Triple Pundit

Making the Case for Pesticide Use in Today’s Cotton Fields

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Images: Cotton harvest – Flickr/Kimberly Vardeman

Few topics of discussion (with the exception perhaps of the current U.S. elections) receive as much debate these days than how cotton should be farmed and harvested. The lowly gossypium plant, which is cultivated across the world, was once a remarkably hard crop to farm and harvest. The stories of African American cotton pickers’ bloody hands and endemic poverty during the early and mid-1900s became a symbol of the injustices that were equated with an industry that had at that time, neither the technology nor the means to meet the needs of growing demand.

Two young cotton pickers, 1937 -Flickr/Kheel Center


While the mechanical cotton picker of the 1940s addressed some human rights concerns, it has since been replaced today with automated machines that can harvest as much as 190,000 pounds a day.

The introduction of genetic modification to U.S. cotton farming in the 1990s further transformed the conventional cotton industry. Studies have found that genetic modification of cotton seeds not only increased cotton production, but reduced the need for insecticides and some other forms of pesticides in the field. In the U.S., technology has kept up with these changes, creating increasingly faster ways for cotton to be harvested from the field. Even though the U.S. is no longer the largest producer of conventional cotton (third, compared to China and India), it reaps tremendous benefit from the newer innovations that have become a mainstay of cotton production. According to Cotton Incorporated, the conventional U.S. cotton industry (that is, cotton not grown or produced organically), contributes to as much as $100 billion in revenues to affiliated industries.

But those advances continue to spur debate about the best – and safest – way to generate the world’s demand for this much-needed apparel product. Does GM cotton come with secondary health risks? Is GM cotton safe for the environment? Are the pesticides that end up being used with the process risky? Do the benefits of conventional cotton outweigh the concerns that are prompted by pesticide use?

TriplePundit writers have written a fair amount on organic cotton topics, from the nuts and bolts of the global organic cotton industry to the strides  that the organic garment industry has made in recent years. We felt it was time, therefore, to take a deeper look at the processes that are used in conventional cotton production and the points raised by that industry about the benefits of transgenetic cotton farming.

To get the industry’s input on this question, we spoke to Cotton Inc’s Director of Agricultural Research in Entomology, Ryan Kurtz.  Kurtz’s area of expertise is insect resistance management in genetically engineered corn and cotton. Formerly the global lead for traits insect resistance management at Syngenta, Kurtz specializes in North American Bt trait cotton production, a cotton engineered to fight the infamous boll weevil, among other pests. Most of the information below therefore focuses on U.S. cotton production.

Conventional cotton: Not all pesticides are created equally

To really address the debate over conventional cotton production, said Kurtz, it’s necessary to recognize that not all kinds of pesticides can be lumped together. We may think of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides as ‘pesticides’ but in truth, they are vastly different from each other in how they are applied and what they do.

“I think it is always important to be precise at any way you are describing things. Pesticides is a large bucket area. I think people do tend to think of insects more as “pests” than weeds and funguses, because they can relate more to it,” explained Kurtz.

The distinction of insecticide from other types of pesticides is critical, said Kurt, if you want to determine whether GM technology has made a difference in making cotton production safer and whether it should have a role in cotton production. According to information we received from Cotton Inc, GM production has dramatically lowered the demand for insecticide on cotton farms. And that in turn, has made cotton production safer.

But its real coup d’etat may have come in the boost it gave to production yields when it effectively made GM cotton immune to one of the South’s most destructive pests: the boll weevil.

Boll weevil on cotton plant – Flickr/USDA

Nicknamed in 1903 as America’s “wave of evil,” the tiny insect caused widespread destruction of the country’s cotton yields until insecticides came on the market. In the 1970s, boll weevil eradication began in earnest in a multi-state effort. The evil weevil has largely been eradicated at this point thanks to a systemic approach to strategic insecticide use.   Cotton Inc points out that some 20 years after its introduction in the U.S. South, the impact of transgenic farming can be found in the number of applications of insecticide still used in the U.S. According to data supplied by the organization, “U.S. cotton growers applied insecticide an average of 1.96 times over the course of the season – less than twice.”

