From sexy organic cotton T-shirts (some designed to unleash your inner eco-warrior) to knickers that change colour as they warm up to show the effects of global warming, there seems to be many ways to salve a guilty conscience.
But is organically grown cotton really green? Although I haven't gone so far as to shun cotton, I have a hard time believing that any cotton can be good for the environment - organic or not. Some people argue that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will boost cotton yields, and the cotton industry lobbyists tout its ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. And certainly organic cotton is better than regular cotton for its reduced use of insecticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers to grow it.
Possibly the biggest problem with cotton is the water consumed - and this applies equally to organic cotton. According to a study released last August:
The UK has become the sixth largest net importer of water in the world, the environment group WWF will tell a meeting of international experts in Stockholm, with every consumer indirectly responsible for the use of thousands of litres a day. Only 38% of the UK's total water use comes from its own resources; the rest depends on the water systems of other countries, some of which are already facing serious shortages.
The study makes the first attempt to measure the UK's total "water footprint" and highlights the extent to which our imports come from countries which are running out of fresh water. It calculates that:
Average household water use for washing and drinking in the UK is about 150 litres a person daily, but we consume about 30 times as much in "virtual water", used in the production of imported food and textiles.
Hemp would be better for conserving water. There is more, though, and this is where cotton growing hits home in Africa. Joseph E Stiglitz writes on the issue of subsidies and global trade:
Subsidies hurt developing country farmers because they lead to higher output – and lower global prices. The Bush administration – supposedly committed to free markets around the world – has actually almost doubled the level of agricultural subsidies in the US.
Cotton illustrates the problem. Without subsidies, it would not pay for Americans to produce much cotton; with them, the US is the world’s largest cotton exporter. Some 25,000 rich American cotton farmers divide $3 to $4 billion in subsidies among themselves – with most of the money going to a small fraction of the recipients. The increased supply depresses cotton prices, hurting some 10 million farmers in sub-Saharan Africa alone.