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The Human Impact of the Textile Industry: Pesticide Poisoning, Farmer Suicides, and how Organic and Fair Trade Can Help

In my last post, Marci Zaroff shared with us her knowledge about the toxic environmental impact of the textile industry, and today, we turn to the devastating human impact. Up to 77 million cotton workers suffer poisoning from pesticides each year, and in India, 300,000 cotton farmers have committed suicide—almost 26 a day—to escape debt.

Nadia: So, could you expand a bit more on what is being referred to as a ‘pesticide treadmill?’

Marci: So here are the hard facts. Just as germs infest on people who are weaker, when plants are sprayed with chemicals, they also get weaker. And then the soil weakens, and the eco-system isn’t building a healthy plant. So this ultimately results in less yield for the farmer.

And then, these bugs build resistance to these pesticides, and the farmers have to buy stronger and more expensive pesticides, which they can’t afford, so they have to leverage their farms to the banks. Then, as the cycle perpetuates and continues, the soil gets depleted & destroyed, the bugs get out of control, and the farmers can no longer sustain their livelihoods. Stuck in tremendous debt, many farmers are committing suicide with the very pesticides that they used on their plants. Every half an hour in India, a farmer is committing suicide. There’s an upcoming documentary called Dirty White Gold that will reveal what is now being referred to as this ‘pesticide treadmill.’

Nadia: I just read that genetically modified crops are decreasing pesticide use for farmers, is this true?

Photo courtesy of cottondon.org

Photo courtesy of cottondon.org

Marci: While there may be artificial decrease in the pesticides use in the short-term, in the long term we’re already seeing an increase in pesticide use again, because of genetic resistance and falling crop yields. Over 90% of the world’s cotton is now genetically modified (GMO), which has resulted in a monopoly for Monsanto, giving them the power to dramatically raise the prices on GMO cotton seed and the additional inputs and pesticides, which they also provide. At the mercy of these altered and chemical inputs, the GMO paradigm is not sustainable financially for farmers, and further, we are just beginning to learn of the harmful ramifications of GMO seeds in relation to human health. In addition, monocropping with GMO seeds is not only depleting the soil and its ecosystems, but risking the very survival of thousands of natural cotton varieties as well.

Nadia: And I just read that in the last year, the costs of cotton cultivation has jumped due to the rising costs of these pesticides, so it’s not as profitable as it used to be? And supposedly there have been more suicides among the farmers that have used these GM crops …

Marci: YES, these are sad facts, as stated prior.

Nadia: So you told us yesterday how organic cotton helps the earth, how does it help farmers?

Photo courtesy of cottonedon.org

Photo courtesy of cottonedon.org

Marci: Well first of all, there’s a risk with using GMO seeds. We are continuing to learn of the consequences of GMO, across many agricultural crops (food & fiber), which is why there is a huge movement towards GMO labeling in the USA. We are one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t require GMO labeling! On the contrary, since organic farming prohibits the use of any GMO seeds, organic farmers are allowed to work with their environment and economic situation in a sustainable way, while building and protecting their soil and farms. They also can diversify their crops, which allows them to diversify their income. If they have more than one crop to rely on, then it helps protect them in case there is a crop failure, market demand, etc. And of course, they don’t have to breathe in toxic pesticides that harm more than 77 million cotton farmers a year. It is devastating to see conventional cotton farmers walking thru their fields with pesticide tanks on their backs, not realizing that they are spraying poisons in their own faces. And even worse, often in the faces of their babies, who they are carrying in slings while walking their farms. They are often lured in by the seed and chemical companies. It is a tragic human situation that we can help to change by supporting the growth and market for organic cotton.

Nadia: I know you were instrumental in helping Fair Trade USA develop the first USA Fair Trade certification of textiles and will be spearheading their national launch in 2013. (Fair Trade farmers receive a minimum price for their product, covering the cost of production, with a Fair Trade premium paid in addition for investments in social, environmental or economic development projects). Could you explain a) what drives your passion for Fair Trade, and b) How it connects with your environmental/organic concerns and advocacy?

Marci: I am passionate about building community and connecting humanity.  I believe it is extremely important to be in touch with the people who grow, sew and receive our products.

Nathuram Pal, a 45-year-old farmer of Nibhghana village in Garautha tehsil of Bundelkhand region, committed suicide by hanging himself with a ‘Babool’ tree on the night of 18th June. He was under pressure to pay back the loan of Rs 12,000 taken from the coopertive bank and another Rs 40,000 taken from the local people.

