Organic Cotton From Bush to Bush
We spend a lot of time thinking about where our food comes from. What’s in it? Is it local? Is it plant-based? Is it raw? How many calories? Will it get me closer to a threesome with Tom Hardy and Idris Elba?
Yet we rarely spend much time thinking about where our clothing comes from and what’s in it and how it will effect our health or menage potential. But why not? If your underwear is full of toxic goo (either from the fabric or the dyes or the finishes), you’re exposing yourself to harsh chemicals. You wouldn’t drink some pitcher full of sludge (unless it was tequila), so why would you let that sludge near your other lips?
I started Thundress with the intention of being able to identify where my products come from down to the smallest ingredient, just like food companies are doing. Eventually, I want to have the ability to trace each pair of my underwear back to the farm where it started its life. So this is a peek into my first supply chain visit!
Everything is Weirder in Texas
Last month, I spent some time in Lubbock, Texas where almost all of the organic cotton in the United States is grown. It’s a pretty weird town. My friend and I Airbnb’ed with an older couple that clearly found us horrifying, despite many attempts to smother their alarm in a gravy of Southern Hospitality. We ate at a local diner and had the most literal jukebox-scratch-everyone-turns-at-once moment when we walked in and then no one took our order for 20 minutes. Maybe if these randos showed up to your town you might be freaked out too, I dunno.
We took a tour of several farms in the area as well as the gin and the warehouse. Kelly has spent most of his life in and around cotton farms, so he knows pretty much everything there is to know.
(This is me not knowing how to use my camera and Kelly wondering WTF is wrong with me. Also I brushed my hair and put on my nice hoodie to look professional, did it work??)
Anyway, we drove around town and Kelly gave me the scoop. One of the reasons why Lubbock is the headquarters for organic cotton farming is because they get just the right amount of rain, as well as heat and freeze. Kind of like your vag — not too hot, not too cold, juuuuust right.
Step 1 — Preparation
In April, organic farmers were preparing their fields for planting. They can’t use chemical fertilizers like the conventional farms, so they spread compost on the field to help make it nice and cozy for the baby cotton to thrive.
Step 2 — Planting
Apparently cotton is needier than my ex and thirstier than Justin Timberlake’s platinum blond perm; it needs a lot of water and a lot of attention. Although most organic farms do use irrigation systems, they still end up waiting for the first big rain to plant the cotton seeds. This usually happens in May.
Organic cotton farmers do not use genetically modified seeds — this is one of the biggest differences between conventional and organic cotton.Regular farms use Roundup Ready Cotton, brought to you by everyone’s favorite evil empire: Monsanto. Roundup Ready Cotton means that the cotton plant itself is resistant to the herbicide Roundup so you can spray it like crazy and you’ll only kill the weeds around it and not the plant itself.
(There is a whole lot of controversy about Monsanto and their chemicals. If you’re interested, this is a pretty decent intro here.).
Step 3 — Growing & Hoeing
As the lil baby cotton plant is growing, the weeds around it grow too. So instead of using chemicals to kill the weeds (see above), organic cotton farmers have a bunch of custom-made machines to basically rip the weeds up without touching the cotton plants. It’s kind of rad. But at some points in the season, there are so many weeds that they have to pull them out by hand. I tried really hard to keep a straight face when Kelly talked about spending his days hoeing, but you can probably imagine how that went.
This is an example of one of the machines they use to till the soil and get rid of weeds.
Of course, another potential threat to baby cotton plants is bugs. Lubbock doesn’t have a lot of insects like in some parts of the world. But nonetheless, organic farmers can’t use chemical pesticides, so they rely heavily on crop rotation and cover crops to keep the soil healthy and minimize the amount of bugs hanging around.
I had no idea that cotton plants grow flowers before they grow little fuzzy balls. They’re actually beautiful!
I also had no idea that the cotton grown here in the United States is actually pretty white. I assumed it was always a creamy, off-white color but it’s not.
Step 4— Picking
Before you can harvest the cotton, the plants have to go from this (green, alive, growing):
to this (dead, leaves fallen off):
This can happen two ways: (1) waiting for the first freeze or (2) using chemical defoliant. To be certified organic you can’t use any of those chemicals, so farmers end up going the old-fashioned way and just waiting for it to get cold enough. This usually happens in November, but can go as late as December or even January. In Lubbock, the cotton is picked using a giant machine. In other parts of the world where labor is cheap, cotton is still primarily picked by hand.
Step 5— Cleaning and Processing
The cotton gin is the first stop after the field. The cotton is separated from the plant and the seeds and cleaned. It is then packed into bales and stored in the warehouse until it’s ready to sent to the spinning plant — but we’ll explore that step of the supply chain next time ;)
Final Thoughts About Organic Cotton
- Conventional cotton is the #1 biggest user of pesticides in the world.90% of US cotton is GMO. After seeing it firsthand, there is no doubt in mind that organic cotton is a much, much better alternative for the health of farmers, the planet, and our poontangs.
- Nonetheless, organic cotton isn’t perfect. In particular, cotton is a very water-heavy crop. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that it can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans. Experts say that organic cotton needs less water, but its unclear just how much less.
- During harvest time, farmers typically hire migrant laborers. I was assured that all the workers are paid and treated fairly, but this is definitely a point of further investigation for my next trip. It’s not easy to forget that some of my people were brought to the United States as slaves to pick cotton just like this back in the day. And in many parts of the world, cotton picking is still full of controversy.
Thanks so much for reading! So what do you think? Could farm to fanny be a real thing?