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Back to Basics

by Jason Kessler
Courtesy of Cotton of the Carolinas

Courtesy of Cotton of the Carolinas

I like to judge companies by the most basic thing they produce. For hardware companies, it’s a hammer. At Italian restaurants, it’s marinara sauce. When it comes to clothing, it’s the cotton t-shirt.

Just about every man in the world has a stockpile of t-shirts in his wardrobe and I’m no exception. Whether they’re used as undershirts or the focal point of my outfit, I literally don’t think I could survive without my tees. As I delve further and further into my role as The Green Guy, I feel it’s my duty to investigate how I can take the basic staples of my life and make them greener. Enter my best friend in the textile world: the organic cotton t-shirt.

Conventional cotton farming takes a huge toll on the environment, so it’s easy to see why people are going organic. That said, organic cotton is a hot-button issue in sustainable circles. Environmental activists claim that clothing manufacturers aren’t paying enough attention to their organic supply chain and, as a result, are making products tainted with GMO cotton. On the whole, organic cotton production has dropped for the first time in 10 years. According to the 2011 Organic Cotton Market Report, the Textile Exchange (an industry trade group) reports that “organic cotton production was down 37 percent in 2011.” That’s a pretty sharp change, don’t you think?

Since I’m neither an activist nor a manufacturer, let me focus on what I am an expert on: comfort. Are organic cotton t-shirts as comfortable as conventional cotton shirts? I solicited samples from several major manufacturers to find out. LA’s homegrown American Apparel offers some of its shirts in a Sustainable Edition made with 100% organic cotton. When comparing these products with other American Apparel shirts I own, I found no difference whatsoever. Advantage: organic cotton! The same thing happened with outdoor apparel specialists Patagonia, one of the first companies to make the switch to exclusively organic cotton in 1996.

Smaller companies are getting in on the organic cotton movement as well. Cotton of the Carolinas is the first productionscale organic cotton producer in North Carolina and they’re making awesome USDA-certified cotton t-shirts in collaboration with TS Designs that are good for the environment and the community. While I liked my Carolina shirt quite a bit, my favorite of the bunch may be California’s bgreen apparel. This basic organic cotton t-shirt is softer than most regular cotton t-shirts I’ve tried. It fits me better, too.

The bottom line is that organic cotton t-shirts are readily available if you’re looking for them. Sure they’re going to cost a little more than the mainstream stuff, but isn’t it worth it to know that your shirt didn’t take a massive amount of water and pesticides to produce? I think so. The common t-shirt may be a simple piece of clothing, but that doesn’t mean we have to be simple-minded when it comes to wearing one.

JASON KESSLER is a lifestyle writer/columnist for Bon Appetit, Food Republic and a slew of other publications. Follow him on Twitter @TheHungryClown.

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