Monthly Archives: September 2009

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Deadly White Gold

When you’ve got a bargain, do you think about who’s paid for it?

When I buy underwear, I ask myself  “is the cotton used to make this organic cotton?” If it isn’t organic, I follow up with a series of sub-questions tripping around “what permanently debilitating condition does the farmer who grew this have?” and “which pesticide gave it to him?”

Actually, I don’t. And nor, I suspect, do you. I give the style a cursory glance, determine if I would be proud to have it hanging around the house to dry, and check the price tag. And check if my bum would look big in it.

The source, the origin, whether a farmer has a debilitating condition or if he got paid a fair price for his hard labour…that matters little when I’m choosing a triangular piece of cloth I hope won’t show me up when I next pull. Pesticides? The last thing on my mind when I have Visible Panty Line to consider.

Shruthi, an endosulfan victim in Kerala

Shruthi, an endosulfan victim in Kerala

Pesticides are toxic chemicals sprayed on crops to kill “pests”…or any other living thing that can damage those crops. Insecticides kill insects, herbicides kill weeds. So on. So forth.

Hazardous chemicals associated with global cotton production also kill little fishies and get into the drinking water. Chemicals are known to contaminate freshwater rivers in America, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa.

Despite a ban across 62 countries and a pledge by its primary manufacturer, Bayer, to cease its distribution, a ‘persistent organic pollutant’ known as endosulfan is in widespread use on crops from cotton, soy, coffee, tea, and vegetables. Its ban is due to its high toxicity to humans (among other living organisms) and its knockweed-like knack of not just keeping pests away, but everything else that may do the environment a bit of good.

On humans, endosulfan can cause “convulsions, psychiatric disturbances, epilepsy, paralysis, brain oedema, impaired memory and death.” Spend too much time around it – like cotton growers in India and West Africa – and you run the risk of immuno suppression, neurological disorder, birth defects, chromosomal abnormalities, and significantly decreased mental capacity.

Aldicarb, a nerve agent, is one of the most toxic pesticides applied to cotton. A teaspoon on the skin is enough to kill an adult. Yet it is the second most used pesticide in cotton production.

Despite pesticide prevalence among non-organic cotton growers, chances are you won’t be able to detect it in your underwear or t-shirt. All traceability gets lost at the spinning level of production…the bit where various cotton sources are spun into fabric. So cotton ginned from Mali could end up in the same cloth as cotton ginned in India (ginning – where seeds are separated from the cotton boll – is the process that comes before the fabric is spun). This lack of traceability makes it difficult to identify which retailers import the most non-organic cotton.

For you and I, there are few if any horrific side-effects to those who wear cotton grown using pesticides, though studies show that hazardous pesticides can be detected in cotton clothing. Instead, a brown person who works with pesticides in a far flung country will get it in the neck. And in the chest. And in the bowels. And on the skin. And in the blood.

Pesticide manufacturers and distributors insist they are safe if used with the proper equipment and stored in the recommended way.

“The majority of farmers working with pesticides like endosulfan live in one room huts with their families. In that one room, the family eats, sleeps, lives,” explains Pesticide Action Network’s Damien Sanfilippo. “Everything is stored close together and it is not uncommon to see pesticide bottles next to food. Furthermore, the bottles carry a financial value. Empty bottles are sold in markets for one euro and people use them to store things like water and cooking oil. They’ve not been properly cleaned and cross contamination is common.”

Up to 99% of the world’s cotton growers live and work in the developing world. Cotton is grown as a smallholder crop by the rural poor and few can afford the protective chemical suits pesticide manufacturers say should be used with their products. Even if a suit is acquired, working for ten hours in a field in 40-degree heat and humidity in what is effectively a plastic bag doesn’t make for a happy farmer.

According to the World Health Organisation, 1 – 5 million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year. Of that, 20,000 agricultural workers die and over a million require hospitalisation. Over 200,000 commit suicide.

Other culprits in the pesticide family include monocotophos and deltamethrin. Disgustingly, the former was withdrawn from the US market in 1989 as it can cause paralysis in children, but is still widely used in developing countries. The latter is another nerve agent used in over half the world’s cotton producing countries. Medical analysis in a South African village near cotton farms found traces of deltamethrin in human breast milk.