Kurtz said that those low numbers are due to farming methods that capitalize on of one of Nature’s more ingenious inventions: a bacteria that lives in the soil and is lethal to many insects. By figuring out how to genetically introduce the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene into plants (cotton in this case), scientists were able to make the plant resistant to the bollworm and other destructive insects.

“Through a natural process called agrobacterium mediated transfer (AMT), they figured out how to get the gene from that Bt bacteria that produces the insecticidal protein to put that gene into a cotton plant. So now, instead of having to rely on the bacteria to make the protein that kills the insect, the plant makes the protein that kills the insects. ”

GM cotton: the hurdles that still remain

As effective as transgenic cotton farming has been in reducing insect infestations of cotton, however, there have still been some challenges to overcome. The first, note scientists at the Aroian Lab at the University of San Diego, is figuring out just how Bt does what it does.

“[With] 50 [years] of use, you’d think we’ve got everything figured out about Bt. But the truth is, we don’t know much. Most importantly , we don’t know how it works,” notes the lab in its blog post, bacillus thuringiensis. That question is important because recent reports of insect resistance to the Bt trait have led scientists to realize that they don’t know everything about the trait, or how to ensure that more insects don’t develop immunity. The Aroian Lab points out that this problem isn’t limited to GM farming, either, so it’s not a specific failing of GM technology. “For every single synthetic pesticide that is in use today, there are species of insects that are resistant to it.” Unlocking how Bt acts could answer why some insects are immune to its toxin.

But immunity isn’t the only problem that has surfaced regarding Bt GM farming, says Melody Meyer, who serves as the vice president to Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods Incorporated and as the executive director to the UNFI Foundation. As so often happens in Nature with unintended outcomes, the dramatic reduction in insects has added consequences.

“It may have reduced insecticide use but not herbicides,” said Meyer. In fact several studies in the last decade have confirmed that the use of GM technology hasn’t reduced herbicide use. It has increased it.

And that’s where farmers have found the greatest proof to the maxim, “to every front there’s a back.” For every organism that may be reduced through scientific farming methods, there may be another that can capitalize on it. Since 2004, farmers have been finding “superweeds” that have acquired an intolerance to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate).  Reports of Roundup-intolerant weeds such as amaranth have been known to destroy thousands of acres of cotton crops.

Recent studies on glyphosate toxicity in the environment and the food chain is another issue of debate concerning the methods used to produce conventional cotton. Kurtz said that while some studies have suggested that glyphosate may be a “probable” carcinogen, “there is very little evidence, if any to support that and there has been a long, 30+ year history of safe use in the U.S. Kurtz said the fact that it is considered a “general-use pesticide” is indicative that it is safe. “Most reputable organizations highlighted early on that there is a long history of safe use of glyphosate and the concerns about cancer are unwarranted.

In fact, the debate over this issue has persisted for years, as Kurtz stated. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization stated in May that it was “unlikely” that the chemical would pose “carcinogenic risk” from exposure through diet. The statement contradicts the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which stated in 2015 that there was a likelihood that the pesticide is carcinogenic. It has stood by its claim, even though two other agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority contradict its position. More research is underway.

Cottonseed oil and questions of pesticide residue

Cotton that is manufactured in the U.S. is used not only for clothes but for food. Cottonseed oil has been manufactured from the plant’s seed at least since the early 1900s. Today it is  the unsung hero of today’s conventional food manufacturing systems due to its shelf stability.

The the two questions commonly raised are how much pesticide residue is left on the fibers and seed after the harvesting? How much residue is in the final product?

Cotton bud – Flickr/USDA

“Because of the way cotton is grown and the amount of time that it is in the field, the use of pesticides in cotton [production] is well before the fiber is developed. So you actually can set the goal of using pesticides to protect the plant that produces the fiber. Once the fiber is there, most pesticides aren’t applied any more,” said Kurtz, who said the organization monitors studies on pesticide residue through its membership in Bremen Cotton Exchange, an economic organization concerned with advancing the global cotton trade. So the fibers that make their way into the apparel supply chain are unlikly to bring pesticide residue with them.

He added that because cotton oil is a food product, the Food and Drug Administration regulates what and when pesticides can be added to the growing plant. “They look at cotton just like it were a vegetable,” with a set criteria that limits the use of insecticide and other toxic substances.

