a halo because we bought an organic product. The conclusion I personally drew from having read 'Confessions of an Eco-Sinner' has not changed after the Cloud9 talk: we really need to reduce cotton production of all types because there is no method of cotton production that is environmentally sustainable.
We need to work out how slow down cotton consumption altogether, perhaps in part by focusing on using and reusing the vast quantities of textiles that already exist on our planet. Obviously, mass-produced poor-quality 'disposable' fast fashion is a major culprit, but home-sewers are not exempt from making better choices. I'm not suggesting that everyone who sews should stop buying fabric until their stashes are all used up and their local charity shops are empty, but we sewers definitely need to collectively rein it in a bit and be more mindful in our purchasing. This is a topic that I'm going to re-visit in another post very soon (bet you can't wait hahaha!).
So bringing it back to the topic in hand. Organic cotton is undoubtedly a better choice when buying fabric for lessening pesticide-related damage and, are far as Cloud9 are concerned at least, for reducing water usage in cotton production. If we can't source suitable second-hand, already-in-existence fabric for our projects, maybe organic cotton is the next best thing for home sewers?
Sourcing Organic Cotton:
As I say, I've been thinking about this topic on and off for six years, so why am I'm finally writing about it now? Well, I got offered some free stuff. Within a short space of time, three businesses offered me some free organic cotton to sew with and review on my blog. Now, as committed as I am to sewing with existing textiles where possible, I'm not a crazy person. I'm not going to say no to some lovely fabric that I can make a cute garment for my daughter out of. Plus, more broadly, if I/we do need to source new fabric from time to time, we need to know what's available and what it's like to make garments from.
The three businesses that have given me fabric recently are Only Organic Fabric Shop (who gave me the maroon jersey used to make the garments in these photos which I'll blog about separately very soon), myfabrics.co.uk (who gave me some printed jersey for a garment that is currently on the sewing table, which will be blogged about in the next few weeks) and The Village Haberdashery (who gave me some of this Small World by Cloud9 needle cord, which I have great plans for...).
I've also seen that Offset Warehouse has some excellent organic garment fabrics and Kitschy Coo seem to be the place to go for fun printed and plain organic jersey. Any other sources that you can recommend?
So, what about you? What are your thoughts on organic cotton? What is your thought processes behind making fabric purchases? Do you think the extra expense for organic cotton is worth it? Does anyone exclusively sew with the organic stuff? Jump into the discussion, I'd love to know what you think...