By Katharine Hamnett
In the heady world of fashion, cotton is the most commonly used fabric and in agricultural terms accounts for 10% of world agriculture. So far so good – until you take on board that to turn these natural fibers into items of must-have clothing conventional cotton farmers use pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers (approximately 25% of world pesticides) to make clothing. These pesticides are directly derived from World War 2 nerve gases, if you didn’t know. The situation of cotton agriculture in the developing world, involving 400 million farmers, is without exaggeration, catastrophic.
Pesticides cause 20,000 deaths per year from accidental poisoning. 1 million long-term acute poisonings per year, 200,000 suicides per year (due to debt for pesticides). PAN estimates the real figures are much higher: upwards of a million deaths and three million long term poisonings. Most deaths occur in the developing world where there are few to no doctors, let alone hospitals.
Conventional cotton agriculture is additionally responsible for colossal greenhouse gas emissions due to chemical fertilizers, desertification and long-term contamination of the water supply.
Cotton is a very important export crop for many African and developing countries. In Mali, for instance, it is the second largest export by value after gold. In theory it is an excellent cash crop bringing in lots of foreign currency and providing a livelihood for the 10 to 11 million farmers across Africa involved, giving them enough money to feed themselves, school their children, and afford healthcare. This is totally possible but unfortunately it is not the case right now.
To grow cotton, before planting, farmers need a contract with the brokers to buy their cotton when it’s harvested. As part of the contract they have to agree to buy the seeds and the pesticides from the broker. If they don’t have the money the brokers have set up banks that will lend them the money to buy the pesticides, at 10% interest. The loan must be repaid within a year: if they can’t repay the loan because their crop fails due to lack of rain, the banks foreclose and take their tools and bicycles, leaving them to continue farming. They leave their land for the cities, sending a little money home, and on their occasional returns to their villages often bringing HIV with them as well.
Developing world farmers are given virtually no information on the dangers of the pesticides – often banned in Europe and the US – which they are sold, including the need to wear protective clothing. The pesticides are often changed without notice. For example, in four West African countries the pesticides being used were recently changed from a parathyroid to an organochlorine (endosulfan) because of the problems with pest resistance, without any warnings to the farmers of the increased toxicity of the new chemicals. Nearly 100 people are known to have died in just one region in the last two seasons as a result of this, with over 220 serious poisonings.
Cotton prices are at a low not seen since the depression of the 1930s due to US, EU and Chinese cotton subsidies. Unless developing world farmers can farm cotton organically they can’t make a living from it and will be forced to abandon cotton farming altogether.
If farmers grow cotton organically they increase their revenue 50% because of a 40% drop in the cost of inputs (fertilizers and pesticides), and a 20% premium for organic cotton.
The fashion industry as a whole is too lazy, too ignorant and too disinterested in fair trade and the environmental issues surrounding its sourcing of raw materials and manufacturing. It makes too much money from the low cost of outsourced cheap labour to be interested in making a change. Only pressure from the consumer in the form of boycott of unacceptable materials and manufacturing processes can make it change.
The industry is unwilling to change the way it works. People say that organic cotton will be too expensive, but the truth is that the value to the farmer of the cotton in a t-shirt is 4-5% of the retail value, so if he gets 20% more it puts 1% on the price of a t-shirt. This is hardly a prohibitive in cost, and it can make the difference between survival and the extinction of eleven million farmers in Africa and a further 90 million farmers in the rest of the developing world.
People ask, “Can ethical and environmental clothing become as popular as organic food?” – Why not? 75% of Marks & SpencerÂ´s 15 million customers have ethical and environmental concerns when purchasing [source: M&S]. It may be a lot easier to care about people you love than have concern for people of a different culture who live 3,000 miles away, but it needs to be even more popular and firmly entrenched in the mainstream, as the issues it deals with, affect our global environment and economies, the health of 100 million farmers, our rivers, eco systems, seas, climate change, and the lives of a sixth of the worldÂ´s population.
By insisting on organic cotton and fair pay for garment workers and by paying 1% more for a t-shirt, you can change the world and make it a better and safer place.