This post was last updated on August 12, 2021 by Preethi Sukumaran
And we are off on a field visit. We are going to be spending this week visiting 2 organic farms in Karnataka and round it off with a visit to a hand loom weaving centre. In this trip we will be following an organic and Khadi trail of sorts. One of the organic farms we are going to be visiting is a passionate advocate of using indigenous cotton seeds, growing the cotton organically, hand spinning it and weaving it to make Khadi fabric. The weaving centre we are going to be visiting is the centre which weaves all of Tula’s magical rain fed cotton fabric.
Our blog posts this week will be filed from more exotic locations than our office in Chennai. We will be “reporting” live from the field and are excited about meeting these passionate custodians of the land who have been generous to offer to share their time and expertise with us.
Which brings me back to a basic question: why organic fabric? Most of us now understand the need to eat poison free food. Is choosing organic cotton an esoteric exercise? Isn’t it going to be un-findable? Is the expense worth it?
To answer these and many more questions, I’m happy to introduce you to Rashmi Vittal, founder of Little Green Kid. Rashmi’s passion for environmentally sustainable living led her to start Little Green Kid in the quest to help parents replace their current basket of toxic-full clothing for their children with safe, sustainable alternatives.
Started little over a year ago, Rashmi is building a strong team of designers at Little Green Kid along with resources from the export garment industry to create a company that is focused on great design and good quality.
Here is Rashmi Vittal talking about a subject very close to her heart, Organic cotton.
Why I prefer organic cotton over diamonds
Sometimes you use something every single day without much thought and then you suddenly learn something new about it and go, ‘Wow – I never knew that’. Organic cotton was like that for me. It was paradigm shifting to learn that the humble cotton that you take for granted has a very interesting story.
Cotton, as we know it, is yet another crop – just like any other vegetable. But this one single crop uses 20% of entire world’s pesticide production. Yes, that’s right – that much of pesticide for just one crop. The first time I read it, I had to re-read it to really understand the magnitude. ‘But why so much?’ Just because nobody eats cotton, there are no limits on the harshness or the amount of the pesticides used on it. While it is a proud fact that India is one the largest producers of cotton in the world and fluffy white cotton is made into garments and sent off across the world, the flip side is that all those harsh pesticides and chemicals remain behind on Indian soil and water.
I don’t eat cotton, so why do I need Organic Cotton?
When I tell people that we run Little Green Kid, an organic cotton clothing company focusing on kidswear, people often ask, ‘I don’t eat cotton, why should I bother if it is organic or not? I can understand that organic food grown without harsh pesticides and chemicals has direct benefits on my health. But how does wearing something made of organic cotton give me any benefits?’ A very good question.
When we look at a t-shirt or that cool kurta in a shop, we look at it in its singularity. As shoppers we do not want to be bothered with the comprehension of how that piece of garment came to be on that shelf. We want to trust the store where we bought it at and let them worry about how it was made. But today we will ask you to join us take a peek behind the scenes and share a few secrets. If you think about it, cotton is everywhere – the dress that we are wearing at this moment, the sheets that we slept through last night, the diapers on our baby, the towels we used to wipe ourselves and more – all made from cotton. What we may not know is that sometimes even the food that we eat, like chips and other snacks, are fried in derivatives of cotton seed oil. Nothing from cotton goes a waste and is used in some form or the other that you may not explicitly be made aware of. So where does the journey of this omnipresent cotton begin? What are its dirty little secrets that we need to know as a consumer?
Lets zoom out a bit and start with the macro picture. The demand for cotton rises every year and to meet that demand, the worldwide production has been rapidly increasing as well. When there is high demand for a commodity, companies in that space come up with ways to rapidly increase the supply, often via unconventional means. So what did they do to cotton? How successful was their attempt?
Long time ago farmers in India used to set aside a small portion of their cotton flowers for seeds for the next season. Seeing the great potential for high yielding and pesticide resistant seeds, big companies poured money into research and came up with genetically modified (GM) seeds. In 2002, the Indian Government introduced Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) cotton trying to encourage farmers to grow more. The farmer abandoned the natural seeds and bought the GM seeds with dreamy eyes. The yield in the first year of adoption was good, but the crop was highly susceptible to damage due to variation in climatic conditions. As well intentioned as it seemed, the seeds did more harm than good in the long run for cotton. Remember those automobile pamphlets that tell you X kms/liter mileage but only run X-y kms in real conditions? It was and is the same with these seeds. In Indian agricultural conditions the seeds did not thrive and created controversies instead because it was not just the yield that was disappointing. These genetically modified seeds are four and half times more expensive than the traditional seeds. Specially formulated chemical pesticides and fertilizers were recommended whose expense constitutes almost 60% of the cost of growing cotton. What was worse was that not all promised were warded off.