Organic. A word impregnated by images of armies of yummy mummies mowing prams through Broadway Market. A mot scented by a pale indigo, Cath Kidston prints and Birkenstocks. A bit nouveau hippie, a bit aspirant middle class, a bit Womad. Not what you think of when you want to conjure the sharp, forward angles of high fashion, the slick ambient electro soundtrack of air kisses and champagne. Dahlink.

Your typical £20 t-shirt will earn a non-organic farmer 15p, 9p of which will have to go towards buying pesticides. Going organic and learning how to manage beneficial insects in the field (the ones who kill the insects nasty to cotton crops) will eliminate the need to spend that 9p. These farmers are also encouraged to grow farm system crops that not only help maintain a healthy biodiversity on the farm but offer another means to increase their incomes.

“You can look good and save the world,” insists Pants to Poverty’s Ben Ramsden. Pants to Poverty was set up as part of the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005. They make underwear. Organic underwear. And have successfully campaigned to get Bayer Crop Sciences, the world’s largest producer of endosulfan, to withdraw the pesticide from international distribution by 2010 in countries where it is still legally available. “The point behind choosing organic cotton is not to take the fun out of fashion. Clothing manufacturers make money because cotton yield increases when farmers go organic. Farmers make money because corporations pay more for their crop. And they’re healthier. It’s win win. And the best part is that the consumer is driving this ethical economy.”

UK consumers spend £23bn per year buying clothes and campaigners say it’s clear that people want organic cotton. Demand currently lies somewhere near £!bn and outstrips supply.

Designers such as Katharine Hamnett have been producing work using ethically and environmentally sourced fibres since the late 1980s. “Conventional cotton kills thousands of people every year and by using organic cotton, I can make clothes without having blood on my hands”.

Hamnett has said that although consumer demand for organic cotton is high, the market is small due to the fashion industry’s apathy and reluctance to change their production process. “The problem is that the fashion industry doesn’t care. I think the industry is more callous than the consumer. And it’s taken me a long time to find anyone interested in manufacturing clothes ethically in organic cotton. They saw it as inconvenient, they’d have to source their supply chain from scratch…. Everyone was going along happily making money without having to make any changes.”

Though there are changes afoot. Howies is a high street firm pushing for total transparency in the fashion market. They acknowledge that it’s good to do organic shirts, “but the dyeing process isn’t so nice…we’re looking to find lower impact ways of doing that.”

Supermarket chains such as Tesco and Marks and Spencers have committed to including organic cotton in their clothing ranges.

“Playing with these major corporations can be seen as a grey area as far as activists are concerned but it is the only way to ensure organic cotton is spread out as much as possible,” says PAN’s Damien Sanfilippo. “Ultimately, the farmer benefits and the environment benefits.”

In a world where 26 million tonnes of cotton is produced, its little wonder why cotton is called “white gold”. Worldwide organic cotton production increased by 152% in 2008 to just under 150k metric tonnes according to an Organic Cotton Farm and Fibre Report released by the Organic Exchange. The question of how best to dye cotton is one that stings organic campaigners in the tail. The use of dyes and their disposal, especially the ones used to make black, is still an issue that needs to be resolved.

But consumers are on message. Fashion designers are on message. Even Tesco is on message. The fashion industry, however, will have to undergo an overhaul and a rethink. If the reams produced organically can be cut and shaped into stylish designs as well as reams produced conventionally and the profits made by going organic outstrip conventional farming, the onus is on the bulk of the fashion world to pull their manicured finger out and make organic the convention.

Despite Bayer’s capitulation to a campaign group featuring a character known as the Panteater, other pesticides are still in use around the world and they still kill. Furthermore it’s bloody stupid to carry on with a method that not only impoverishes and harms communities and the environment if a more financially viable and healthier alternative is available.

Ben’s right. You can look good, and save the world.

UPDATE: A week after this article’s deadline, I received a call from Bayer Crop Science’s Dr Julian Liddle. “We stopped the manufacture of endosulfan because it was no longer financially viable. A more efficient, and safer, alternative has emerged and we are focusing on that.”

Which is?

“Genetically modified cotton.”

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This article was originally published in Who’s Jack Magazine, September 2009.

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