Nathuram Pal, a 45-year-old farmer of Bundelkhand region, committed suicide when he couldn’t pay the loan of Rs 12,000 taken from the coopertive bank and another Rs 40,000 taken from the local people (Full article here).

When you look at the triple bottom business model, which is ‘people, planet, profit,’ in textiles, much of the attention has been put on planet. But, as the example of the Indian farmers demonstrates, it’s also about people. When you start to work with people, the environmental ramifications are serious because they are being exposed to the toxins, and they can’t sustain their livelihoods. They can’t afford to feed their families. The cycle of fast fashion has driven costs down so low, that consumers only want extremely cheap clothing. So the question is, how do we create a more efficient supply chain where farmers can share grievances and are paid fairly? Where American consumers can understand that their clothing isn’t growing & made in their department store, but instead that people’s lives are being affected by the products and brands they are buying and supporting?

What Fair Trade does is to create an account for these farmers and/or factory workers so that they have a forum to voice their concerns. Marry that with the orders that the USA companies are placing. When you add the Fair Trade premium to the account, the farmers and/or workers can be paid “bonuses” that equate to a living wage, while also using their funds to invest into important and much needed community development initiatives such as education and health care.

And Fair Trade and Organic definitely compliment each other because not only are farmers getting paid more, their health is also being protected from the adverse effects of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and they don’t have to pay the extra money on these pesticides. Nearly half of Fair Trade Certified products that were imported into the USA in the last few years were certified organic.

Organic cotton farmers in India don't have to worry about pesticides damaging their health. India is the largest supplier of organic cotton, accounting for 80% of global production.

Organic cotton farmers in India don’t have to worry about pesticides damaging their health. India is the largest supplier of organic cotton, accounting for 80% of global production.

Nadia: What does the Fair Trade USA Garment and Textile certification ensure?

Marci: It protects both cotton farmers and/or factories from wage exploitation and terrible working conditions. A new model for living wages has been built in on top of the basic social standards (no child labor, fair working conditions, etc.) that have already been implemented by many USA companies. Farms and factories are checked periodically. It gives them premiums (funds) that are for community and social investment. So let’s say a company in the USA, like Under the Canopy, for example, bought Fair Trade Certified items from an Indian factory for $100. We would pay a percentagesomewhere between 5-10%- into a fund that the workers would control. Then, as a collective, the workers would decide where to invest their moneyin health care, the building of a school, child care, etc. We would then, in turn, be able to monitor and measure these specific impacts, to communicate back to our customers and loyal consumers. It is our job to offset some of those premiums in other creative ways, such as enhanced design, product innovation, and by creating efficiencies in our supply chain.

For Fair Trade flower farmers in Ecuador, the Fair Trade premium supports education for their children (photo courtesy of oneworldflowers.org).

For Fair Trade flower farmers in Ecuador, the Fair Trade premium supports education for their children (photo courtesy of oneworldflowers.org).

Nadia: I recently read that Fair Trade cotton is grown by 37 certified cotton farmer groups in 10 countries, and that in Mali, 95 percent of children of Fair Trade farmers go to school, which is more than double the national average for school attendance in a very poor country.

Marci: Yes, buying and supporting Fair Trade Certified products is truly affecting positive change in the lives of others in our global community. When I am in these projects, with the farmers and workers making our products, I am fueled by these efforts towards social justice, knowing that “like water for chocolate”, the happy energy of our growers and/or makers is in the soul, or DNA, of my brands.

 Nadia: One of the really cool things about companies that work with fair trade artisans is that they absorb the costs of any discounts they may be having. Like, I can get a ring 25% off, and the artisan is still paid in full.

Marci:

Farmers and factory workers shouldn’t have to suffer when other people win.

But that’s how the current system works. We have to look at every way we can support farmers and factory workers. The minimum wage isn’t enough to sustain a family of four in most countries, so these efforts will support our partners’ basic needs (which is different for each country.) With the recent fire in the Bangladesh apparel factory where over 112 workers died due to poor working conditions, it is clearly imperative that we protect our fellow humanity.

Also, while I think Fair Trade is essential, if our cultural tendency is for faster, cheaper, “more” consumption, it will remain a challenge to balance market demand with a more sustainable model. Education & awareness are paramount and the time is NOW.

