When we scrutinized fabric fibers to determine their environmental impact, we figured cotton was ”pure“ and ”natural,” made from a plant. We were right about the plant. As it happens, very little is pure or natural about cotton when it is raised conventionally. We learned this in the early 1990s when we started looking more closely into our cotton supply chains. At that time, fully ten percent of all agricultural chemicals in the United States were used to produce cotton, grown on just one percent of all major agricultural land. Every year, conventional cotton crops in California alone were doused with 6.9 million pounds of chemicals. And research showed that extensive and intensive use of synthetic fertilizers, soil additives, defoliants and other substances wreak terrible havoc on soil, water, air and many, many living things.
We also learned there was an alternative: organically grown cotton. Farmers have been growing cotton without harmful chemicals for years. Their yield is high, and the quality of the cotton they grow is equal to or better than conventionally grown cotton. Their methods support biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, improve the quality of soil and often use less water. Organic farming is more time consuming, requires more knowledge and skill, and, for now, costs more. But it’s worth it.
Once we had this knowledge, and the counsel of good friends in the environmental community, we believed we had no choice. In 1996, we began the exclusive use of organically grown cotton in all of our cotton products. Our decision was not without considerable financial risks, but we decided never to go back to conventional cotton, regardless of the outcome.
As it turned out, the move didn’t compromise quality. It provoked a fundamental change in our attitudes about agriculture. As part of our organic cotton program, hundreds of us took tours of cotton fields, and we saw for ourselves the dangers of pesticide use and the benefits of organic farming. Many of us have since shifted to buying organic foods and clothing.
At a glance, conventionally grown cotton is hard to distinguish from cotton that’s organically grown. To ensure we are buying cotton that is organic as defined by the USDA’s National Organic Program, we require certificates issued by an accredited third-party certification body. Certificates are issued to farms that follow organic practices, to factories that process organic cotton separately from conventionally grown cotton, and for shipments of organic cotton between different companies in the supply chain.