Sleeping Soundly

Organic Cotton May be the Key to a Good Night's Rest

It's easy to feel virtuous using 100 percent cotton bed sheets. What could be more pure than bedding made from a natural product, with no artificial fibers?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Mothers & Others For a Livable Planet reports that cotton is the world's most commercially important fiber, taking up 89 million acres in 70 countries. It's also the world's most heavily pesticide-sprayed field crop. Despite being planted on only three percent of the world's arable land, cotton accounts for an incredible 25 percent of global pesticide and herbicide use—about 350 million pounds a year.

Photo: Terra Verde

Cotton is such a pesticide-dependent crop that a group of farmers in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, who were beset by the American bollworm last year, spent virtually their last money on chemicals to control the insects. When the pesticides failed, at least 110 despondent farmers committed suicide—by drinking the pesticides.

The negative consequences of the chemically-intensive cotton industry is a broad, international issue, but it has important local ramifications, too, extending all the way to the most intimate part of our homes, the bedroom. Decoding what goes into the manufacturing of bedding is a challenge in itself. Most sheets, for instance, are sprayed with formaldehyde to reduce wrinkling. “You can smell formaldehyde offgassing,” says Katherine Tiddens, owner of Terra Verde, a New York-based natural products retailer who specializes in organic bedding. “It's a sensitizer, and it accumulates not only in bedding, but also in carpets, textiles, even lipstick and nail polish.”

Even “natural” or “green” cotton sheets, offered by many major manufacturers, aren't necessarily a safe bet because, although they may be dye- or formaldehyde-free, their base material is usually conventional, pesticide-intensive cotton. “Organic cotton is grown without any of the 200 agricultural chemicals used in the standard process,” says Christine Nielson, founder of Coyuchi, a California-based company that was a U.S. pioneer in developing full-width organic cotton sheets. Certified organic cotton is frequently rotated in compost-rich soil, and uses beneficial insects, rather than spraying, to control bugs, Nielson explains.

The California-based Sustainable Cotton Project launched the Cleaner Cotton Campaign in 1998 to bolster a crop that is now only a tiny fraction of the annual U.S. production of 19 million bales. In 1997, the U.S. produced 7,967 tons of organic cotton, a figure that nonetheless makes it the world market leader. Mothers & Others has joined the campaign with a website on organic cotton, and a forthcoming consumer guide. “'Green cotton' is a term that gets thrown out,” says Becki Specter, Mothers & Others program coordinator, “but consumers should be wary because there's no real standard for it.”

A set of Coyuchi's queen-sized sheets, complete with pillowcases, is about $200 in retail stores and through the Seventh Generation or Real Goods catalogs. The sheets are made of naturally-colored cotton, the result of a process painstakingly developed by FoxFibre pioneer Sally Fox, that combines long-fiber white cotton with short-fiber colored strains from Latin America. Natural color means the pollution associated with synthetic dyeing is avoided. White sheets are bleached using hydrogen peroxide, an inert chemical that causes none of the damage associated with chlorine.

Sleep Deprived?

But, of course, organic sheets won't solve your sleep problems if your mattress and box spring are offgassing toxins from plastic, foam and polyester. A good companion to Coyuchi's sheets is a Crown City Mattress made from organic cotton and wool, which absorbs the water vapor the body produces nightly.

Denise Pelleti, Crown City Mattress' sales director, says the company's wool comes from free-range sheep that graze on pesticide-free land north of San Francisco. “You want to sleep in an all-natural, breathable wool environment,” she says. “It means you won't spend the night kicking off covers.” A queen-sized mattress and box spring combination sells for $1,700 to $2,200, and is available in retail stores and through the Real Goods catalog.

Natura's organic beds are three-layered “systems” in a hardwood frame, made of organic cotton, free-range wool (from New Zealand) and natural latex. Natura's Jennifer Tominski says the bed frames offer headrest, lumbar and knee-lift adjustment, and cost between $2,000 and $2,200 in retail stores. And according to manager Karen German, White Lotus will soon offer organic cotton futons, and now has a line of variously priced organic cotton and buckwheat pillows for beds and couches.