The truth about cotton ...
by Kari Gray
or, How buying an EarthFair t-shirt can help save the planet
ach Earth Day, millions of people wonder what they can
do to ensure a healthy and environmentally sustainable future. Here at San
Diego Earth Day, we look for ways to improve our environment, as well as
the EarthFair. In 1990, when we started the EarthFair, we began recycling
all aluminum, glass and paper generated at the Fair. In 1991, we began recycling
PET plastic, too. In 1993, we began insisting that all food vendors only
offer vegetarian fare. And in 1994, all our electricity was solar powered.
This year, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Earth
Day, we are offering t-shirts made of 100% organic cotton and printed with
a natural, vegetable-based screen printing ink.
Commercially grown cotton is one of the most chemically
intensive crops grown. For United States cotton production of 13 million
acres, an estimated 20 million pounds of pesticides, 30 million pounds of
herbicides and 1 billion pounds of fertilizers are used every year. Twice
the amount of damaging chemicals are used to grow commercial cotton than
are used on all other U.S. crops combined.
Worldwide, cotton comprised just 3% of the world's total
cropland in 1989, but consumed more than 25% of all pesticides. Of the more
than 660 million pounds of pesticides used by third world countries each
year, 50% is for cotton.
These chemicals - some of which are known carcinogens
­p; have severely contaminated our water supply. New research indicates
excessive levels of herbicides and pesticides have been discovered in the
tap water of at least 14 western states. Some tests indicate dioxin levels
are 48 times greater than the standard set by the EPA. Since 1984, cancer
clusters have been documented near California's cotton fields. The chemical
treatments also make the soil infertile and allow it to erode at a rate
seven times faster than nature can replenish it.
Organically grown cotton is produced without the use
of synthetic chemicals. The soil is fertilized by cycling nitrogen from
the air into the soil through alfalfa, a natural soil builder. Cotton is
grown in these fields for about three years before it is returned to alfalfa
for a year. Insects are controlled by providing desirable habitat for beneficial
insects. Weeds are controlled mechanically. Organic farms are certified
Processing cotton into cloth also presents serious environmental
problems. Various toxic bleaching, dying and wrinkle-reducing agents (such
as formaldehyde) add to the pollution and health risks. Organically processed
cotton is washed and softened with citric acid and soap and water, not chemical
washes. No chemical bleaching is done, although hydrogen peroxide can be
used as a whitening agent (it degrades rapidly into water and oxygen). Shirts
are dyed with low-impact dyes which do not use the traditional metallic
According to Gary Oldham of SOS Cotton, the purchase
of just one t-shirt eliminates the use of approximately 4 ounces of concentrated
pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers - about 50% of the weight of a finished
But the shirt is only half of the problem.
Presently, almost all screen printing is done with plastisol,
a complex mixture of vinyl resin, a plasticizer and one or more pigments.
Plastisol is not biodegradable and screen printing generates waste ink which
contains solid hazardous materials, creating disposal problems.
Fusion or "setting" of freshly printed plastisol into a dried
film requires exposure of the fabric to temperatures exceeding 300 degrees
Fahrenheit, consuming precious energy.
A new (ink) solution
When Shari Shiffrin of High Cotton was pregnant, she
began looking for a more environmentally safe method of t-shirt printing.
"I was around all these chemicals all day and I was worried what sort
of effect that might have on my baby," she explains. "I started
to look around for a safer way to print t-shirts, but there really wasn't
a safe alternative at the time. So we developed Planet Ink."
Planet Ink is a natural, vegetable-based screen printing
ink that is free of hazardous materials and can be air dried or "set"
at room temperatures. Its manufacture, use and disposal avoids environmental
contamination and saves thermal energy. It consists mainly of water and
naturally occurring colloidal polysaccharides with added binders from renewable
plant and mineral sources. This process has no harmful effects on the printer,
wearer or the environment. It remains colorfast through bleaching, scouring
and detergent washings. T-shirts printed with this process can also be directly
In spite of the added costs of organic cotton, these
environmentally-sound souvenirs can be purchased for only $12 at a San Diego
Earth Day booth at the EarthFair on Sunday, April 23 (see the design on
Program Guide cover, page 17). By buying a San Diego Earth Day t-shirt,
you are taking action for a sustainable, healthy future ­p; and supporting
our cause. It's not just a shirt - it's your future.
For more information about organic cotton, you can call
Gary Oldham at (806) 256-2749 and High Cotton, (813) 995-7680.
Kari Gray is the San Diego Earth Day office manager and event coordinator
and co-producer of EarthFair '95.