INSIDE Chico State
0 January 25, 2001
Volume 31 Number 9
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico




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Students Break New Ground in Supporting Organic Cotton Production

Katherine Polan, A.S. commissioner of environmental affairs, shows off organic cotton T-shirts, similar to those soon to be sold in the A.S. Bookstore.
Katherine Polan, A.S. commissioner of environmental affairs, shows off organic cotton T-shirts, similar to those soon to be sold in the A.S. Bookstore.

Ryan Libre, left, and Calli Burch, right, tour San Joaquin Valley cotton fields with other students.
Ryan Libre, left, and Calli Burch, right, tour San Joaquin Valley cotton fields with other students.

(Photos by Barbara Alderson)

"Think globally, act locally" is more than a slogan to the Associated Students, who this semester lead the nation by becoming the first group to sell organic cotton T-shirts through the A.S. Bookstore. The Chico State T-shirts, manufactured by Patagonia, are a first for college bookstores, a first for Patagonia, which has not previously had their line used for collegiate wear, and a boost for organic cotton farmers.

"This is the most exciting student project that I have worked on because students are really the ones making that change," said Mark Stemen, Geography and Planning. He pointed out that, rather than complaining about some anonymous large corporation, students negotiated within their own corporation to make this project happen.

Stemen is not alone in his enthusiasm: "This has national repercussions. It is hoped that universities nationwide can move into organic cotton apparel. That is a clear goal, and that is why Patagonia is so excited and why the Sustainable Cotton Project is so excited," said Stemen. The Sustainable Cotton Project, currently located in Oroville, works with farmers, manufacturers, and consumers to increase awareness of the toxicity of conventional cotton farming, and to encourage alternative methods such as biological integrated pest management and organic growing of cotton.

Why organic cotton? Will Allen, director of the Sustainable Cotton Project, explained that about 25 percent of all the insecticides used in the world are used on cotton. And about 10 percent of all pesticides used in the world are used on cotton. Many of these substances, such as DEF6 and paraquat, are highly toxic chemicals known to cause cancers and birth defects. Over the decade of the 1990s overall chemical usage and usage per acre increased on California's cotton farms, mostly due to the increasing resistance of insects and weeds to prolonged insecticide and defoliant usage.

Additionally, cottonseed often goes directly from the cotton gin to dairy and cattle operations, where it is fed to cows and cattle that produce milk and meat. While the toxicity of the cottonseed and the resultant food products has not been measured, the toxicity of what is left after the fiber and seed are removed from the cotton (called "gin trash") has. Allen told of testing done in Kings County which showed that gin trash contained unacceptable levels of 29 out of the top 30 chemicals used in cotton production. The Sustainable Cotton Project and environmental groups argue that, given this level of toxicity in gin trash, a reasonable assumption is that cottonseed from the same field is toxic.

While clothing manufacturers have varying degrees of interest in incorporating organic products, they are wary of the limited supplies of organically grown cotton. Growers interested in growing organic cotton are hesitant to do so without an established market. Allen said, "We tell all the farmers we work with, don't grow organic unless you have a contract." It is too easy for the grower to be left with unmarketable cotton.

That's where the students came in. Katherine Polan, A.S. commissioner of environmental affairs, recalled that after Allen's Earth Month keynote speech, students began asking, "Wouldn't it be neat if Chico State had organic cotton clothing in their bookstore?"

Calli Burch, a geography major, interned with the Sustainable Cotton Project, toured the cotton growing areas of California, and became the liaison between various contacts and the bookstore. The bookstore agreed to carry the products on a trial basis. Steve Dubey, the new manager of the A.S. Bookstore, said, "Just as with any other product, if it doesn't sell within a year, then it's inventory that, unfortunately, we can't invest in."

Dubey, who sleeps in a Patagonia organic cotton T-shirt because "it is softer than the other kind of cotton," is not worried. "I feel very confident it's going to succeed." The students and the bookstore decided to work with Patag-onia, a company that, in 1996, went to 100 percent organic cotton in all their cot-

ton clothing. The shirts will probably cost about one to two dollars more than other cotton shirts, even though Pat-agonia has already reduced the wholesale price by $1.50 as a result of negotiations with Ian Gilmore of Sundog printing, which will be printing the CSU, Chico logos on the shirts.

The story doesn't end with the bookstore. Polan and Burch joined with other students to urge the A.S. Government Affairs Committee to pass a resolution supporting and promoting organic cotton. They solicited and received letters of support from clothing companies, farmers, Chico State student groups, and individuals. The resolution passed at the end of the fall semester calls for organic cotton clothing in the bookstore, promotion of organic cotton through an educational campaign, and requires that "all activity fee-funded programs purchase 100 percent organic cotton T-shirts for all events."

"Chico State has made history," Eddie DeAnda, Sustainable Cotton Project, said. The students at Chico State amazed him and others in the organic cotton industry. "The progress they made in such a short time was unbelievable to people in the organic industry. The interns were really awesome. They set a timeline at the beginning of the year that established that by the end of this semester they wanted to set up a meeting with people in the bookstore. The first week into it they already had that meeting and things began happening so fast that they just threw the timeline away. I don't think any other campus could have done it really, the way they did itÉRyan Libre and Calli Burch and Kate Polan worked and Mark helped."

Burch said, "We have a responsibility to care for how our actions affect the future." Promoting organic cotton is one small, but enormously effective, way to do just that.

Barbara Alderson
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