The clothing, shoe and textile industry is one of the largest in the world. It is responsible for enormous pollution and environmental destruction. The industry uses more water than any other, apart from agriculture. It discharges toxic chemicals into the environment, including massive quantities of dioxins (the world’s number one pathogen) and heavy metals. It is responsible for enormous amounts of CO2 from manufacturing, transport and unnecessary air travel, and greenhouse gas emissions from chemical fertilisers in cotton agriculture. It is squandering the planet.
The clothing industry employs a billion people (one in six of the world’s population). Labour and pay conditions for millions of garment, shoe and textile workers in South East Asia, China, Mexico and Central and South America, are appalling. Twelve- to 18-hour shifts and seven day weeks are the norm and trade unions are rare or illegal. Workers are predominately young women and pregnancy is discouraged, often with enforced abortions.
The situation of cotton agriculture in the developing world is catastrophic. Cotton uses 10 per cent of the world’s pesticides and 16 per cent of insecticides. According to the World Health Organization, pesticides cause 20,000 deaths per year from accidental poisonings. They also result, according to the Pesticide Action Network, in three million acute poisonings per year and 200,000 suicides, many due to farmers’ debt. Farmers in the developing world are given virtually no information on the dangers of the pesticides (often banned in Europe and the USA) that they are sold – noteven the need to wear protective clothing.
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 pesticides from the broker. If they can’t afford their prices, the brokers have set up banks that will lend them the money – at 10 per cent interest – which must be repaid within a year. If they can’t repay the loan because the crop fails – eg, due to lack of rain – the banks foreclose and take their tools and bicycles, leaving them unable to continue farming. They leave their land for the cities, sending a little money home and, on their occasional trips back home to their villages, often bringing HIV with them as well.
In Mali in 2003, I asked a farmer, ‘What is the downside of growing conventional cotton?’ He replied, ‘When we have sold our crop we have nothing left.’ I asked, ‘What is the upside of growing cotton organically?’ He said, ‘When we have sold the crop all the money is ours and we have our health.’
It is unarguably better for farmers to grow cotton organically. They increase their income by 50 per cent because of a 40 per cent drop in the cost of inputs (fertilisers and pesticides) and a 20 per cent premium on organic cotton. It enables them to feed themselves, school their children, afford healthcare and dig wells. By making agriculture viable it helps to stop migration to cities and thereby helps to stop the spread of HIV.
People say organic cotton will be too expensive, but the truth is that the value to the farmer of the cotton in a T-shirt is four to five per cent of the retail value, so if he gets 20 per cent more it puts one per cent on the price of a T-shirt. This is hardly prohibitive in cost, but can make the difference between the survival and the extinction of millions of farmers in Africa and the rest of the developing world. There is no such thing as cheap clothes: the true price is paid in human and environmental degradation at the bottom of the supply chain. The only thing that can save these people is to somehow make a change in the way that clothes are made. Research shows that consumers are prepared to buy goods that are ethically and environmentally produced but if only they are at the same price as conventional ones.
When Tesco approached me to do a fairtrade organic cotton range, I was amazed but I also thought I was walking into the jaws of hell. Many NGOs that I work with will not work with large manufacturers even if the project is a good one. I think this is a mistake. Even if it were to be tokenism I was still prepared to do it. Every little helps, as they say. If people are doing the right thing, I don’t care if it’s for the wrong reasons: how will they ever change if they are not helped and encouraged to try?
Nonetheless, I was only prepared to do it on my own terms, and with the most stringent contractual terms you could imagine, with a very high degree of transparency. Tesco has agreed to adhere to the Katharine Hamnett environmental standards included in the contract compiled by KATHARINE E HAMNETT, in consultation with the following industry experts: Society of Dyers and Colourists, SGS, Dystar, Ciba and Marks & Spencer; standards and guidelines: the Soil Association Textile Standard, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), EU Eco-label, Greenpeace REACH campaign – OSPAR commission list of ‘Priority Action’ chemicals, Oeko-tex 100, Skal, Eco cert, FTO (Fairtrade organisation) and FTO organic; and the following bodies and legislation: ETAD (Ecological and Toxicological Association of Dyes and Organic Pigments Manufacturers) and EU directives.
Tesco will sign contracts directly with the farmers, giving them a fair price for their organic cotton, and has also agreed to manufacture in actual compliance with the ETI labour code, which is not normally compulsory.
Clare Lissaman, an independent consultant on labour standards and ethical trade and who was also a director of Rugmark, a social labour initiative, helped us to write the labour standards in our contract, and included multi-stakeholder auditing, which will ensure that these standards are adhered to. None of the Choose Love range will be made in China, where private trade unions are illegal.
If companies like Tesco insist, as a prerequisite to doing business with a cotton mill or garment factory, that its workers are properly paid and treated and that monitoring systems are in place to ensure that this is so, it sends a clear message to other factories and mills who want the gigantic orders that Tesco can place: that they have to do the same or lose out.
The only way that people will produce ethically and environmentally is if they can make money out of it. If Tesco can make money out of it, other manufacturers will do the same.
I saw this collaboration as an opportunity to raise the bar on manufacturing conditions and, given the huge volumes of organic cotton that Tesco could consume, insisting that garment workers are paid and treated properly could potentially go a long way to radically improving the lives of millions of people.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2007