By Dr. Mercola
Swedish fashion giant H&M has been making headlines for their strides toward sustainability, and were named the biggest user of organic cotton worldwide in both 2010 and 2011.1
With 2,900 stores in 49 markets, H&M is certainly poised to make real changes in the garment industry, and has pledged to only use more sustainably produced cotton by 2020. And unlike many industries that are only now jumping on the organic bandwagon, H&M has been using certified organic cotton since 2004.
These are noble strategies, but H&M’s move toward sustainability hasn’t come without setbacks, including a major scandal in 2010 that found some of H&M’s ‘organic’ cotton may have been contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Is H&M Organic Cotton Really Organic?
In 2010, independent laboratory testing found that 30 percent of the organic cotton tested from H&M, along with European companies C&A and Tchibo, contained genetically modified (GM) material.2
All of the questionable cotton came from India, one of the world’s largest producers of organic cotton, which suggests the fraudulent labeling is probably occurring at far more retailors than the three listed.
The companies mentioned were not aware that the organic cotton they were selling was tainted, but H&M did acknowledge the finding.
They also now state that all of their organic cotton is independently certified by accredited certification bodies and all products containing organic cotton have a transaction certificate issued by a third-party certifier to verify the content of the organic fiber.3
H&M is also actively involved in the Better Cotton Initiative, which is striving to make global cotton production better for the environment and the economies in cotton-producing areas.
Though not necessarily organic, member farmers of the Better Cotton Initiative in Brazil, India, Mali and Pakistan are using more sustainable ways of growing cotton, and reaped their first harvests during the 2010-11 season. Their production principles include cotton produced by farmers who:4
- Minimize the harmful impact of crop protection practices
- Use water efficiently and care for the availability of water
- Care for the health of the soil
- Conserve natural habitats
- Care for and preserve the quality of the fiber
- Promote decent work
Cotton Is the 'World’s Dirtiest Crop'
You’re probably well aware why it’s important to buy organic as much as possible when it comes to your food, but what about for an item of clothing, which is merely going to rest against your skin?
The reasons are still largely the same, and while they’re important for you, as an individual, they’re also important on a very broad scale. One of the primary reasons why organic cotton is better is because of what it doesn’t contain, namely a heavy load of some of the most hazardous insecticides on the market.
According to the Organic Trade Association:5
“Cotton is considered the world's 'dirtiest' crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world's cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world's insecticides, more than any other single major crop.
Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho, three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production. All but one of the remaining seven most commonly used are classified as moderately to highly hazardous.
Aldicarb, cotton's second best selling insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans, can kill a man with just one drop absorbed through the skin, yet it is still used in 25 countries and the US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater.”
As you might suspect, this is hazardous on multiple levels – for the farmers working with these chemicals, the people living nearby, the consumers buying the cotton and virtually everyone else who will eventually be impacted by this widespread environmental pollution, much of which inevitably travels up the food chain where it bioaccumulates within your body.
Even the Production Process of Conventional Cotton Is Dangerous
The environmental assaults don’t end when the cotton leaves the field. The production process necessary to turn cotton into clothing also unleashes more environmental pollution, as well as a laundry list of chemicals that remain in the clothing you may be wearing right now. The Organic Trade Association explains:6
“During the conversion of cotton into conventional clothing, many hazardous materials are used and added to the product, including silicone waxes, harsh petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde-just to name a few.
Many processing stages result in large amounts of toxic wastewater that carry away residues from chemical cleaning, dyeing, and finishing. This waste depletes the oxygen out of the water, killing aquatic animals and disrupting aquatic ecosystems. The North American Organic Fiber Processing Standards prohibits these and similar chemicals.”
GM ‘Bt’ Cotton: The Toxic ‘Solution’ That’s Killing Even More Farmers
The 2002 introduction of Monsanto’s Bt cotton, which is genetically modified to produce a toxin from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that is deadly to the bollworm, was supposed to lead to a reduction in the use of insecticides on cotton crops and better yields for farmers in the developing world (where 99 percent of all cotton farmers reside).7
But this genetically modified cotton actually required far MORE water and far MORE pesticides than hybrid or traditional cotton! These seeds were heavily marketed in India, using film stars and even religious deities to lure farmers in. And they came with a steep price tag—they are four to 10 times more expensive than hybrid seeds.
Bt cotton requires more pesticide sprayings than indigenous cotton—MANY times more. Bt cotton has created new resistant pests,8 and to control these, farmers must use 13 times more pesticides9 than they were using prior to its introduction. Rates of infestation by aphids, thrips, jassids, and other pests have risen since Bt cotton's introduction. Meanwhile, yields for Bt cotton are disappointingly low. Monsanto claims Bt cotton will yield 1500 kg per year, but farmers have gotten only 300 to 400 kg per year, average. High costs and unreliable output make GM cotton a debt trap.
One Indian Cotton Farmer Commits Suicide Every 30 Minutes
This has all been amplified by the dramatic fall in cotton prices as a result of the World Trade Organization's so-called ‘free trade’ policies, which make cotton farming financially unsustainable. Foreign agricultural subsidies have driven down the price of crops on the global market, and unsubsidized Indian farmers can't compete.
As a result, Indian farmers are committing suicide at an alarming rate – about one farmer every 30 minutes! I experienced the Indian farmers' plight firsthand while spending two weeks in India, where I saw for myself the devastating effects of GM seed upon the lives and livelihoods of these rural farmers. Numerous social, economic and environmental factors make matters truly unlivable for these small rural cotton farmers:
- The "Green Revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s has funneled money toward the middle class and away from the farming/peasant classes
- Rising prices for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and other farm supplies, along with falling prices for farm commodities, are forcing farmers to take out high-interest loans from opportunistic moneylenders
- A trend from polyculture farming (diverse crops) to monoculture farming (primarily cotton) has depleted the soil and increased crop infestation by opportunistic pests
- Limited water supplies, periodic drought, decreased monsoonal rainfall, and poor access to irrigation
- Dishonest, predatory salesmen; lack of government support; and grossly inadequate government relief programs
Organic Cotton Is Crucial for Farmers, Environmental Sustainability
A few Indian farmers have decided to switch to growing organic cotton. There are numerous advantages, of course, from the standpoint of health—but there are also financial advantages, as a minimum price for organic cotton is guaranteed. And the cost of growing organic cotton declines over time as the ecosystem regains its balance.
Organic cotton fields may harbor a few bollworms, but you'll also find plenty of helpful insects, such as ladybugs, and birds that help keep pests under control. Organic farmers make their own insecticides from a renewable mixture of cow dung, cow urine, and butter, and compost fertilizers as well.
Monsanto has been ruthless in their drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops, and it gives us a very clear picture of what could be in store for the rest of the world's small farmers if GM seed conglomerates are allowed to continue. This is why it's so important to vote with your pocket book, being vigilant about not purchasing GM foods and GM cotton.
Your best strategy, to help yourself, the environment and small organic farmers everywhere, is to buy 100% organic products whenever possible, as these do not permit genetically modified ingredients. Your clothing is included because, as you’ve read, what you choose to wear has far-reaching global impacts.
Companies like H&M are leading the way in this movement, but there is still work to be done. Even as the world’s largest user of organic cotton, this still amounts to only eight percent of H&M’s total cotton use.10 They have pledged to use only sustainably produced cotton by 2020, though, which is a major positive step. By supporting companies like this and others who recognize that their production practices have the potential to change the world for better or for worse, you, too, become part of the solution or the problem. Which one, of course, is up to you!