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Dear EarthTalk:
I've heard that cotton is more environmentally friendly than synthetic fabrics. But what is the ecological impact of cotton?

--Christina Wong, Salt Lake City, UT

While cotton is more biodegradable (and less flammable) than polyester fabrics, the heavy use of chemical aids by most cotton farmers has many green organizations concerned. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) says the cotton industry uses approximately 25 percent of the world's insecticides and more than 10 percent of its pesticides. Producing the cotton fabric required for a regular T-shirt releases a quarter pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides into the water, air and soil.

According to the OTA, The Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000 in the United States as "possible, likely, probable, or known human carcinogens." Due to increasing consumer awareness, the demand for organically grown cotton continues to rise. In 1994, the Sustainable Cotton Project began an effort to network farmers, manufacturers and consumers to pioneer markets for certified organically grown cotton. Numerous retail companies specialize in organic cotton, including bedding manufacturer Coyuchi, outdoor clothing guru Patagonia, and furniture maker H3Environmental.

LaRhea Pepper, marketing developer for the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, says, "Most consumers are concerned about what they put in their bodies, but the same awakening hasn't happened for what they put on their bodies. If you have industrial pressed sheets, you could be sleeping on chemicals."

CONTACT: Organic Trade Association, PO Box 547, Greenfield, MA 01302, (413) 774-7511,,; Sustainable Cotton Project,,; Coyuchi, PO Box 845, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956, (888) 418.8847,,; Patagonia, 8550 White Fir Street, PO Box 32050, Reno, NV 89523-2050, (800) 638-6464,; H3Environmental, 12439 Magnolia Blvd. Box #263, Valley Village, CA 91607, (818) 766-1787,,

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EARTH TALK, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; or submit your question at:, or e-mail us at:

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