Organically Grown Cotton
Although cotton is a natural, renewable resource and is comfortable to wear, many aspects of conventional cotton growing make us very uncomfortable.
Over-application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides has made thousands of acres too barren or contaminated for further farming. Many of the chemicals used are highly toxic and detrimental to plants, animals, and people.
Over a decade ago, we converted all MEC-brand cotton clothing to an organically grown alternative. The transition took years, lots of research, and help from Patagonia and others. But today MEC-brand cotton clothing is made with 100% organically grown cotton.
Our use of organic and environmentally preferred materials is one of the key performance indicators we monitor and report to our members. Tracking our use provides benchmarks, measures progress, and allows us to set concrete goals that get us progressively closer to eliminating unnecessary harm in the products we supply.
Organic cotton farmers depend on healthy, living soil to produce strong plants resistant to pests and disease. Seeds and soil fertility are maintained with natural methods such as manure or natural phosphates. Crops are rotated with nitrogen-fixing plants. Barrier plants can be seeded between rows to trap water, prevent weeds, lure pests, or bring beneficial insects to the fields. Because organic soils tend to hold more water, they generally need less irrigation. Weeding is done by hand or with innovative machinery. Some weeds are left to attract predators for cotton-eating pests or to divert pests from the cotton.
Harvesting and Processing
Because leaves cannot be mixed with the cotton, harvesting can be complicated. Through carefully managing the water supply, spraying plants with weak organic acids, or waiting for frosts, the leaves are coaxed off and the cotton can be harvested.
A cotton gin separates fibres from seeds. The gins have to be cleaned before organic cotton is processed, so it isn't contaminated. The seeds are often used as livestock feed, or made into oil used in snack foods. So, an organic purchase can also help keep chemicals out of the food chain.
Even with our organic program, these textiles are usually coloured with chemical dyes that ensure strong, lasting colours. There are some plant-based dyes available, but even these require colour-fixing agents. We choose to use the lowest impact chemical dyes available, and minimize the use of dark dyes, which have a greater impact. We use only non-chlorine bleaching, and ensure effluents are treated.
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We extend our appreciation to the Organic Trade Association, and to Patagonia – a company committed to sharing their knowledge and experience with other organizations interested in adopting organic cotton use.