Still, there are a considerable number of researchers and activists who question this data.Alliance of Women Scientists and Scholars, for example, maintains that “[conventional] cottonseed oil may be highly contaminated with pesticide residues” and that the cottonseed oil’s natural toxin, gossypol, is also a common allergen. [Gossypol] poisoning is common and may be deadly for dairy cows and other livestock.” However, the site offers limited data to back up this claim. Gossypol is generally removed during the oil refining process, so what might hurt cows in raw form should be harmless for humans who consume the oil.

While pesticide residues have been found in cottonseed oil in India, it is not clear if those pesticides were applied the same way as in the U.S., where workers must be trained and labeling is enforced by the EPA. And not all studies of pesticide use in India have found residues, either. One study found plenty of examples of residue contamination in fruits and vegetables in India, but none in cotton fibers.

But a University of Missouri newsletter offers the best explaination as to why cottonseed oil manufactured in the U.S.”rarely” show residues of pesticides in lab tests. The issue isn’t just when the insecticide is applied, but where the cotton grown.

“[Cotton] raised for oil is grown mostly in Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, not in the South.  The shorter growing season there prevents maturation of the fiber-producing cotton boll,” explains the writer. (The USDA offers a more comprhensive list of states where cotton is grown).  This shorter season requires precise control, as Kurtz suggests, so pesticides are applied only up until the boll is about to open. After the cotton is picked and the seed processed into oil, the oil goes through a “deodorizing” stage in which it is subjected to hot steam in a vacuum setting. The cleansing is supposed to remove any residue of insecticide or other unwanted compounds.

Meyer from UNFI suggests however, that with the broad disagreement on this issue, skeptics will continue looking for third-party data to prove that cottonseed oil is completely free of pesticide residue.

Conventional cotton and organic processes


One question we asked Kurtz was why, given the growing interest in organic cotton, conventional cotton industry didn’t consider transitioning toward an organic production model. If there was public pushback against GM foods, why not take the steps now to help farmers adopt organic processes.

“I think it is a matter of feasibility,” said Kurtz. “Organic production works quite well for certain growers on smaller acreages. The ability to scale that up would just be too expensive because of the cost of labor. Some of the organic practices just prohibit some of the more mechanized means that we are using today  and there just wouldn’t be a way to produce enough fiber to meet the demand through organic means. It would just cost too much to produce.”

Given the world’s increasing dependence on cotton for clothing, food and medical products, it’s a perspective that makes sense. With 7 billion people on the planet, and a demand that exceeds that of any other fiber in existence, transitioning from GM methods may seem impractical on the surface.

Meyer agreed that “the demand for organic cotton isn’t as high as the total production of cotton worldwide,” but she argued that this was largely because “people don’t understand the long-term effects to the environment and to society and health in general that this poses down the line. There are unintended consequences that you pay for later,” she said.

Data: The final benchmark in cotton production

If there were one lesson to draw from the endless debate over how cotton should be grown and processed, it might be that it is quantifiable research results that tell the true story about pesticide use in cotton production. Is there really widespread insecticide residue in cotton products? Does glyphosate have unintended consequences? Answers to either or both of these questions may in coming years, alter our view of GM produced cotton.But what those answers won’t do, is change the impact that conventional cotton production with all of its problems and remarkable concepts, has had on the world as we know it.

*This story first appeared on The Triple Pundit

Guilt-Free Fashion and Coffee with the CEO and Founder of MUD Jeans

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Bert van Son, CEO and founder of MUD Jeans.

How do you challenge entrenched patterns of consumption and disposal while growing a fashion business at the same time?

Join thinkPARALLAX for a conversation with the founder of MUD Jeans, the upstart Dutch “circular denim” brand that is tearing down the idea that sustainability or the circular economy can’t be fashionable.

thinkPARALLAX Chief Strategy and Creative Guusje Bendeler sits down with Bert Van Son, CEO and founder of MUD Jeans, in the streets of Amsterdam to talk about MUD’s disruptive “lease a jeans” business model, the challenges of taking an eco-conscious lifestyle brand mainstream, what he’s learned in MUD’s first four years, and what he hopes the future holds for the fashion industry.