The impact of organic cotton farming and Fair Trade on people’s lives:

Additional Resources:

  • Want to learn more about Fair Trade? Here’s a primer.
  • Want to see how Indian farmers are growing organic cotton on their farms? Click here.
  • Need help finding brands that use organic cotton? Check out this link.
  • Organic cotton grown in the United States? Watch here.

My Related Posts:

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Are Our Clothes Toxic? Marci Zaroff, Eco Fashion Trailblazer, Weighs In

Did you know that:

  • A recent study of 20 name brands revealed that clothing companies like Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Zara, contain traces of hazardous, potentially cancer-causing chemicals?
  • More than 8,000 toxic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which are carcinogenic, corrosive or include biologically-modifying reagents?
  • Producing one pair of jeans requires more than 1,800 gallons of water?
  • Bamboo is actually a synthetic fiber that some companies market to appear more environmentally friendly?
  • The average U.S. citizen throws away 68 pounds of clothing per year, with 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste ending up in our landfills annually?
  • 20 percent of the world’s industrial fresh water pollution comes from textile treatment & dyeing?
  • More than one trillion kilowatt hours are used annually in the global textile industry, representing more than 10% of the world’s carbon footprint?
  • Every half hour, a cotton farmer in India is committing suicide by drinking the very pesticides that he uses on his crops?

ZaroffI certainly didn’t until recently, and as I leaned more, I started to feel disillusioned with an industry that I began to realize was not just exploitative in its labor practices, but environmentally toxic. To help me navigate through the overwhelming amount of information out there on the topic, I talked with Marci Zaroff, a true trailblazer in the sustainable fiber and fashion industry. In 1995, Zaroff coined the term ‘Eco Fashion,’ as a way to fuse the glamorous world of fashion with environmental and social responsibility, and that phrase has now turned into a six billion dollar industry. Zaroff has also helped to define and draft the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the first USA Fair Trade certification for textiles with Fair Trade USA. Currently expanding her pioneering Eco Fashion lifestyle brand “Under the Canopy,” while working on her upcoming sustainable fashion brand FASE, as well as the documentary Thread, which she hopes will educate citizens on the environmental and human impacts of fashion & textile production, she is a true wealth of knowledge on the subject. For this first part of a three-part series, I wanted to focus more on the toxic environmental impact that the textile industry has on the environment and on ourselves before turning to the human costs on Friday. Then we will discuss how to gauge which companies are truly transparent in their sustainable practices and which ones are just greenwashing, and how to best move forward with the movement.

Nadia: So could you tell us a bit more about what motivated your passion to educate others about environmental issues and “Eco-Fashion?”

Marci: I am passionate about education, innovation, building community and connecting humanity. I have always felt a deep sense of global responsibility, and the foundation of many of my efforts over the last two decades is built under the notion that we are all interconnected, that we are all part of the same eco-system. The first eco-fashion brand that I started in 1996 is called “Under the Canopy,” and the premise is that we all live under the canopy of the planet’s eco-system together. The Native American philosophy is to protect our canopy, to protect life, for generations, which can best be expressed through the saying, “We do not inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” If you’ve ever been to any of the rainforests in the world, you’d know that the canopy is the top layer of the rainforest. So there is more life under the canopy of the earth’s rainforests than anywhere in the world, and it is that very life, and those eco-systems, that provide the oxygen that we all depend on to exist.

Who knew that something so cute could be so toxic?

Who knew that something so cute could be so toxic?

So going back over the past 20 years, as I worked with the natural food and beauty industries, I gained a deeper understanding of the relationship within agriculture, and that you can’t support one part of the equation without the other. In agriculture, all of the crops that grow, especially if you are growing organically, they’re very much interconnected. One of the main foundations of organic agriculture is crop rotation, and one of the main crops that are rotated is cotton. 60 percent of a cotton plant ends up going into the food chain—for oils, for bread products. If you read the back of many packaged products on the market today, they will have cottonseed oil as an ingredient. As I started to learn about the connection between food and fiber and the harmful chemicals used at all stages of the textile industry, I wanted to pull the curtain back, shift the paradigm, and offer consumers more sustainable choices. I was disillusioned when I discovered that the manufacturing processes of conventional textiles are extraordinarily toxic. When I started to learn the impact that conventional textiles were having, both from the fiber standpoint and the manufacturing standpoint, I coined the term ‘Eco-Fashion’ because I wanted to fuse those two very dichotomous worlds together— one being ecology, eco-systems, and our connection with the environment, the other being fashion. My mission was to revolutionize the fashion industry and demonstrate that those two worlds were not mutually exclusive.

