Monday, 28 February 2011

Ethical Fashion Dilemmas: #3 Should I be buying cotton from developing countries?

Q: Is it ethical to buy cotton from developing countries?

I am concerned that by creating demand for cotton, farmers in developing countries are forced to give up land which would otherwise be used for growing food.
Ms. Wilson, Northants

A: Firstly, this depends on a definition of developing countries. There are 18 least-developed countries (LDCs - as classified by the UN), that grow cotton in Africa and three in Asia; Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Cambodia.1
In these countries, cotton is generally a smallholder crop grown by the rural poor. Cotton accounts for around 40% of West Africa’s exports, which brings in much needed cash for things like education and healthcare that subsistence farming alone cannot provide for.2,3


Their cotton exports are under threat though. Cotton growers in America, China, and Europe, are subsidised by their governments, giving them an advantage over farmers in LDCs in Africa and Asia. A recent report by the Fairtrade Foundation, 'The Great Cotton Stitch-Up', discussed this issue in detail. Four countries in West Africa, that grow 4% of the global cotton crop, are being priced out of the market by these (mainly American) subsidies. This is despite being able to grow cotton far more cheaply than anywhere else in the world, since it's 'rain-fed' and needs no irrigation.
Oxfam calculates that by removing US cotton subsidies, an average household income in West Africa would be boosted by up to 9% - enough to feed a million people.3

Pesticides in cotton

Readers will no doubt be aware of the shocking statistic that cotton, grown on 2.5% of agricultural land, uses 10% of the world's pesticides and 22.5% of insecticides.6 And according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, developing countries account for less than 30% of global pesticide consumption, but an estimated 99% of pesticide induced deaths occur here.2

The solutions already exist

The reality is that you're unlikely to be able to trace the farmer who grew the cotton your t-shirt is made from. Clothing supply chains are long and complicated, making this task near-impossible.
However, due to regular assessment for certification purposes, the production phase of organic and Fairtrade cotton supply chains, (from planting seeds to ginning) are far more traceable than conventional.5

The organic growing system relies on co-planting and crop rotation to repel pests and maintain the natural fertility of the soil. This has an added benefit, as it means farmers' incomes are not solely reliant on one crop. Organically-managed soil is naturally healthier and better able to retain water.
According to Pan-UK, African cotton farmers grow over 20 different food crops alongside cotton, including cereals nuts and vegetables. Some are staple foods, the surplus of which can be sold at local or regional markets and some can be exported.4

Organic farmers can receive an organic premium for their crops, which isn't guaranteed but can amount to roughly 20% more. Added to that they don't have to shell out a fortune for pesticides and insecticides – which accounts for approximately 60% of the cost of producing conventional cotton.5 Since their food crops are also organic, they can also receive an organic premium for these.


The Fairtrade Foundation seeks to create trading opportunities for small farmers who are marginalised by the conventional trading system. It aims to build sustainable livelihoods for these communities. Fairtrade cotton is not pesticide-free, but the certification system does ban the most harmful ones and encourage integrated crop management and biological alternatives wherever possible and the use of GM seeds is prohibited.3 Many Fairtrade producers choose to convert to organic too, to get the higher prices. Farmers earn a Fairtrade minimum price and a premium on top
which is invested back into the community for things such as healthcare and education. They can also request advance payment of up to 60% of the purchase price of their crops.

However, converting to organic production is a lengthy (2-3years) and expensive process, especially since during this time farmers can't get the organic premium for their crops. Some companies, such as Kuyichi, are addressing this directly, by buying in-conversion cotton to help encourage farmers to convert their production. One of the aims of the People Tree Foundation, the charitable arm of the clothing company, is to increase access to organic growing methods.


So, it can be ethical to buy cotton from developing countries. Organic and in-conversion organic and Fairtrade cotton help provide a sustainable livelihood for the poorest counties, and build up an infrastructure for the future.

And the even better news is that today marks the first day of Fairtrade Fortnight, meaning there are tonnes of Fairtrade bargains to be had!

Here's a few for starters:

Happy shopping!

1. 2. 
3. The Great Cotton Stitch-Up, p.10, Fairtrade Foundation 2010 
4 Hibiscus, cashew and cotton – what's the common thread?, Pan-UK, 2009
5 My Sustainable T-Shirt, Pan-UK, 2010 6 viewed 24/1/11

Images : Trevor Leighton

Saturday, 19 February 2011

The incredible disappearing sneaks...