While the GM seed companies made money, on the other side, with low yield, dropping cotton prices in the market, huge debts and a land that is ripped off all fertility (due to the use of super harsh chemical fertilizers and pesticides) the farmers entered what is called a ‘Death Spiral’ – a few years of which lead the farmer to commit suicide. Today the so-called ‘Cotton Belt’ of India has become a ‘Suicide belt’. In 2012 alone 13,754 farmers committed suicides in India. Suicide is only the tip of the problem iceberg.
As of 2014, Bt Cotton has taken over more than 93% of the seed distribution and original seeds are very hard to find, making it immensely difficult for farmers to go back to original seeds even if they want to.
If you think, ‘Well, the Government needs to take care of the farmers as I am paying my taxes and how does organic cotton have anything to do with me?’. Well, lets now dive right in. The customized harsh synthetic pesticide and fertilizer concoctions that were developed to go hand in hand with the genetically modified crops do not vanish after the cotton is harvested. They are left behind in the soil, are carried through water and dispersed through air – pretty much as expected. It is the magnitude of this toxicity that is worrisome. The land is so toxic that it requires three years of pesticide-free cultivation just to detox the land. Give this a thought – if it takes three years with three seasons a year to get rid of those harsh chemicals, do you think that a few washes during manufacturing would have gotten rid of all of those harsh chemicals on the cotton fabric? Laboratory tests reveal that they don’t. Have we stopped to ask why do we see more incidences of skin disorders in children today – irritations and issues that we as children did not face?
7 of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton contain “likely” or “known” human carcinogens (cancer causing). Almost half of the pesticides sprayed on cotton is classified as ‘hazardous’ by the WHO even today. Aldicarb is a toxic nerve agent developed in WWII and termed as ‘extremely hazardous’ by WHO. US$112 million worth of this chemical is applied on cotton crops alone. Endosulfan was used in huge amounts in India until banned recently. The damage that it has done to a generation of farmers in India is beyond anything we could agree as humane. Even in the United States DDT and Toxaphene were banned recently, but continues to be used in India, China and other countries. Insecticides like Parathion is 60 times more toxic that DDT! . Carbofuran, one insecticide kills one-two million birds annually and whole colonies of honeybees have been wiped out. We, the human race, continue to grow cotton at all costs – environment, animals and ourselves. I suppose you remember that your favorite crispies may have been fried in derivatives of cottonseed oil – the same, which comes from these pesticide sprayed farms and may not even know about it.
The GM cottonseed manufacturers argue that they have a seed formulation for fewer pesticides. What they conveniently do not tell you is that the pests grow pesticide-resistant with every passing year and they have to make harsher and harsher pesticides every single year. It is like drug abuse. It only gets worse. Ironically, for all the effort that these GM companies invested in it is estimated that less than 10% of the chemicals applied to cotton accomplish their task, the rest are absorbed into the plant, air, soil, water and eventually, our bodies. While these companies started with a good intention of creating a win-win situation for themselves and the farmer, their product has gone horribly wrong. It is as if they opened the Pandora’s Box. To continue on the same path is being both ignorant and stupid.
What we should really ask ourselves about the Bt Cotton seeds is that – can we have dinner made from the veggies grown on the same field that Bt Cotton is being grown with the toxic pesticides? Before toxic pesticides and before Bt Cotton the answer would have been an undoubted ‘yes’. That is how our grandfathers cultivated their land – which we now call ‘Organic farming’. While Organic cotton might seem like a respite there is more than that which completes the picture today – lets hold on to that thought a bit longer and see what else is in store on the journey of cotton once it has left the pesticide ridden field today.
I died dyeing
Once the cotton is harvested, it is washed and spun into yarn and then made into fabric. To keep the costs low, conventional methods use harsh bleach chemicals. While that does not sound good, they are not the monsters yet. The big bad ugly monster is the chemical used in dyeing. Dyeing is the act of adding color to fabric. As simple as it sounds, it harbors another dirty little secret of this industry.
Tirupur in Tamil Nadu, which is dubbed as the t-shirt hub of the world, houses a very large amount of dyeing units all of whom got there because of easy access to the Noyyal River. The dyeing chemicals are harsh and again fall in the ‘carcinogenic’ category. Noyyal River, downstream from Tiruppur, found blackish water in their tender coconuts, as hard it is to believe. They fought a case against the dyeing units in Tirupur, which was finally presented at the Supreme Court of India. Dyeing units are now required to filter their waste. During inspection the effluents were found to be so toxic that 20,000 acres of land downstream had to be declared unfit for cultivation. The locals are still working with the government to enforce laws to ensure filtration of water before it is let into the river. The effort is still in progress.