Each episode of thinkPARALLAX’s Think & Drink features an informal conversation with a brand that is using sustainability to transform their industry and the world around them. Join us as we discuss successes, failures, and the lessons they’ve learned while pushing boundaries with sustainability.

Geoff Ledford is a Creative Strategist at thinkPARALLAX – a strategic creative communications agency with a passion for building brands with purpose. We work at the intersection of business strategy, sustainability, and communication. Our values stem from the belief that profit and sustainability are not mutually exclusive – good business means doing the right thing. We cultivate knowledge, spread awareness, and create purposeful connections with audiences.

*This story first appeared on Triple Pundit

Forced Labor Continues in Uzbek, Turkmen Cotton Fields

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Uzbek citizens work the fields during the 2009 cotton harvest.

Once again this year, the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilized its citizens — including health care workers, teachers and students — to the cotton fields to prepare for and carry out the 2015 harvest of the country’s “white gold.”  As in the past, forced labor practices were well documented by human rights groups, including the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF).

New to the harvest this year were monitoring teams deployed by the International Labor Organization(ILO).  Despite finding numerous “indicators” of forced labor related to the widespread recruitment of adults, the ILO nevertheless concluded that it did not find “conclusive information that beneficiaries of World Bank projects used child or forced labor during the cotton harvest.”  The World Bank now provides $500 million in loans to Uzbekistan’s education and agricultural sectors.

Positively, the use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields has waned (though it still exists as a byproduct of state pressure to fulfill quotas).  Unfortunately, the Uzbek government used the 2015 harvest to “double-down” on its use of coercion in the mobilization of adults and increased its persecution of those seeking to document and expose the government’s forced labor practices.  Worse still, according to the Cotton Campaign and other observers, the forced labor practices of Uzbekistan are now being employed by the government in neighboring Turkmenistan as well.

Voluntary or forced labor?

As in prior years, the harvest plan was developed at the very top levels of the Uzbek government.  The prime minister determined the quotas and distributed them to regional “hokims” responsible for imposing the quotas on farmers and other institutions.  Wages paid to those involved in the harvest were nominal and substantially lower than market.

As reported by UGF in its March 2016 report: “Almost universally, respondents told us they could not refuse to pick cotton.”  As one person put it to UGF, “No one wants to go of their own will to harvest cotton for miserly wages.”  For many, the UGF concluded, the very notion was unthinkable.

Yet, the Uzbek government insists that participation in the harvest is voluntary, and the ILO concluded in its November 2015 report that “[l]arge numbers of citizens seem to be willing recruits and see the harvest as an opportunity.”

Reading the UGF’s most recent report, it is almost inconceivable to imagine how the ILO could reach such a conclusion.  Rather than merely “encouraging” people to take advantage of the economic “opportunity” of the harvest, the state once again drew from a well-worn playbook of fear and intimidation tactics designed to give citizens no other choice but to leave their homes and jobs to labor in the cotton fields.

For instance, last year police and prosecutors regularly patrolled the fields, inspected farms and monitored workers.  Regular “cotton meetings” were organized with local officials and farmers to discuss the harvest’s progress.  One farmer reported to UGF that he spent every night of the harvest at “cotton headquarters,” and at one such meeting the hokim was recorded shouting, “If even one person does not go out, it will be bad for you!  I’ll shut down your organizations!”

Operation Cleaver, an official directive from the Uzbek government, tasked officials with repossessing land and the personal property of farmers who were either in debt to government-run banks or had failed to fulfill their cotton quotas.  Teachers received orders from government officials compelling them to send their students to the fields, and many students rightly feared expulsion if they refused to participate.  One “urgent message” sent to a private company stated that “[a]ll organizations … must participate in the cotton harvest.”  Others were threatened with dismissal from their jobs.

Justifiable fear

As the UGF points out, forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector must be viewed against the backdrop of the systemic repression and widespread human rights violations that occur there on a regular basis.

