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Choosing organic cotton men's underwear allows you to drape your skin with a familiar fabric that has a sustainable, chemical-free twist.

Find it! Organic cotton underwear

Ranging from traditional tighty whities to chemical-free underwear to boxer shorts embroidered with eco-minded slogans, these merchants help to green your underwear drawer.

Before you buy

Not every pair of organic cotton underwear is exclusively cotton—some may contain synthetic fibers such as spandex for stretch purposes. And similar to purchasing other organic products, making the eco-friendly choice isn't always the cheap choice—expect elevated prices when choosing between conventional cotton and organic cotton clothing. Case in point: A single pair of Cottonfield organic cotton boxer shorts retails for $18, the same price for six pairs of Hanes® TAGLESS® Men's Knit Boxers.

Choosing men's organic cotton underwear helps you go green because…

  • The cotton used in non-organic men's underwear is produced via damaging chemicals and environmentally unsound farming methods. Organic cotton underwear provides the reliable comfort of its conventional counterpart without posing risk to humans, animals, and the environment.
  • Organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration.

The men's underwear market in the United States—encompassing boxers, briefs, boxer briefs, undershirts, and thermal undergarments—was a $4.5 billion industry in 2006. Driving forces in the market include necessity and factors of comfort, which differ from the more luxury-oriented women's underwear market.[1] From 2004 to 2006, sales of fashion-forward, non-traditional men's knit underwear styles—boxer briefs, thongs, and bikinis—rose while sales of traditional briefs dropped alongside white-colored underwear.[2]

The production of conventional cotton involves several serious environmental problems—overuse of chemicals and water being the two biggies—most of which the organic cotton industry is trying to solve. Another eco-boon for the organic cotton movement: carbon sequestration.

Conventional cotton's environmental hurdles

The detrimental environmental impact of the underwear industry is rooted in the harvest and production of conventional cotton, considered the world's most pesticide-intensive crop. While only 2.4 percent of farmland worldwide is dedicated to cotton, it accounts for 24 percent of global insecticide sales and 11 percent of global pesticide sales.[3] In total, $2 billion worth of chemicals are sprayed on global cotton crops each year, almost half of which are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization.[4] The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife alike—including fish, birds, and livestock.[5] Additionally, up to 70 percent genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds are used in conventional cotton farming in the United States.[6]

The farming of conventional cotton is also water-intensive. Approximately 400 gallons of water are required to produce a single cotton undershirt.[7] Organic cotton farming is not exempt from this reality either. Organic cotton may be chemical-free, but its production still requires significant amounts of irrigated water (though on the plus side, water supplies aren't at risk of being contaminated).[8]

Environmental benefits of organic cotton

Along with eschewing the use of chemicals and GMOs, organic cotton production nurtures soil health and fosters biologically diverse agriculture.[9] From 2000 to 2001, an estimated 14 million pounds of organic cotton was harvested in 12 countries—about .03 percent of total global cotton production. The United States and Turkey were the top growers, producing 79 percent of the world's organic cotton supply (along with China and India) for the 2005-2006 harvest.[10] Domestically, Texas is the leading organic cotton producing state. In the US alone, 6,577 acres of organic cotton were planted in 2005.[11] Despite being a leading producer, there are only 12 organic-certified cotton producers in the country and domestic cotton farming—both conventional and organic—is in decline.[12]

To gain official organic certification in the US by a government-approved certifier, cotton must adhere to the same criteria established by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for edible crops since cotton seeds and oil are commonly used in food products: 95 percent of the ingredients must be grown in soil that has been free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years and cannot contain GMOs.[3] So, while the cotton fiber used to make clothing can be certified as organic under USDA standards, an organic certification program for the clothing itself has not been established.[13] Furthermore, it is possible for a piece of USDA "Certified Organic" cotton clothing to contain 100-percent organic cotton but also contain harmful chemical dyes and finishes.[14]

As reported by the Organic Trade Association's 2004 Manufacturer Survey, sales of organic cotton fiber grew a total of 22.7 percent from 2002 to 2003. Sales peaked at around $85 million. In that period, organic men's clothing grew by 11 percent and organic women's clothing grew by 22 percent. It was estimated that the total sales of organic fiber products in the US would grow an average of 15.5 percent each year from 2004 to 2006.[15]

While there are no specific statistics to document growth in the organic cotton men's underwear market, it can be assumed to be a rising niche market given the increase in sales of both non-traditional, specialty men's underwear and of men's organic cotton clothing.

Organic farming and global warming

Organic farming may also be key in fighting global climate change. A study of conventional versus organic farming methods by the Rodale Institute discovered that organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration.[16] In agricultural applications, the more organic matter that is retained in the soil, the more carbon is sequestered. While conventional farming depletes organic matter through the use of chemical fertilizers, organic farming uses animal manure and cover crops, which actually build soil organic matter.

Organic farming further reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by using 37 percent fewer fossil fuels than conventional farming.[17] The Rodale Institute estimates that if all 160 million acres of corn and soybean farmland in the US were switched to organic farming methods, it would be equivalent to removing 58.7 million cars from the road, and would satisfy 73 percent of the proposed US Kyoto targets for CO2 reduction.[18]

Controversies

Questioning organic farming's land-use efficiency

The move towards organic farming has received a fair amount of criticism. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, believes that organic farming techniques are detrimental to the environment. In a December 2006 issue of 54The Economist55 he suggests that low yields from organic farming results in the destruction of more land, while the use of synthetic fertilizers allows farmers to harvest vast amounts of, for example, cotton, in a small area of cultivated land.[19] Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on high-input crops that have increased world food supply, but has been criticized because of the resulting increase in reliance on monoculture cropping and inorganic fertilizer use.[20] His stats have also been challenged by a 2008 report by the Agronomy Journal, which concluded that many organic, low-input crops can yield as much dry matter as conventional crops (and sometimes more) given the right weed control conditions.[21]

Outsourcing organic cotton production

The domestic cotton industry has felt pressure in recent years as the US apparel industry—from milling to sewing to the planting and harvesting of cotton—is outsourced to countries that can grow fibers and produce garments at a lower cost. Fashion companies often turn to cheaper offshore growers in India, for example, for organic fiber. Apparel firms may be interested in buying organic cotton fiber from domestic farmers, but are likely to find it more cost-effective to ship the fiber overseas to be milled and sewn, and then ship it back for sale, an environmentally impractical, fuel-intensive process.[22]

Glossary

  • carbon sequestration: The process by which carbon is captured (in the form of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere and incorporated into soil, ocean, and plant matter.
  • fair trade: A movement that seeks to establish healthy and stable economic partnerships between buyers and disadvantaged producers.
  • genetically modified organism (GMO): A GMO is created by merging the genetic make-up of two organisms, resulting in a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.

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