Cotton production may become the next big issue for the rag trade

Daily News Egypt
5 Min Read

You ve heard of fair trade coffee and ethical tea. Now, if cotton activists at London Fashion Week have their way, the time has come for organic underwear.Cotton, the fiber in many a couch, curtain and cardigan, is under fire this week for its industry s alleged connection to pesticide poisoning, child labor, environmental depletion and thousands of deaths a year.The Environmental Justice Foundation, a non-governmental organization based in Britain, has enlisted the help of top designers and supermodels to champion their goal for worldwide sale and production of clean cotton. Through a campaign selling T-shirts made from organic and fair trade cotton, the foundation hopes to ban cotton produced through forced child labor and to expose the use of deadly pesticides in central Asia and West Africa. Without a doubt it kills people and it kills wildlife, said Juliette Williams, the foundation s co-founder.The foundation enlisted the help of four designers to create the T-shirts: Luella Bartley, Betty Jackson and Katharine Hamnett _ who are showing at London Fashion Week – and French designer Christian Lacroix. Hamnett has worked for the cause since 2003, when a trip to cotton farms in Africa introduced her to impoverished farmers.The foundation s campaign, called Pick Your Cotton Carefully, aims to improve the standards of cotton and comes after the foundation s three-year investigation into trade and agricultural practices of cotton worldwide.One of their main targets is Uzbekistan, the third-largest exporter of cotton. The foundation claims the government forces children as young as seven into the fields to pick cotton. An official at the Uzbekistan Embassy in London who refused to give his name denied the allegation and said the former Soviet bloc country is the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by its competitors.Retailers in Britain have taken notice of the foundation s cause. Tesco, the mega-retailer, has banned the use of child-labor-produced cotton from Uzbekistan. Marks & Spencer has followed suit.But Terry Townsend, the executive director of the International Cotton Advisory Committee – which promotes the cotton industry – says these companies are misinformed. These kinds of claims are just unbelievable to people who work in the industry and travel to Uzbekistan and know what s going on there, Townsend said.Townsend said that many of the problems identified by activists do not reflect the industry as a whole and that child labor, pesticide pollution and the draining of the Aral Sea in central Asia started and ended with the Soviet era.The cotton industry employs 350 million people worldwide and produces 26 million tons of cotton a year. Only 53,000 tons of cotton are produced by organic and fair-trade sources each year, not enough to meet demand, Townsend said.The cotton industry was valued at $32 billion in 2006, but activists claim sharecroppers in developing countries rarely see profits from their work and some wages are so low that parents often send children to work for supplemental income.Townsend disputes the reports of widespread child labor abuses in Uzbekistan. For that to be true, there would have to be millions of children in fields all across the country for months, Townsend said. That would be impossible. More people would have seen it. Pesticide problems in the environment can also be traced back to the Soviet era, when an influx of thirsty cotton farms in central Asia shrank the Aral Sea for irrigation and pesticide runoff disrupted the salinity of the water, killing the sea s fish.The foundation s booth at Fashion Week can be found in a section of the exhibition featuring environmentally conscious designers who already buy organic and fair-trade materials.Among them is 26-year-old Sarah Lucy Smith whose quirky underwear line, GreenKnickers, was among the first brands to be awarded a fair-trade certification. It s really simple – people die to make our clothes when we make things that are not fair trade, Smith said. I think if people really understood the reality they d probably say, I d rather be naked than wear something that someone had to die to produce.

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