Home Grown: Sustainable Cotton Project Farm Tour

CCA fashion student Cydney Morris gets in touch with a module of seed cottton

Cotton, a natural fiber, brings to mind images of whiteness, cleanliness, crisp bed sheets, sterile puffs in a clear glass jar. But it is actually one of the most toxic crops grown in the United States.

Every year, Fashion Design faculty member Lynda Grose travels with the Sustainable Cotton Project (SCP) farm tour, taking several CCA students and as well as several professionals through California's San Joaquin Valley to expose them to the big-picture questions surrounding cotton cultivation and to help them connect these issues to their individual practices. This last October the tour was also attended by a member of the Environmental Protection Agency and representatives from Gap, Horny Toad, and the local San Francisco company Blue Marlin. Grose, a pioneer in the sustainable fashion movement, is a consultant for the SCP and devotes much of her time to advocacy and outreach, convincing clothing manufacturers to use more sustainable and locally grown cotton in their products.

The first stop was an organic cotton farm—one of only two in the entire state—in the small town of Firebaugh. After a short presentation on alternative pest management, each participant received a small muslin bag of ladybugs. Minutes later they were waist-deep in a field of cotton blooms, unleashing their bags of natural aphid predators.

Despite its obvious earth-friendly appeal, making the transition to organic growing is economically difficult for many American cotton farmers. They have to compete with growers in China and India, where the hand labor to weed and check for bug infestations is much cheaper, and pesticides are so expensive that they have never come to be relied upon to the degree they are here. The SCP helps these farmers convert to biological farming methods and significantly decrease their use of chemicals, which has great environmental benefits (in 2006, almost six million pounds of chemicals were applied to cotton in California) as well as health benefits (the San Joaquin Valley has the third-highest rate of asthma in the nation as well as disproportionate cancer rates, largely due to all of the farming chemicals).

Some SCP farmers are experimenting with varieties of colored cotton. In the United States these are rare, highly regulated crops that must be cultivated far away from fields of white cotton to avoid contamination (students were warned, even, not to take any samples with them for fear they would accidentally disperse the seeds). Right now the fibers of the colored cotton do not grow as long as those of the white, but the benefits of experimenting to perfect them could eventually be significant, since they eliminate one of the most impactful steps in the textile manufacturing process: dyeing. Grose utilized them in some of her early-1990s Ecollection designs for Esprit.

At another farm, a harvest was under way. While the farmer explained what was happening, massive harvesting machines moved through the field, pouring and compressing the crop into freight-car-size blocks called modules. Individual workers moved among the machines, shoveling up stray clumps that resembled fluffy snowdrifts. In a distant field, a crop-duster airplane dipped and released a dramatic plume of pesticides in what seemed like the final gesture of a grand, synchronized performance.

After lunch the tour concluded with a visit to a local cotton gin. Amid the deafening roar of the machinery, the group walked through wall-to-wall stacks of 500-pound cotton bales. Each bale can produce 750 men's dress shirts, 240 women's dresses, 215 pairs of jeans, 4,321 socks, 690 bath towels, 230 bedsheets, 1,256 pillowcases, or 313,500 dollar bills.

Crystal Titus, one of the students on the tour, was awed by scale of it all: "Some of this information I knew already, but actually seeing how large an acre or a bale is, right there in front of you, is eye-opening. It's important to understand how and where the materials you're using come from, whether it's fabric, wood, or technology. That knowledge can only benefit you and your practice."

Finding truly sustainable solutions for the fashion industry requires a holistic understanding of everything from the economics of raw commodities such as cotton to the cultural values of consumers.

"Understanding end-user behavior and emotions is key," says Grose, who focuses not just on organic growing methods but the entire life cycle of the fashion industry. "Buying vintage is one of the most sustainable things a person can do, even more than dropping off their used clothes at thrift stores, since that doesn't change the way our culture manufactures clothes or our attitudes about consuming them. Buying vintage is a cyclical process, with a single garment used over and over. We hope to inspire students to research all kinds of new ideas for products and businesses that are cyclical rather than linear—that have the potential to influence our culture of consumption, from the fashion industry to prevailing business models and the cultural needs and wants of end consumers."

Titus agrees: "The apparel industry is so focused on being new and exciting and ever-changing because people get bored with their clothes easily. I can understand that. But clothing can be reused, and people need to open themselves up to bearing some of the responsibility for recycling fabric waste. The mindset of both the industry and the consumer is at odds with sustainability, and that has to change."

The 2007 Sustainable Cotton Project Farm Tour was made possible in part by the California Initiative, a program generously funded by a CCA trustee who wishes to remain anonymous. Grose received a grant for her class that allowed CCA to cosponsor this year's tour with the Gap and provided funding for students to make the trip.