What Price Your Clothes?
The market for organic clothing is still in its infancy, but is growing year on year as more and more consumers realise there is now a choice: clothes that are safe and kind to the workforces that manufacture them and the farmers that grow the crops from which they came; clothes that are produced cleanly and respect the environment in which they are grown; clothing that contains no toxic, carcinogenic or allergenic chemical residues. The alternative appears increasingly unattractive: high pesticide usage on crops (especially cotton), rivers, soils and seas polluted by highly toxic chemicals as result of manufacturing processes, and appallingly high rates of sickness, disease and often death for members of the workforce engaged in producing low quality clothing for mass consumer markets.
Consumer demand has driven the organic clothing market from small beginnings, and now designers and manufacturers are choosing to use organically produced fabrics for high quality fashion garments. In order to achieve the organic accreditation, fabrics and manufacturing processes including cleaning, dyeing, printing and packaging must also adhere to specific guidelines. The Soil Association, the UK’s largest organic accreditation body, now certifies to Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) — an international standard for organic textiles. Approximately 3000 businesses in 55 countries are now certified to GOTS. The whole supply chain from field through manufacture to final product must be certified, as well as checks against environmental and social standards. 1
High street shops and stores such as Marks and Spencer and TopShop introduced their own brand organic clothing lines back in 2006. Monsoon now offers an organic capsule line. Designers such as Katherine Hamnett and eco-brands such as PeopleTree, SeaSalt and Komodo are all blazing a trail for organic and fair trade clothes.
Organic Fabrics and Textiles
The most commonly used materials for organic fabrics include cotton, hemp, linen, wool, silk and bamboo. When accredited by national organic certification bodies, crops are grown without the use of toxic chemical pesticides, insecticides and fungicides. (In the case of wool, the sheep or goats will have been raised on farms that adhere to the organic farming standards which promotes animal welfare and well-being). These materials are all from 100% naturally occurring resources, which in themselves do not harm the environment, or the workforce as long as they are farmed according to sustainable and organic practices. Natural fibres are renewable and biodegradable – whereas synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon are not.
To date, textile production is one of the most polluting industries globally. Thousands of chemicals are used to clean, bleach, prepare, dye, print and finish textiles. The textile industry releases tens of thousands of tonnes of such effluents into rivers and streams each year. Many of these chemicals are acutely toxic, are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and have been associated with cancer, birth defects and hormonal and reproductive effects in wildlife and humans. Organic textile production has standards that ensure whichever chemicals used in processing textiles meet strict requirements on toxicity and biodegradability, and textile manufactures must also have a waste water treatment plant and a sound environmental policy.
Cotton – When is it a Killer Crop?
It is currently estimated that the cotton market is responsible for 16% of the world’s insecticides – more than any other single crop, despite covering only 2.5% of the globe’s cultivated land.(2) Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho, three of the most potentially damaging insecticides to human health as cited by the World Health Organization, rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production. In 2007 The Environmental Justice Foundation revealed that Aldicarb, cotton’s second best selling insecticide and most acutely poisonous to humans, can kill a man with a single drop absorbed through the skin, but still it is being sprayed on cotton crops in 25 countries as well as the US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater. 2
Here the Environmental Justice Foundation gives a short sharp insight into how non-organic cotton farming methods may affect those involved in the industry.
Because of its threat to human life and damage to the environment, a global ban on the manufacture and use of Endosulfan, a highly toxic pesticide used on cotton crops among others, has just been negotiated under the Stockholm Convention in April 2011 . The ban will take effect in mid 2012, although limited use will continue for at least another 5 years in certain countries including China, Uganda and Indonesia. In May 2011 the Indian government finally followed suit and has prohibited use of Endosulfan for the time being. 3
Today, an estimated 30% of all cotton grown worldwide is genetically modified (GM). GM cotton threatens human health as well as wildlife, although the long term threats and potential damage is still unknown. Greenpeace research released last year (2010) showed that for farmers in Southern India, GM cotton did not result in significantly higher yields than organic cotton, but cost farmers twice as much to produce as organic. Pesticides and insecticides were still required for use on the GM crop and the pesticides commonly used were classified by the World Health Organisation as Extremely or Highly Hazardous. 4
In contrast, organic farming of cotton ensures that pesticides and GM technology are prohibited. Using techniques that work with nature, not against it, organic farming offers a holistic approach that protects the environment. Natural methods of pest control such as introducing beneficial insects to remove detrimental ones, or using non-toxic solutions to remove, repel or distract pests from crops. Maintaining and improving soil structure is also important, which is achieved through the addition of naturally occurring soil improvers such as manure or green waste. Crop rotation also assists in managing the health of the both crop and soil, whilst reducing the incidence of weeds and disease.
Improving the Lives of Farmers and Factory Workers
Working conditions for those involved in the textiles and clothing industry are often poor, with very few rights accorded to the workers. Farmers growing crops may be tied to using specific hazardous pesticides, and child labour is commonplace and well documented. Sickness and ill health caused by the chemicals used is also commonplace. However as the organic clothing market grows, so increases the welfare of those working within it: the majority of organic accredition bodies such as GOTS (see above) look to ensure social conditions meet certain standards based on international conventions such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions. These cover minimum wages, working hours, child labour, freedom of association, discrimination, harsh or inhumane treatment and more.