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Looking good, being good

Posted on January 24, 2004

It’s like that old joke about the shortest books in the world (Italian War Heroes, Swiss Comedians etc etc). “Ethical Fashion” could be the shortest story in the world because it really doesn’t exist.

There are ethical clothes — baggy, beige T-shirts made in Third World worker co-operatives from organic Fairtrade cotton — but not proper fashion.

OK, there are pockets of conscience. Vegetarian Stella McCartney with her stand against fur and leather. Easton Pearson manufacturing all their clothes (apart from the Indian embroidery) in Queensland. Err … and then my mind goes blank.

That’s not to say the fashion world is totally devoid of conscience. There is a lot of tireless work for AIDS and breast cancer charities, but when it comes to the real business of fashion, everything about it is fundamentally counter to current ethical concerns.

It is an industry based on fuelling consumption for things which are defined by their built-in obsolescence; on making people want things they don’t need and buy more than they can really afford; and on seducing us into believing that owning a material object can change our lives.

It is certainly one of fashion’s ironies that while spending $100,000 on a single dress might seem the very apogee of its decadence, it is at the peak of the fashion mountain that you will find the most ethical employment conditions. The “petite mains” (little hands) working in Paris couture salons are treated very differently from the almost slave labour in some Asian clothing factories. The Parisian master craftspeople are valued for their skills and the couture customer can pay the price for it.

It is at the other end of the market where the real horrors lurk. The current trend for cheaper and cheaper great clothes — which I confess I have been guilty of promoting in these pages — marvellous fun as it is for the Western consumer, is inevitably linked to terrible conditions for the people who make them. If we’re not paying for it — someone else is. Sorry if I’ve just ruined the jolly weekend shopping spree you were looking forward to, but that is the fact of it.

And it gets worse. Before you even get on to the conditions in a Thai sports shoe factory and the problem of knowing which big brands really use the ethical labour they — or rather, their contractors — claim, there are the environmental nightmares associated with the textile industry.

Take cotton — actually, don’t. Because the world’s favourite “natural” fibre is not, in fact, “pure and simple” as we have grown up to believe. Lovely as it is to wear and sleep in, cotton is one of the most pest-prone of crops, meaning that to produce it cheaply in industrial quantities, enormous amounts of chemicals have to be thrown at it.

About 150 grams of pesticides are used to cultivate the cotton for one T-shirt (that’s the equivalent of one cup, and it takes two and a half cups for a pair of jeans) so perhaps it’s not surprising that, according to a 1995 report into the industry by Allen Woodburn Associates, a quarter of all the world’s insecticides are used each year to grow cotton.

And when you add in the various soil sterilisers, fumigants, herbicides and defoliants also used to grow this “natural” fibre, we are talking about some of the most deadly chemicals in the world. According to the World Health Organisation, 20,000 people die each year in developing countries as a result of sprays used on non-organic cotton. In Benin, West Africa, 24 people died as a direct result of poisoning from cotton pesticides in 2000, including 11 children.

And that’s just the agricultural part of the textile cycle. At least 8000 chemicals are used at the next stage of processing, to turn raw material into clothes, towels, bedding etc, and some of the substances involved are known to be harmful to human health and wildlife, say environmentalists William McDonough and Dr Michael Braungart.

How are feeling about your “pure” cotton T-shirt now? Of course, all that chemical business happens before the shirt gets on your back and, like so many eco nightmares that are happening somewhere else, it’s easy to block it out.

But there is a growing sense of concern that the chemical toxicity associated with cotton production might not stop at the soil and unfortunate Third World labourers.

Call it the nicotine patch construct, but there is a body of thought that says by having such a highly processed product next to our skin we may absorb residues — such as the formaldehyde used as a dye fixer and anti-wrinkle finisher in some countries — into our bloodstreams. These uncomfortable ideas are contributing to a growing market for organically farmed cotton and naturally processed fabrics of all kinds. It might seem cranky and alarmist now, but I am certain it will one day be as normal to expect an organic option in your clothing as it is in your vegies, or your face cream.

Just like the boom in organic food, awareness of uncontaminated textiles is taking off at a grassroots level, with parents seeking organic cotton baby clothes, towels and bedding for their newborns. If we could absorb chemical residues through our gnarly adult hides, the thinking goes, how much more at risk is the superfine skin of tiny babies and their delicate systems?

It was this concern — as well as environmental impact — that prompted children’s wear designer Annette O’Donnell to launch her range of Gaia Organic Cotton baby wear in 2000. It’s now sold throughout Australia.

“I realised that the very fabric I was using was having a detrimental effect on our environment,” O’Donnell says. “I’d always thought of cotton as pure, but as I learnt it was a chemically intensive growing process, I felt the need to re-look my design direction.”

Russell Lamb and Tim Ower had a similar epiphany about the sheets and towels side of things, which they used to import in large volumes from China. They founded Eco Down Under, a gorgeous range of naturally produced and organic cotton items, sold at Holy Sheet and many other outlets, including their own store in Rozelle.

So that’s the baby and the bathroom sorted out, what about the rest of your organic cotton needs — like actual clothing? Well, this is where it gets tricky. Most of it is pretty yuk. Because Prada, Country Road et al just don’t do organic gear.

In fact, the only prominent designer I have ever known to speak out on the topic is that well-known political animal Katharine Hamnett.

“I thought we were just silly fashion designers not doing any harm, making silly clothes,” she says. “How wrong I was. I did some research into the environmental impact and it made for horrific reading.

“The [fashion] industry does not give a damn, yet research shows that consumers would prefer organic textiles if sold at the same price — and this is possible now. But no one buys sustainably produced clothes because they are worthy. They have to be desirable in their own right.

“That whole granola look has done the whole organic cotton movement a great disservice,” she says. “It’s so unnattractive, it’s foul.”

She’s right. Just as organic food has to be a more pleasant experience to eat than the processed variety, or no one would be willing to pay the premium price, organic clothes will need to be just as stylish as the conventional processed variety, or we won’t buy them.

If you hunt around on the internet, you will find some basic sportswear and underwear lines that are acceptable — for example, which brings them in from the US — but that’s about it. Sorry, I wish I had better news.

So what can we do? If we want change on this issue we have to get active.

First up, support the firms that are producing organic cotton items now because if small organic clothing companies start to do well, and there’s money to be made, the big guys will want a piece of it.

In just this way, the world’s biggest food corporations are now all creating their own organic brands; so the organic pasta sauce you buy, in its ethical looking packaging, may well be owned by Heinz.

I admit it will be hard, at this stage, to find much to buy beyond T-shirts, so write to your favourite designers and shops to tell them you are concerned about cotton farming practices, and would like them to offer an organic alternative — or you might be forced to shop elsewhere.

Wherever you do buy clothes, ask the shop assistants if they have an organic range. They will probably look at you blankly at first, but if enough people do it, word will filter up to buyers and management.

Best of all, explore the possibilities of hemp clothing, which is the real answer to the whole problem. But that, as they say, is another story.

Copyright © 2004, Sydney Morning Herald. All rights reserved.

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