Across the world, nitrogen runoff from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is creating aquatic dead zones in freshwater lakes and in oceans, killing off species of fish and crustaceans. Called eutrophication, these dead zones are growing exponentially. This past summer, murky blue-green algae blooms – the lynchpin of eutrophication – appeared earlier and on more lakes in the midwestern United States than usual. Health warnings were issued in 20 states.
Conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other crop. And humans use more cotton than any other fiber. The synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that typically douse cotton farms devastate people and land, and they are increasingly found in our waterways. While cotton production isn’t solely responsible for the damage, just 1 percent of the world’s cotton is grown organically. Aldicarb, one of cotton’s most harmful and commonly used insecticides, is still used in 25 countries, including the United States. Several years ago, 16 states reported it in their groundwater. Though the EPA slated the insecticide for a phasedout ban starting in 2010, the chemical was re-approved in 2011 for use under a new name and is likely being sprayed on cotton crops while you read this.
If that doesn’t make you queasy, high levels of arsenic recently appeared in United States-grown rice and rice products; even brown and organic rice were implicated. While nobody knows for sure the source of the arsenic, cotton crops in the United States were heavily treated with arsenate pesticides until the 1980s. Residues of those pesticides linger in what are now flood-irrigated rice fields, where arsenic can be taken up by plant roots and stored in grains. To counter the problem, some rice is modified to withstand arsenic. For those of us trying to wrap our heads around GMO (genetically modified organism) crops, that means that rice is now bred to flourish in arsenic-rich soil, potentially drinking up significant amounts of one of the world’s most notorious carcinogens.
Patagonia is looking at the damage that agriculture causes rivers, wetlands, wells and oceans as part of its current environmental initiative, Our Common Waters. When founder Yvon Chouinard learned about the destructive effects of conventionally grown cotton, he figured out how to source cotton grown in a cleaner, less harmful way. He announced that by 1996 the company would use organic cotton exclusively for its cotton clothing. It was a risky proposition but has proven to be a wise choice. Organic farming uses no synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified crops. This means that farmers can escape the destructive cycle of GMO seeds that need forever increasing amounts of pesticides and water – a cycle that costs both farmer and environment dearly. Today, 70-80 percent of organic cotton is grown using rainwater, not water-intensive irrigation. Organic farming systems also use biological inputs such as compost and green manure. This maintains soil integrity and builds up the humus layer of the soil, which in turn helps the soil retain water.
In 2010, working with the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at University of California, Santa Barbara, Patagonia created a water footprint methodology to help better understand the impact of the garments it produces. The project quantifies the water used to manufacture Patagonia products by looking at the source of water, as well as the associated water pollution.
This framework helps link a product’s water footprint with regional water stress to assess the impact of water consumption in a given watershed. For example, when looking at sourcing cotton from the Akola region in India, it’s understood that though the region is dry, cotton grown there is fed with rainfall, and not irrigated. It’s important that people aren’t going thirsty to grow cotton for Patagonia clothing.
Jimmy Wedel grows organic cotton for Patagonia on the Texas High Plains. Not always an organic farmer, he now believes he’s made a choice that’s better for the environment. A self-proclaimed “reasonable environmentalist,” he likes knowing that his employees aren’t exposed to harmful pesticides on his farm. When he went organic, Wedel says, “A lot of people thought it was a fad, that it would go away. Now we can’t supply near the demand for organic cotton in the United States.”
By changing growing and manufacturing practices upstream, we can keep more pesticides and fertilizers from flowing into the world’s precious and diminishing supplies of surface and groundwater. Patagonia remains committed to using organic cotton in its clothing. By doing so, it will keep millions of tons of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers out of rivers, lakes and oceans, and (at least sometimes) reduce water consumption in ecologically sensitive areas.