Organic Cotton clothes: A good way forward
World over farmers and consumers have woken up to realize that the current way of cultivating cotton with pesticides or GM seeds has been a recipe for disaster as tricking nature is not so easy. What can the solutions be? What started as a small experiment about going back to basics with natural farming methods and scientific ways of bio pest management is going very well today. It is called Organic Cotton. The farmers are happy, the environment is not compromised and the customers are happy. Today, 30% of the babywear in the European market is made of organic cotton. India produces 70% of the world’s organic cotton today. But organic cotton is still merely 0.7% of the entire world’s cotton production and but is a growing phenomenon. We have a long way to go, but meanwhile people are striving to do the right thing and learn from the mistakes.
Why is organic cotton better?
When you buy organic cotton clothing today – it is more than just non-GM seeds or using fertilizers available in nature or using biological methods of pest control.
Organic cotton clothing is about ‘Sustainability’ – creating clothing with a 360-degree approach to ensure that all involved parties including the environment, the consumer and future generations are kept in mind. It’s a philosophy of ‘Sarve sukhino bhavantu’ (May everyone live happily).
An organic cotton garment means that
1 – The farmer is looking beyond immediate yield and is willing to detoxify his land of harsh chemicals and fertilizers by making it a pesticide-free zone for three years at a minimum
2 – Various third party certifying agencies such as SA Certification (Soil Association) help test and evaluate the authenticity of the land during these three years. Some of these certification agencies are NGOs themselves that initially started working in this field to prevent farmer suicides and have now progressed to do more. Various NGOs also help the farmer with tools and training during this period.
3- Seeds used are heirloom/natural seeds, which help preserve the diversity of cotton. This stops seed or company monopoly as well
4 – Various bio PMTs (Pest Management Techniques) that are scientifically proven are used to maintain yield
5 – Better irrigation techniques are practiced for better yield among other seasonal techniques to ensure better yield
6 – Dyes are either natural dyes (which are yet to be widely available and gain popularity) or certified eco-friendly dyes, which upon using a purifier will not release any chemicals harmful to the flora and fauna of a water ecosystem
7 – Every little detail like – the threads used during the stitching of the garment, the water used during ironing just before packing, etc – are all checked for eco-friendly measures
8 – Some of the standards even include additional check points – if the garment factory workers were paid fairly, if they have adequate sanitation, if their children are attending school, so on and so forth. Pretty cool, isn’t it?
9 – Last, but not the least, surprise checks are made at any point in the lifecycle by picking a random shirt of the rack at any step to check for prohibited chemicals.
Buying organic cotton clothing
Organic cotton is new to a lot of people and just catching up. As a shopper try and look for an established organic cotton certification. Since this is still a developing category, all organic cotton may not be certified as yet. So we encourage you, as a shopper, to always ask your shop for the source of organic cotton if the certification label is not available. Companies like Disney who support organic cotton on some of their collection even let you track the farm where the cotton was organically grown.
Little Green Kid
At Little Green Kid, we thought that it would be a shame to leave behind a polluted earth for our children. We started this company in 2013 because of our interest in creating ecofriendly products that will help people make better choices. We believe in a better tomorrow!
Little Green Kid offers cute organic cotton clothes for children of ages 0 to 5. Our mission is to give parents a choice of great looking clothes that were made without harming any one or any thing.
We are on this journey and we are more than happy to share our knowledge or vice versa. Please write in to us. Our favorite question in the world is ‘What is organic cotton?’ . That lights up our faces. We hope that answering this question is a short lived excitement as we look forward to the day, sooner than later, when all cotton is organic cotton – cotton that is grown responsibly without resulting in any harmful side effects to people or the environment.
Thank you Rashmi for that educative and inspirational piece on organic cotton. You can find out more about Little Green Kid either by looking up their facebook page or writing to them at email@example.com. Do consider supporting their work by buying their well designed, and comfortable clothing for children.
Our organic cotton and Khadi trail series continues tomorrow from the field.
This post is a part of our continuing series on Sustainable fabric and India’s textile traditions. The rest of our series can be read here:
- Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
- On the One Person Satyagraha and why you should start one
- On the environmental and human health hazards of chemical dyes
- The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
- The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
- The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
- Our post interviewing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.
- Our post on the warped state of Handlooms in India and what ails the sector is here.
- Our post on the dangers and all pervasiveness of Bt Cotton is here .
- Our post on Onam, the Mundum neriyathum and wearing your culture is here.
- Our post on the Sustainable Fabric Workshop conducted at the Green Bazaar exploring natural dyes is here.
- Our post with notes on Kalakshetra’s Natural dyeing workshop and a guest post by Kavita Rayirath of Indian by design on inspiring Handloom appreciation is here.