Cleaner Cotton™

Jul 13, 2015 :: by Pam Allen

In our last blog post, we discussed the myriad hurdles we faced in developing a responsible, US-sourced cotton yarn.

Today, the solution: Cleaner Cotton™, and the amazing people who bent over backwards to work our small order into their processes and help make our new yarn, Willet, a reality. We couldn't be more excited!

California is home to the finest cotton growing land in the country, capable of growing long and extra long staple cotton, of which there are several varieties, Pima being the most commonly known. But, unlike Texas, where organic processes can be economically viable for cotton growers, growing cotton organically in California isn't cost effective. Farmers using organic methods found their yield dropped to 60% of what they'd been able to grow using conventional practices, and, importantly, they used more water -- a scarce resource in the west -- per lb of cotton produced than did conventional farmers.

With very few California farmers growing organic cotton, the San Joaquin valley, ground zero for conventional cotton farming in California, faces serious threats to air and water quality. Water runoff from agricultural land is a major environmental issue not just in California but in many places around the world. Irrigation and rainfall from farms seeps into groundwater and rivers, carrying with it toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The Valley's air quality problems are also common knowledge to residents. Agriculture is not the only source of the problem -- car emissions from the San Francisco bay area and industries play a role, as does the shape of the valley. But toxic pesticides sprayed onto cotton fields in the valley contribute to the air quality problem. Furthermore, the valley's pollution doesn't just affect the valley, prevailing winds push the polluted air into four nearby National Parks, including Yosemite. 


The environmental case for growing cotton in a healthier, cleaner way is clear, but the economic reality of switching to organic methods is, unfortunately, also clear: It is not viable from a business perspective in California. Recognizing this reality, Sustainable Cotton Project (SCP), led by Marcia Gibbs, director, and Lynda Grose, spokesperson and former head designer for Esprit's Ecollection, developed a new approach.

Cleaner Cotton™ is produced by a group of family owned and operated farms. These farms have pledged not to use the thirteen most toxic chemicals used on cotton in California. They use integrated pest management strategies as the first line of defense in prevention and treatment of infestations, and they use low-toxicity pesticides only when all other efforts have failed.

Mari and Gary Martin, third generation family famers growing Cleaner Cotton™.

The SCP field scouts visit the farms weekly to ensure that the farmers are keeping to their pledge and to gather data for weekly reports that go out to each of the farmers. These reports spur rapid learning among the farmers and allow for fast and proactive responses to environmental and pest changes taking place at other Cleaner Cotton™ farms. This pragmatic, multi-pronged approach has proven over more than a decade of development to decrease chemical use up to 73%, Reducing these farms' impact on the environment, in turn, decreases exposure to harmful chemicals for the farmers, their children, employees, and neighbors. 

The program has been tremendously successful in reducing environmentally harmful practices and in increasing farmer buy-in. Since enrolling in the project, farmers have noted finding beneficial insects that they never knew they had, they've taken many of the principles and practices learned through the program to their other crops, and one farmer even noted seeing owls on his farm that he hadn't seen since his grandfather was farming the land. In addition to these benefits, Cleaner Cotton™ growers receive a small premium over commodity prices, making it a win-win for them.

For us here at Quince, it's very, very important to support responsible farming--not necessarily the same thing as 'organic' farming--especially at the level of the family farm. If you'll allow a moment on the soapbox: Progress is often made in small steps. Movements start small. Toxic chemicals have hopefully had their day, but they will continue to persist if we limit farmers to either conventional techniques or organic, because full organic is simply not economically feasible in many areas at this stage. Despite 20 years of work on the organic side, only 1% of global cotton production is organic today.

That's why we fell in love with this pragmatic approach taken by the Cleaner Cotton™ team and the farmers working within the system. By recognizing the economic realities of the farmers in this area, and devising a way to work within and alongside those realities, the Cleaner Cotton™ team is improving the environment of their area in a way that "organic" has not been able to. In other words, "organic" cotton has remained niche in California due to economic reasons, but Cleaner Cotton™ is scaling and is already more impactful at eliminating toxic chemical use in the valley because of this. And we're now able to get the best quality cotton available in the US, and to get it from a source that is rapidly improving cotton production in an ecologically and geographically spectacular part of the world - California.

If the experience of these farmers is rewarding, in practice and in the pocket, we'll see more farms producing food and cotton in a sustainable, healthy manner, and we'll continue to see their abilities to grow in this manner improve as they collect and share more information. And we'll also see more bees, butterflies, and owls. How great is that?

And so we offer a heartfelt THANK YOU to the Cleaner Cotton™ team and all of the amazing family farms participating in the program. Thank you for the work that you do, and thank you for making our new favorite yarn, Willet, a reality! [More on that part soon!]

Go to part 1 of this story

Learn more about the Cleaner Cotton and the Sustainable Cotton Project



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