When Refinery29 asked me if I would debate a cotton scientist, I was like, “Um, yeah!”

Because I believe in dialogue, instead of having a contest of who yells the loudest. And maybe, just maybe, I could plant a bug in this Cotton Inc. employee’s PhD-educated brain. What follows is the story I wrote for Refinery29. 


Graphic by Anna Sudit for Refinery29


You wouldn’t think a nice, bland textile like cotton would be so controversial. But “The Fabric of Our Lives” has become a flashpoint in the battle for more sustainable and ethical clothing. Advocates of eco-friendly fashion accuse the cotton industry of heavy pesticide and herbicide use, dangerous working conditions, and even putting the consumer’s health at risk when we wear its products. 

Given how passionate I am about the aforementioned issues, I jumped at the chance to debate a real, live cotton scientist. As a 12-year employee of Cotton Inc., Dr. Ed Barnes’ loyalties definitely lie with conventional cotton. But, I hoped he, being a scientist, would treat me to some real talk. 

Before we spoke, I spent some time talking to sustainable-fashion advocates and gathering the latest data on the cotton industry. I wanted to go into this debate with the objective facts, check my biases at the door, and keep my mind open to opposing views. In fact, I did learn a thing or two about cotton. And, I think Dr. Barnes did, too. 

Alden Wicker: Thank you for speaking with me. As you know, the impetus for this interview was Amber Valletta’s April story for Refinery29. The first thing said was that conventionally grown cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed plants in farming. 

Ed Barnes: That is definitely not the case. Critics like to say that cotton uses 25% of the world’s pesticides. It’s one of the urban legends that floats out there on the Internet. Global data is hard to get, but we use data from Cropnosis that tracks sales of pesticides around the world. It’s not the perfect data source, since it’s based on dollar values, but we know that cotton uses about 6% of pesticides used. This was surprising to me, but there’s a lot more pesticide use in fruits and vegetables. 

Read the rest of the interview at Refinery29.