There are brown cottons
And there are apparently blue and pink varieties, although they are now difficult to find. These naturally coloured cottons are not grown for profit because their fibres are shorter and so they produce a lower quality cotton fibre. It's a shame though, don't you think? I'm tempted to buy some seeds and grow my own this summer - just for fun. Just to make that connection with the plant that plays such a big role in my life.
The history of cotton is a long, complex story and an interesting read. I've put some links on the side and will add to them as I find interesting sites.
Only white cotton is grown commercially. China, India, and the U.S. are currently the largest cotton producers (see here for more cotton production info) and China is the largest importer. Pakistan also plays a part in cotton production as does Brazil, Uzbekistan, and Franco-African countries.
Unfortunately, cotton fabric manufacturing - from seed planting to the finished product - is one of the most chemical and water-intensive agricultural processes. Cotton requires vast amounts of water to produce quality bolls, the plant itself greatly depletes the soil's nutrients so vast amounts of fertilizer are required, and it's sweet sap attracts multitudes of insects so most commercial growers use alot of pesticides.
"Even at the agricultural stage, cotton is regarded as one of the most environmentally damaging crops in the world, with individual crops often receiving multiple treatments of powerful pesticides. Both cotton and other textile industries also use large amounts of chemicals in the processing, dyeing and washing processes. Many are produced in nations where there are fewer controls on effluent, and are high in biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), with high levels of suspended and dissolved solids. In some cases they also contain heavy metals and phenolic compounds." (see here for more)
This passage is from the UN Atlas of the Oceans website, and other sites I have visited discuss how cotton farming accounts for 11% of the world's use of pesticides, and 24% of the world's use of insecticides. And in some areas where cotton is harvested by machine, defoliants are sprayed on the plants to kill the leaves so that they won't interfere with harvesting.
Then there are the chemicals used in processing and dying, and because much of cotton processing is done in China and other countries that don't have environmental protection laws, much of the chemical waste is dumped untreated into the environment.
White cotton has been genetically engineered in recent years to be more pest resistant and less needy of water. Some sites I visited state that both these types of cottons, especially the cotton plant that has been created to be resistant to the boll worm (referred to as Bt cotton), have been very helpful in reducing the amount of pesticide needed to reap a profitable crop. Other sites maintain that the engineered varieties have their own faults that cause crops to fail.
There are many farmers now growing cotton in a more environmentally friendly way and as demand for such cotton grows, more farmers will turn to these methods.
Quilters create alot of demand for cotton fabrics dyed with beautiful colours so we can play our part too. Ask at your LQS which manufacturers use environmentally friendly cotton for their products and if there aren't any, ask when they will begin using it. If we put pressure on our cotton suppliers, hopefully they'll start demanding that their cotton be grown and processed in a more responsible way.
In the meantime, what to use? One can find organic cotton products, shirts, pants, etc., but I've found it very hard to find organic cotton fabric. I have found one place locally, Earth and Fire (at 416-203-4138, 489 Queen Street West, Toronto, upstairs) that sells an organic cotton/hemp blend that would be fine for quilting, but of course, none of the fabric is dyed, which means I've begun looking into dying with local plants - something environmentally benign. And of course, one could use only all ready-used fabrics for quilting - as some of our fore mothers did.
This of course raises for me the ethical dilemma of what I am willing to give up, if anything, and/or begin in order to continue quilting. Am I willing to stop buying new fabric if it's not environmentally friendly? Am I willing to travel to used clothing places throughout the city to buy bits and pieces to use in my quilts? Do I have the time and energy to dye organic fabric?
How about you? Will this information change the way you buy and/or use fabric?
I think every little bit will help. I think as we as a group start demanding environmentally friendly cottons, the manufacturers will begin supplying us with such. So let's start asking!
Keep your foot on the dogs.