Natalie Chanin: Pound For Pound

ColumnNatalie Chanin’s bi-weekly column, Material Witness, offers a seasoned designer’s perspective on the fashion industry, textile history and what happens when love for community trumps all.

I am pissed. It doesn’t happen often, but, it does happen.
I grew up in cotton country. My mother and her sisters picked cotton every summer to make money for new school clothes, as they didn’t want to head back in “handmade.” My aunts and uncles raised this cotton. I slept under blankets made from scrap cotton that grows after the harvest has taken place – the dregs that are left over.  I made a film about cotton and rural quilting. For better or for worse, cotton is part of the vernacular of my community, my childhood, and my life. I would venture that cotton plays a large role in your life as well.

Since this fiber is so prevalent in our lives, I think that there are 10 things you should know about it.

1. There are many varieties of cotton along with nine known colors of wild cotton. 90% of the cotton grown today is Gossypium hirsutum making it a monoculture.

2. There are three main farming methods used to harvest cotton:
Traditional Cotton – about a pound of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and defoliants are required to produce a pound of cotton.
Transitional Cotton – grown without chemical pesticides, fertilizers and defoliants but in a field where they were previously used. In these conditions, it takes a minimum of three years for traces of poison to subside – some say seven years for the field to be clean.
Certified Organic Cotton – Certified organic cotton is grown from seeds that have not been genetically modified and the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and defoliants are prohibited.

3. The pesticides most often used for cotton are derived from WWII nerve gases. According to the World Health organization, 20,000 deaths occur each year as a result of pesticide usage, as well as one million long-term acute poisonings. Many of these poisonings and deaths occur in third-world countries and away from watchful eyes.

4. The cotton seed extracted from the fiber is used in a variety of ways and often pressed into oils that are included in many processed foods found in your local supermarket or the seed itself is fed to cows for its rich oils. The seeds from traditionally grown cotton are high in chemical residue and infiltrate our food chain.

5. It takes approximately one pound of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to grow one pound of traditionally grown cotton. That long-sleeve t-shirt you just bought to support your favorite team and have thrown on your body has about one pound of cotton and has used about one pound of chemicals from seed to skin.

6. That lovely designer t-shirt is the most desirable object of the season and you HAVE to have one. Let’s say that in a very small company, school or organization, there could be approximately 12 dozen of the shirts made in a variety of sizes. A typical run might be 12 dozen.
Bad at math?  Let’s break it down:
12 dozen = 144 t-shirts = 144 pounds of chemicals
For a mid-size company, school or organization, the production quantities might be x 100:
1,440 t-shirts = 1,440 pounds of chemicals
For a larger company, school or organization, production quantities might be x 1000:
14,400 t-shirts = 14,000 pounds of chemicals

You don’t need to be good at math to see where this is going. Multiply these numbers by the numbers of companies, schools and organizations that print t-shirts, the number of styles of t-shirts available, and the size ranges from XXS to XXL for each style of t-shirt. It will make your head spin.

7. Skin is the largest organ of the human body.  Everything you layer on your skin is absorbed into your blood. That’s right: the traditionally grown cotton t-shirt with its chemical residues is directly in contact with your largest organ.

8. Organic cotton production promotes biodiversity in every part of the world it is grown. In Africa and other third-world countries, farmers growing organic cotton increase their revenue 50% because of a 40% savings on fertilizers, pesticides, and defoliants. Add to this a 20% premium for organic cotton fiber and organics can determine whether a family will survive or perish. Economic strength has been proven crucial in stopping the spread of HIV. The switch to organic cotton farming benefits entire communities and nations.

9. The fashion industry has been very slow to embrace change on a global scale. We are taught to believe that organic cotton is too expensive. Let’s look at the difference in one small example:

American Apparel
Fine Jersey Short Sleeve T
$18.00 Made in the USA

American Apparel
Organic Fine Jersey Short Sleeve T
$18.00 Made in the USA

A 0% price difference.
This is an unusual situation but there is little difference in the short run and a major difference in the long run.

10. Why would we NOT buy transitional or organic? As consumers, we are not insisting on transitional or organic because we are simply not informed and suppliers have grown lazy.
Given cotton’s ugly past in the south, we have a chance to make a beautiful story from a shameful history -to grow beauty from cruelty, to grow peace from strife by producing organic cotton.  As a country, we are learning to eliminate harmful chemicals from our food. Why are we so slow to demand the same of our clothing?

In the United States, we grow the cotton when we are not being paid not to grow it. Yet, we insist on producing it using harmful chemical means. Why aren’t we thinking of the supply chain down the road or river? What about the run-off that winds up in our streams? What about the animals that drink that water?

It reminds me of the children’s song “The House that Jack Built.” In this case, the house that we are building for our children is based upon chemicals and pesticides; our hastily crafted house may poison our children and destroy the land upon which it was built. This being the case, why would any designer or company today choose anything other than transitional or organic cotton? Katharine Hamnett presents it brilliantly, “Only pressure from the consumer in the form of boycott” can make a change. “By insisting on organic cotton and fair pay for garment workers and by paying 1% more for a t-shirt, you can change the world and make it a better and safer place.”

In the last two months, my daughter has been given a t-shirt supporting a local sports team, one for Breast Cancer awareness month, a Thanksgiving themed shirt, a pair of pants and gift shirt from an airline. And to I am willing to bet that every student in her school and across this nation has been offered a similar array of items. We make t-shirts to promote coffee and sell products, for anniversaries and 10K Runs. We make t-shirts for just about everything. You do the math.

The next time you are offered a t-shirt, think about a pound of harmful chemicals in the ground. Think about those harmful chemicals in the water that you are drinking, and more importantly, think about the residue on the largest organ of your body, your skin. Think about you and your children drinking up the residue of these chemicals into your entire system. Think about this residing in your liver for years – or a lifetime.

Then, the next time someone offers you a t-shirt that isn’t organically grown, don’t accept it, get pissed, and ask, “Why would I want that?”

Natalie Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of three books including Alabama Stitch Book  (2008), Alabama Studio Style (2010) and the upcoming Alabama Studio Sewing + Design which comes out spring 2012. Look for her bi-weekly column, Material Witness here and follow her on Facebook and her own blog at Alabama Chanin.

Natalie Chanin

Natalie “Alabama” Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of Alabama Stitch Book (STC – February 2008), Alabama Studio Style (STC – March 2010) and Alabama Studio Sewing + Design (STC – Spring 2012).