Human Rights Watch describesUzbekistan’s human rights record as “atrocious,” and in 2015, Freedom House ranked Uzbekistan the fourth least free country in the world and the most repressive regime in the highly authoritarian region of Eurasia.  The Uzbek government regularly engages in torture of prisoners and detainees; severely limits speech, religion, assembly and association; routinely harasses and conducts surveillance on human rights defenders; and lacks an impartial justice system or any semblance of the rule of law.  In other words, in Uzbekistan, people are justifiably terrified of disobeying the state.

Particularly in this context, police and prosecutor presence in the cotton fields reinforces a not-so-subtle message that participation in the cotton harvest is mandatory and that resisters could face severe punishment from the state.  In 2015, this climate of fear was supplemented by an onslaught of propaganda about the importance of cotton, linking the resource to the the Uzbek identity.  As such, there was a pervasive sense in Uzbekistan that those who do not participate are somehow unpatriotic.

Cotton is Uzbekistan’s largest agricultural crop.

Pulling the wool over our eyes

Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Uzbek government went out of its way to make participation in the 2015 harvest appear voluntary.  According to both the UGF and Cotton Campaign — a coalition of human rights organizations, trade unions, socially responsible investors and business associations — this effort was greatly intensified in 2015 as compared to prior years.

For example, UGF obtained copies of false statements from students at six different educational institutions stating that they were picking cotton voluntarily.  One student even referred to cotton picking as his “internship.”  Though the ILO reported that “schools and hospitals functioned normally” during the harvest, UGF found the opposite.  None of the doctors, teachers or other professionals interviewed said they would rather pick cotton than do their own jobs.


The 2015 harvest was also marred by a campaign of state-organized persecution of activists documenting labor and human rights issues in the cotton sector.  One such activist, Dmitry Tikhonov, was one of UGF’s own monitors, and his tale — documented by UGF, the Guardian, and in Tihkonov’s own words (here andhere) — is a harrowing one.

Prior to the harvest, in August 2015, Tihkonov learned that some of his friends had been questioned by the police about his work and personal life. The next month, when mobilization for the harvest was at its peak, Tihkonov was surrounded in public and harassed by a group of local officials.  A day later he was picked up by police, forced to draft a statement explaining why he is “against cotton,” yelled at and beaten.  A few days later, he was detained again after a questionable traffic stop.

In late October, when Tihkonov was out of town, there was a major fire at his home.  The fire destroyed his work, two computers, a laptop, a printer/scanner, video and sound equipment, all contacts, papers and files, $1,500 in cash savings, clothing, and his legal library.  He also discovered that his hard drives were missing.

Other activists were also subjected to harassment by the state.  For instance, in my conversation last month with the coordinator of the Cotton Campaign,Matt Fischer-Daly, he mentioned the arrests and body cavity searches of a number of female monitors, as well as the arrest and two-month detention of a monitor who was released only on the condition that he do no more human rights work.

I asked Fischer-Daly how the crackdown impacts the work of Cotton Campaign and others dedicated to exposing the crimes of the Uzbek government (UGF is one of Cotton Campaign’s primary partners).  Unsurprisingly, he reported that the systematic persecution made Cotton Campaign’s work far more difficult, as much of 2015 was spent responding to acute safety risks facing the campaign’s partners on the ground in Uzbekistan.  The group also had to change its procedures and can no longer conduct trainings in Uzbekistan.  Yet, despite all this, the Cotton Campaign’s monitors have said they will not stop working to expose forced labor in the Uzbek cotton fields.

The failures of the World Bank and the ILO

An Uzbek citizen picks cotton in 2011.

In 2014, Uzbekistan signed a Decent Work Country Program with the ILO, in which it committed to work with the ILO and to apply international labor standards.  The Bank also agreed to condition Uzbekistan’s loans (now amounting to $500 million) on the absence of forced or child labor in project areas.  As a result of these agreements, Uzbekistan also committed to establish a “feedback mechanism” that allows witnesses or victims to report abuses during the harvest and an awareness-raising campaign aimed to educate Uzbekistan’s citizens about the illegality of forced and child labor.

Pursuant to the World Bank’s request, the ILO created monitoring teams, which watched over Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest from Sept. 14 to Oct. 31, 2015.  Each team was made up of just one ILO staffer and five members of the Uzbek government.  At the end of its work, the ILO concluded that“[m]onitoring has not provided conclusive information that beneficiaries of World Bank projects used child or forced labor during the cotton harvest.”

