You know how it is some mornings. You read something in the newspaper and it just sticks in your neural craw, and you masticate on it the rest of the day, trying to digest the full import of the material in question. That very thing happened to me just last week. Only it wasn’t the newspaper. It was my underwear.
“Maggie, look at this,” I said to my wife, “these Stanfield’s say they’re made in Canada.” Her finely tuned diatribe detector kicking in, she backed towards the door, mumbling something about a forgotten root canal appointment. Too late. “How can they say they’re made in Canada. I’ve traveled across this great land of ours and never once have I seen cotton fields swaying in the breeze!”
Not being one to go off on a rant with out being a least partially burdened with some facts, I began my research with an email to the Stanfield’ head office in Truro, Nova Scotia. Their media liaison person emailed back promptly and told me that they assembled the products in their factories and that most of their raw materials were sourced from Canadian sources.
But where does the cotton in my underwear come from? Well, the full story of that requires the lights to dim, the cellos to growl ominously, and a clash of cymbals.
Cotton is a great natural fiber. Soft, pliable and strong, it would be hard to think about dressing without it. But growing cotton is one of the most harmful farming activities in the world today and its growing has destroyed millions of acres of farmland, poisoned thousands of miles of streams and rivers, and been directly responsible for tens of thousand of farm worker illnesses and deaths. Obviously cotton itself is not the direct problem, rather it is the use of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers and water that are used in the intensive growing of the plant.
Approximately 3% of the worlds working land base is dedicated to cotton. That 3% of land receives 25% of the total agricultural pesticide load. To put that into perspective, to produce one standard cotton T-shirt requires 1 cup of pesticides. In the relatively well regulated United States, over 55,000,000 pounds of carcinogen-containing pesticides were sprayed on cotton. These drift through the air, and migrate through the soil to ground water, and leach into waterways. They are absorbed by aquatic species, and either kill the animal or accumulate in the system to be passed onto fish, and ultimately humans. In a EPA analysis report, it was shown that seven of the fifteen most used cotton farming chemicals were probable cancer-causing pesticides, eight caused tumors and five caused mutations. Twelve of the top fifteen cotton pesticides caused birth defects, ten caused multiple birth defects, and thirteen were toxic or very toxic to fish or birds or both. Just imagine what happens in countries without basic pesticide education and regulations.
So here is the conundrum. Knowing that buying cotton clothing is directly contributing to the destruction of the environment, what is a conscious consumer to do? My first suggestion to Maggie was that we should become nudists, thus avoiding the problem all together. It’s amazing what a single look can covey between a husband and wife. My next suggestion was to look for an alternative to cotton.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far. We were walking around Granville Island and came across Granville Island Organix, (www.granvilleislandorganix.com) a store selling chemical and pesticide free clothing made from bamboo, hemp, organic cotton, soy, coconut fibers and oddly enough, dandelion root fibers. In conversation with the clerk, I found out that through a National Research Council program, Naturally Advanced Technology (www.naturallyadvanced.com and hemptown.com) of Vancouver is growing test plots of hemp in Saskatchewan and Alberta, with a goal of becoming a “dirt to shirt” company.
This was news to me. I thought, from listening to the US dominated news, that hemp in all of its forms was illegal. In the United States it still is. Hemp, because of its association with marijuana has been demonized, and was made illegal to grow in North America. In the United States it was doomed by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, and then the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 made it illegal to grow all varieties of hemp. In Canada the prohibition against growing industrial hemp was removed in 1997, but it is still regulated.
If the industrial growing of cotton is bad, how does growing hemp fare? Cotton requires 100 gallons of irrigated water to grow one pound of cotton. Hemp doesn’t require irrigation at all, only rain water. Cotton requires a massive input of toxic pesticides and herbicides. Hemp grows best organically. An acre of cotton produces 1000 t-shirts while an acre of hemp produces 4000 t-shirts.
So…. let me get this straight. Hemp requires no poisons or irrigation and produces 4 times the useable fiber, and it can be grown sustainably in Saskatchewan by Canadians.
The only real question is: Where can I buy some hemp boxers?