Not wanting to morph into yet another blogvertiser, I don't normally post about branded products on here. Unless that is, they represent a possible new frontier for low-impact apparel...
Well, here's an almost no-impact invention - biodegradable trainers. About time really.
This is a great idea from OAT shoes though, so much so that I'll even excuse the brand for its frankly embarrassing catwalk show.
(I can't help thinking that if we're looking for eco-fashion to fit in amongst the mainstream, having models push wheelbarrows full of soil and saplings down the runway in their pants is not the best strategy!)

How amazing would it be to whip off your half disintegrated, cheesy old sneaks and lob them into the compost heap, knowing that in a few months time they'll be pushing up the spuds. To be honest I suspect that some of my old pumps could've dissolved into nothing once I was finished with them, biodegradable or not... Especially in those sporty years (remember those?!). Seriously though, a shoe that leaves literally no trace is a fine prospect.

The PVC and other synthetic materials typically used to fabricate cheap shoes, all stuck together with poisonous shoe glue, create a toxic cocktail. Workers sticking shoes together for long shifts often have no choice but to breathe it in. Factories can be poorly ventilated too which hardly helps.

The other day I was killing time out of the rain in a Matalan store. As I walked round the chemical stench was so strong that I could smell the shoe section before I could see it. As someone who gets headaches from using marker pens (writing, not sniffing), I imagined then how shoe-makers must feel after a 12-hour shift.

Speaking of the workers, I don't see any info on the OAT website about who makes their shoes. They're currently redeveloping their site, so perhaps that's to follow soon... I'll give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

For us in the UK (OAT are from Amsterdam), Ethletic trainers are about 98% compostable. Plus they're made with organic and Fairtrade certified cotton and use FSC ceritified natural rubber for the soles. The only component that is not biodegradable is the metal eyelets. For anyone keen on trying a pair, they have a special offer on over Fairtrade Fortnight (28th Feb - 13th March) - enter the code Fortnight2011 to get 40% off.

As for the mainstream, lots of trainer manufacturers now are taking steps to eliminate PVC and toxic solvent-based glues from their products. This is good news for workers. But these shoes still wouldn't disappear down at the dump. Now that Oat shoes have proved it's possible, let's have more biodegradable sneaks please!

 Read more about trainers, the environment and workers here:

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Damn that blasted deadly denim...

Yet another fashion faux pas...

Didn't think those figure-sculpting faded thighs and pocket creases were doing any harm? Alas, not so. Fact is, they're deadly. 
Sandblasting, the process of making a denim garment appear twenty years older than it really is, involves a cruel and damaging process which can cause death.

Image sourced from
Until recently, sandblasting hasn't been much discussed, but the Clean Clothes Campaign has now launched a backlash against this frankly unecessary process.
You don't need to be an expert in construction or DIY to understand the term - it  does exactly what it says on the tin. Abrasive sand is blasted against garments at high pressure to wear away the dye and roughen the surface.

Image sourced from

Unfortunately for the workers involved, it can cause an acute form of the deadly lung disease silicosis. It is an occupational disease caused by inhaling crystalline silica dust. Miners were the first sufferers. Post-industrialisation, it gets pneumatic drill and sandblasting operators.

In Turkey alone, 46 documented cases of sandblasters contracting and dying of silicosis have been registered. CCC says this is probably just the tip of the iceberg. With many jeans being made in small workshops in countries like Bangladesh, Egypt, China, Turkey, Brazil and Mexico, health and safety standards can be low. However, the CCC is calling for an outright ban, saying that the process is just too dangerous, and that the full negative effects are not yet known.

Image sourced from

Levis, H&M and Esprit have already banned the process. Help the CCC to push more companies to follow suit:

  • Since January, the CCC website has had the facility for all owners of a pair of jeans to send messages to jeans companies that refuse to ban sandblasting.
  • You can also sign the appeal here.

Or here's another idea. Why not buy jeans that actually ARE twenty years old? They've already been worn in, so will probably be far more comfy.

Alternatively, if you can't stand having the memory of someone else's thighs forever etched onto your own, how about raw denim? It's the ultimate in personalised leg-wear, plus there's an added bonus if you don't like doing laundry.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Friday, 11 February 2011

What's your favourite cottonseed brand?

If a certain company has its way, this is a question you'll be asking fellow shoppers in a "mall" near you soon... 

I was alarmed to read this story last week, which reports that some clothes and home furnishings are now to bear cottonseed brand logos. 