Yet, the ILO still found “indicators” of forced labor related to the widespread organized recruitment of adults to pick cotton and noted that “[r]obust further steps are required to remove the risk of forced labor.”  In particular, the ILO highlighted several concerns “with respect to candidness of interviewees,” and UGF rightly pointed out that serious questions exist concerning the independence, and resulting effectiveness, of the ILO monitoring teams, due in part to their makeup.

The ILO acknowledged that monitors encountered significant difficulties obtaining accurate information and noted that authorities “obstruct, detain and threaten people who are gathering information on labor standards during the harvest,” which does not “provide a conducive environment in which to assess and investigate labor practices.”

In the face of these admitted shortcomings, however, there is no indication that the ILO considered changing its strategy, nor does the ILO explain why it failed to do so.  Moreover, by beginning its monitoring process in mid-September, the ILO missed the “massive labor deployments to the fields” that occurs in the beginning of the month, the UGF notes.

As for the “feedback mechanism,” the ILO admitted that usage rates were low, and nobody interviewed by the UGF even considered using it.  The reason for the poor level of participation seems to be that people feared reprisals for using the mechanism.  In fact, several who called the hotline or tried to complain to the ILO suffered harassment from officials.

As the Cotton Campaign’s Fischer-Daly sees it, the World Bank should incentivize reform by requiring demonstrable progress from the Uzbek government on ending forced labor as a condition for loan disbursements. By disbursing funds first, the Uzbek government has less incentive to change practices and is likely to only take procedural measures.

Corporate responsibility

Of course, much of the cotton harvested on the backs of Uzbek citizens eventually makes its way into the products many of us buy and wear.  Groups like Sustainable Brands and the Responsible Sourcing Network(RSN) aim to educate companies and consumers about forced labor in the supply chain, and to discourage companies from buying cotton from countries like Uzbekistan.  As of late 2014, I noted here on 3p that many major apparel companies had signed RSN’s pledge not to use Uzbek cotton in their products.

Yet, when I asked Fischer-Daly whether apparel companies were succeeding in keeping Uzbek cotton out of their products, he noted the limitations of RSN’s Cotton Pledge.  As with many products, the difficulty with cotton boils down to traceability, and many brands simply do not know the true origin of their cotton.  The most successful companies are those that have direct relationships with their raw material suppliers, but very few do.

In order to truly change this practice, Fischer-Daly said, brands must fundamentally change the way they source.


Last year, Cotton Campaign and others,including CNNbegan documenting a system of forced labor in Turkmen cotton fields that is strikingly similar to the practice in Uzbekistan.  Following the president’s order to “pick all cotton to the last boll,” tens of thousands of Turkmen citizens are mobilized by local government officials to report to the cotton fields.  According toAlternative Turkmen News, the Turkmen government treats “refusal to contribute to the cotton harvest as insubordination, incitement to sabotage, lack of patriotism and even contempt of the homeland.”  Consequences include “public censure, docked pay and termination of employment.”

As in Uzbekistan, the state maintains a monopoly on the purchase and sale of cotton and sets a below-market procurement price. Turkmenistan is the world’s eighth largest exporter of cotton (Uzbekistan is fifth), and the Cotton Campaign has been able to tie Turkmen cotton to Turkey, a major manufacturing hub for brands operating throughout Europe.  Fischer-Daly told me the first Turkish company that Cotton Campaign identified as processing and producing garments using cotton from Turkmenistan reported that it sold to about a dozen brands.

Some brands, such as H&M, have nowcommitted to excluding Turkmen cotton from their products (as H&M did with Uzbek cotton in 2013).  Yet, as in Uzbekistan, without real consequences there is little reason to believe either the Uzbek or the Turkmen governments will move away from their forced labor systems.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Chris Shervey 2) Flickr/David Stanley 3) Flickr/GlobalAdaptation

*This story first appeared on The Triple Pundit

Save Yoga from Plastic

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By Malika Baruah


Yoga has been practiced for more than 3,000 years and is rooted in the aim to bring its practitioners’ bodies and minds into harmony with the universe. In this fast-paced modern world, more and more people are turning to this ancient practice. However, the explosion in popularity and commercialization has pulled yoga away from its roots — particularly with the yoga workout wear you see both inside and outside of yoga class. Yoga pants are part of the growing $13 billion athleisure market thanks to brands like Lululemon, Athleta and Fabletica.

