Blue Jeans Part II: The True Cost of Blue

The denim for blue jeans comes from the cotton plant, a shrubby tropical plant treated as an annual in more temperate regions whose modern history, at least, is fraught with tragedy.

Blue Jeans, Part II: The True Cost of Blue
Photo: grrrrl, Creative Commons, Flickr

From the fields in the South to the mills in the North, America’s 19th century relationship with the fiber was largely one of exploitation and deprivation. In the latter half of the 20th century, these ills were exported to poorer countries, but out of sight is not out of mind, and inequities remain.

Cotton takes a long time to produce (18 weeks from flower to cotton boll), requires an enormous amount of nutrients and is highly susceptible to plant diseases, which leads many cotton growers to use large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides. Cotton growing leaches soil, leaving it worthless for growing food crops. Cotton also requires a substantial amount of water, and this water is a limited commodity in many cotton-growing countries. In fact, in the face of global warming, there is no country on earth that has escaped the need to conserve water.

Cotton still grows in the southern United States, primarily Texas, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi, but cultivation is declining from its height in the early 1900s, primarily due to the cost of production in terms of wages. The largest cotton-growing country in the world is China, followed by India. The U.S. ranks a close third, but Africa – once the source of slaves used to pick U.S. cotton – has begun to grow increasing amounts of cotton in various countries like Chad on small, individual landholdings whose production may topple the U.S. record before the end of the decade.

A typical African cotton farmer will earn $300 to $400 a year from his crop. A U.S. farmer will earn more, but only by using huge tracts of land to grow cotton, not the roughly 5 acres the typical African farmer uses. U.S. farmers are also subsidized by the government. In the end, though, cotton buyers pay the same price for the product, leading to a lot of resentment among American cotton producers (whose subsidies are cut year after year) and increasing wealth in less industrialized nations. That is the upside of cotton for third-world countries like Africa.

The downside is the chemicals used to grow cotton. A recent study of soil samples from West Africa showed that three-fourths of the land contains massive quantities of harmful chemicals, namely fertilizers and pesticides, most of which eventually end up in water supplies. These include DDT and its “breakdown” product, endosulfan. Endosulfan can cause vomiting, paralysis, incontinence, coma, seizures and death. Most of the pesticides used in developing nations are banned or restricted in the Western world. In all, about $2 billion worth of pesticides end up in fields in these poorer nations, and nearly half of them are classified as hazardous substances by the World Health Organization.

Notable among these toxic substances is Aldicarb, a nerve agent. As Steve Trent, Director of The Environmental Justice Foundation notes, most cotton farmers live in developing countries where literacy is low and safety precautions are minimal. In these countries, children work the cotton fields alongside adults. Children are the most chemically vulnerable segment of any population, and in China, India and Africa, accidental poisoning of children by chemicals is 300-percent greater than in the developed world. These chemical exposures lead to increased childhood disease, learning disabilities and poor health in adulthood. In effect, we are creating a future in which sickness may be the norm.

Organic cotton is grown without chemicals, particularly pesticides, and protects both the environment and its growers. There are a number of groups involved in developing standards for organic textiles, but the most heavily represented and reliable include the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in the U.S., the Soil Association in the U.K., the International Association Natural Textile Industry (IVN) in Germany, Demeter in Europe and internationally, KRAV in Sweden and the Scandinavian countries, and the Japan Organic Cotton Association (JOCA).

If you live in the U.S. and you must buy that new pair of jeans, please verify that the jeans are made from organic cotton – that is, cotton grown without chemicals. Use the OTA site to find organic cotton jeans either by brand name or by manufacturer. Or check by keyword, as I did, bearing in mind that – while the list may not be complete – just because Levi says it’s organic doesn’t make it so (remember, greenwashing has become a marketing tool.) Otherwise you may be contributing to the death of someone’s child.

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any blue jean manufacturer or retailer.

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