Don't quite know what a cottonseed brand is? Well, it's a sad truth that the vast majority of cotton comes from patented seed varieties, owned by multinational corpbastards such as Bayer CropScience (the company concerned here). The name alone is enough to strike fear into the heart of any environmentalist. Here's why: 

Under a ten-year agreement, New-York based apparel and textiles company Olah Inc has an exclusive license to develop and market two Bayer cotton seed brands in North America, Mexico and Japan. Bayer is attempting to rebrand this PR offensive as an exercise in traceability – suggesting that it will give customers peace of mind as to the origin of the cotton in their t-shirt.

Well, if there’s a FiberMax or Stoneville cottonseed label in your garment, we can tell you where that cotton is most likely to come from - America. These two Bayer cottonseed brands are grown on over half of all U.S. cotton acres.
“According to the recent U.S. Department of Agriculture acreage report, FiberMax and Stoneville cotton seed brands represent 39 percent and 11.2 percent of the total U.S. market share, respectively.”

Funny that, an American chemical-turned-genetic-science corporation, paying a huge American apparel company to promote its largely American-grown cottonseed brands.

 So, what's the problem? 
Image sourced from
The Fairtrade Foundation’s recent report “The Great Cotton Stitch-Up” exposes the extent to which subsidies for American cotton growers price poor farmers from West Africa and other countries out of the market. Biotech-beast Bayer and an American apparel heavyweight touting these cottonseed brands to consumers strives for nothing other than global domination. By creating familiarity with these brands, they no doubt intend that in time consumers will begin asking for FiberMax and Stoneville t-shirts in shops. They hanker after the brand-snobbery which typically surrounds family favourites, a la beans means….

But alas, that’s not all of our Bayer-blues. With its trademark disregard for the future of the ecosystem, perhaps this corporation’s most worrying endeavour is its exploitation of our most valuable asset – seeds. As the New Internationalist’s recent special issue on seeds (which is well worth a read) stated:

“In just the past decade or so, three giant chemical corporations (Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer respectively) have taken control of close to half of the world’s commercial crop-seed market.”

Seed patents allow companies like Bayer to charge money for something that should be free, provided by nature. The patents mean farmers are forced by law to pay for new Bayer seeds each season, rather than saving their own from their crops. For a small farmer, this can mean a constant battle with bankruptcy.

McCotton, anyone?

Not only have they commodified one of our most natural yet precious resources, but these cottonseeds are also patented genetically modified strains, with inbuilt pest resistance. The spread of these genetics has unknown future implications for the balance of our ecosystem, and is out of human control. FiberMax and Stoneville cotton growers will still need to apply chemicals to their branded crops mind. But they needn’t fear, as Bayer will supply those too. All specifically designed for the pest resistance they didn’t build in to their seeds. 

Don’t pay Bayer

So, may I suggest we avoid FiberMax and Stoneville cotton like the plague? (Luckily, this labelling lark makes it easy for us!). 
Instead of paying Bayer to sell farmers what was never rightfully theirs, spend your money on Fairtrade-labelled clothes and textiles. Funnel your cash towards small-scale, and more sustainable cotton growers, where it can make a positive impact on the community and on the environment.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Oxfam fash-up vintage

Oxfam do brilliant things with second-hand clothing. They've found ways to exploit almost every niche market for their stuff, from selling fluffy black moon boots at goth gigs to partnering with Marks & Spencer. They're able to do this because they recognise the importance of putting resources into sorting their clothing into different types, styles, qualities and conditions.

Oxfam has to be at least partly responsible for second-hand and vintage clothing becoming cool. So this new ad of theirs is really just an extension of this work. Still, I think it's absolutely brilliant. Working with Mark Roalfe as creative director and Dan Hubert as art director, this campaign has been devised to pull in the committed fashion crowd. Here's one of the three videos:

As well as the videos, they've produced a series of glam photographic ads, all shot by renowned fashion photographer Robert Erdmann. Each features unique vintage outfits sourced from Oxfam shops and will be published in high-end fashion mags. See some behind-the-scenes shots here.

I love hearing tales of how the little guy triumphs by subverting expensive public ad campaigns (Banksy and Adbusters are my heroes). These aren't quite a subverts, but in adopting mainstream fashion's language and imagery, it puts vintage and second-hand clothing right up there alongside it.

Plus there's something incredibly heart warming about an expensive ad campaign being made for a garment which someone threw out decades ago. Fan.