In reality, these yoga-wear makers also have a little known secret they don’t want consumers to know – many of their products are toxic. Proyogresearch estimates that 9 out of 10 yoga pants are made from plastic, which is in direct conflict with yoga’s philosophy of “do no harm” – not only to oneself by placing toxic chemicals next to the skin, but also to the environment.

This trend shows no sign of slowing down. This booming athleisure apparel market is expected to quintuple in the next five years, making up to $83 billion in sales by 2020, according to Morgan Stanley estimates. And while the majority of designer and commercial brands have openly promoted synthetic, plastic or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) yoga-wear, it’s now more important than ever that consumers are aware that plastic is toxic.

A 2015 Greenpeace report found that sportswear from most major brands contained known hazardous chemicals, like Phthalates, PFCs, Dimethylformamide (DMF), Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and Nonylphenols (NPs). Nylon and polyester garments are essentially made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the same plastic use to make disposable water bottles.

So, why the push for synthetic fabrics in yoga-wear? Ancient yogis used to wear their comfortable, everyday cotton clothing during practice, allowing them the free flow of movement and energy. However, today’s popular yoga clothes are tight and constricting, and more suited to showing off the physical form.

The physical exertion of yoga opens the body to the elements, and if those elements come in the form of synthetic fibers, the skin absorbs toxins that are detrimental to the practitioner. When you combine constricting designs and synthetic fabric, naturally-occurring bacteria and unnatural chemicals can get trapped close to the skin, potentially causing acne and rashes. Wearing organic clothing made from natural materials such as cotton, bamboo and hemp provide huge benefits to the body by letting air in and out and harboring fewer bacteria.

Also, every time a pair of synthetic yoga pants go into the washing machine, tiny plastic fibers known as “microfibers” drop off and are washed away in the drain only to join other microplastics that make up the majority of the 8 million metric tons of plastic that pollute the world’s oceans. Microplastics are easily ingested by marine life. A 2014 study by the Marine and Environmental Research Institute found a large number of these fragments in oysters and mussels with oysters having the highest number – an average of 177 pieces of plastic per animal. Numerous studies and reports have been published about how these fibers have negatively affected bodies of water and their surrounding environments.

This year the U.S. imposed a federal ban on microbeads, plastic beads smaller than 5 millimeters in personal care products, and cities have worked to ban disposable plastic water bottles and bags to reduce their waste and carbon footprint. But not much has been done about microfibers. Consider this: If you could count all the yoga pants worn in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is the top city for yoga in the U.S. according to marketing firmGfK MRI, with its residents 59 percent more likely to practice yoga than the general population, it would equal about 500 tons of plastic annually.

I simply urge all yoga practitioners to think about how their choice of yoga-wear can impact them and the world around them. Check product labels to ensure that the fabric is organically grown and ethically produced. Say “no” to recycled plastic garments for yoga because both the cost and eco-foot print of recycling these plastic fibers are immense. Remember that yoga isn’t just a way to fine-tune the body, but to embrace becoming absolutely one with the universe.

Image credit: Pixabay

Malika Baruah is Product Head and Co-founder of Proyog. From her early days of pattern-making under Pierre Cardin, to heading design at Levi Strauss India, Malika Baruah has been in the fashion retail business for over 20 years. As a design head, Malika has conceptualized and successfully launched nine brands in the India. Her experience is nothing if not remarkably diverse. Drawn toward natural and sustainable design, her Indian roots seem to find a quiet expression in everything she does. She believes that design in the fashion realm unites beauty with form and comfort, eventually reflecting one’s personality.

Over the last few years, Malika has had her sights set on the online world. She runs Binary Bulb, her own a digital design agency in Bangalore. She is also a partner at Fisheye Creative Solutions, a specialized marketing communications company. Her love for yoga began in 2001, and she has been practicing ever since. Proyog is the inevitable realization of her personal and professional passions.

*This article first appeared on The Triple Pundit