Nadia: It was so surprising to learn how toxic cotton was. I mean, I had always thought of cotton as a ‘natural’ fiber!

A model wearing an oxygen mask, walks along a make-shift catwalk during a fashion show organized by environmental group Greenpeace titled 'Toxic Threads - The Big Fashion Stitch-Up', in Beijing November 20, 2012. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray)

A model wearing an oxygen mask, walks along a make-shift catwalk during a fashion show organized by environmental group Greenpeace titled ‘Toxic Threads – The Big Fashion Stitch-Up’, in Beijing November 20, 2012. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray)

Marci: It’s not. In fact, conventional cotton is one of the world’s leading sources of air and water pollution! Even though conventional cotton represents less that 3% of the world’s agriculture, it uses as much as 25% of the most harmful insecticides, and up to 10% of the most toxic pesticides to grow it! It is also incredibly wasteful in the amount of water that it uses—100 gallons to make one pound, and almost 3% of the world’s yearly water usage. In fact, not only does it take 700 gallons of fresh water to make just one cotton T-short, but in 2009, the world used three trillion gallons of fresh water to produce 60 billion kilograms of cotton fabric. Furthermore, other harsh chemicals, such as chlorine bleaches and formaldehyde, are used in conventional cotton production processes.

Victoria's Secret, named in Greenpeace's Study for containing chemical residue in their clothing

Victoria’s Secret, named in Greenpeace’s Study for containing chemical residue in their clothing, is parodied in an ad.

Nadia: Well, and I can’t believe the chemicals that are released to make our clothes! I recently read in Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed that making synthetic fibers such as rayon, viscose, acetate, cupro, and even bamboo requires treating substances like wood pulp and scrap cotton with toxic chemicals. And then I learned from this recent study released by Greenpeace, which tested 20 brands such as Calvin Klein, Levi’s Victoria’s Secret and Zara, that several of the hazardous chemicals found in the garments contained toxic phthalates and even cancer-causing amines from the use of certain dyes!

So what is different about organic cotton?

Marci: In order to have organic food crops, you have to nurture and build the soil, versus conventional agriculture where you are depleting and destroying the soil via poisonous sprays and monocropping, which is when you grow a single crop year after year on the same land. These healthier soils make better use of water inputs and are more resilient in drought conditions. Also, when you eliminate synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the water pollution impact from organic cotton is 98% less than non-organic cotton production, and it produces 94% less greenhouse gas emissions.

Nadia: So can you point us to other sustainable fabrics to look for?

Marci: Tencel from Lenzing, which I am rebranding as ‘ECOlyptus,’ is the cellulose that’s extracted from the eucalyptus plant, grown without water on non-arable land, broken down by a non-toxic, recycled detergent, and manufactured in an efficient closed-loop system that takes minimal energy. It feels like silk and is three times stronger than cotton. Recycled Poly is a great alternative to conventional polyester, which is made with fossil fuels, using an enormous amount of energy.

Nadia: What is recycled poly made with?

Marci: Recycled Poly takes recycled plastic bottles out of landfills and turns them into fiber. There’s a recycled poly yarn fabric called Repreve made by a company in North Carolina called Unifi. In 2012, this company kept 900 million plastic bottles out of landfills in one year! It’s really amazing.

Nadia: Do you have any online suggestions for good eco-fashion information and retailers?

Marci: Compassion Couture, Coco Eco MagazineEco Fashion World, EcouterreECOfabulous, Ethica, Ethical In Style, Fashioning Change, Fashion-Conscience, Honest by, Indigenous, Inhabitat, Magnifeco, Modavanti and People Tree are just a few of the resources out there!

For future updates on Under the Canopy, FASE & Portico, as well as other Eco Fashion ventures, check out Marci’s website at marcizaroff.com.

Stay tuned for the second part of our interview, where Marci will provide more information on the human impact behind the conventional textile manufacturing process!

How cotton production has eradicated the Aral Sea and poisoned its workers:

How Patagonia uses recycled soda bottles and fibers such as hemp to make their clothes:

My Related Posts:

Ethical Fashion: Introduction to an Ongoing Series

The iPhone 5 and the Latest Technology: Why We Consume at the Expense of Others

 

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