Going back to the birthplace of an organic fair-trade shirt.
Marco Visscher | April 2004 issue
Perhaps I expected too much. Broad grins. Happy faces. A beaming smile. Twinkling eyes. Maybe even loud cheering and thunderous applause. After all, it’s not every day that an Indian factory receives European visitors conducting a kind of consumer survey. Too bad. There wasn’t a hint of excitement during my meeting with the people who assembled my shirt.
Click here to buy. That’s how it all began. My first shirt made of organic cotton. A long-sleeved design. I didn’t find it by hunting through the racks at a clothing store, but at my computer, perusing a website for ‘ethical clothes.’ I found myself at the site of the British company Gossypium, which offers a rather attractive range of organic, fair-trade clothing: exactly what I was looking for.
Gossypium has facilities in India, where the cotton is cultivated and industrially processed. And so it happened that during my trip – the return journey of a fair shirt – I walked into a small factory building where some 40 workers were simultaneously cutting, sewing, checking and packing the exact same shirts as mine, except these were blue. This company is called Hero Fashion.
Rahman looks up from the swatch of cloth in his sewing machine. Yes, he likes working here. The wages are good; the work day is eight hours, with double pay for overtime. Okay, maybe Rahman is so full of praise for his work because his manager is standing right next to him. But maybe the factory really is one of the few positive exceptions in the clothing industry. It is located in Tirupur – you know, the city marked by exploitation and pollution (see ‘Undressed’). Apparently things can be done differently.
And yet Sundara Murthy, founder and owner of Hero Fashion, is circumspect: ‘My factory is not bad, but it’s not fantastic either.’ Is that false modesty from a reserved entrepreneur? Or is it naiveté about the practices of his competitors? After all, Murthy seems truly surprised when I tell him that many workers in Tirupur complain about the low pay and degrading working conditions.
In any case, there is one area in which Hero Fashion deviates from the other factories in Tirupur: Hero does industrial processing of organically grown cotton. Murthy made the choice three years ago when he saw that all the companies in Tirupur were embroiled in the same competitive battle. He looked for a market niche and found it in handling organic cotton. Apparently, it’s simply a bonus that organic cotton cultivation is also better for the environment.
Anyone in Tirupur who is looking for a factory with favorable working conditions would not – as Murthy probably was aware – end up at Hero Fashion. Two other companies would top the list: Prem Group and Arora Fashions. Both have the SA8000 certificate, the international standard ensuring a humane working environment. At Prem Group, which produces for Switcher of Switzerland, the door remains nervously closed because permission had not been granted for the visit by the right person. But at Arora Fashions, which has European customers, things run quite a bit more smoothly.
Surrounded by certificates, notes of congratulation and other indications of good behavior, A. Murali, the director of personnel, explains why Arora Fashions is dedicated to a workable environment. ‘Simple – because people work harder and better when they feel good,’ he says. ‘Absenteeism is much lower at our factory compared to others, partly because we invest in programs to promote good health, hygiene and social aptitudes. A doctor comes once a week to help respond to people’s questions and complaints.’
It sounds like a dream scenario from Social Awareness and Voluntary Education (SAVE), a local organization that works with factory owners to improve working conditions. The chairman, A. Aloysius, seems to own a mobile phone which cannot be switched off, but between calls he tells me that partly due to SAVE and international action groups, Tirupur has achieved a major success: the end of child labor – ‘Or well, nearly the end.’ Now there are also more and better schools where children can get an education.
‘In the beginning they saw us only as troublesome.’ Aloysius explains. ‘They said we made too many demands, took no account of their competitive position and told the press how bad they are. But we slowly won their trust. Now there are more and more factory directors advising on improvements. They often think the only thing we’re fighting for is an end to child labor, which is what is emphasized by many Western companies, but there is something much more important: the right to collective labor negotiations. Employees will only be able to bring about change when they have the right to organize themselves freely.’
Yet Murali underlines that SAVE was not the driving force behind Arora Fashion’s own corporate policy. It was not designed at the request of customers or under pressure from international action groups. Since opening factories in 1990, Arora has made investments in the well-being of employees as a matter of course. ‘Ultimately,’ Murali says, ‘it’s about the well-being of society, which stands to benefit more from healthy and happy people.’
The label in my new shirt states that it was made in India of 100% organic cotton, provides handy washing and ironing tips and advises me not to put the shirt too close to fire, as if I were considering doing so. But search as I might, there is no indication of what dye was used to color the fabric.
It turns out the dye is not particularly environmentally friendly. The factory that does the dyeing, just outside Tirupur, does use non-acid dye without the whole list of chemical ingredients that are blacklisted in Europe but still creep into clothing every now and then. And something that makes the factory exceptional in Tirupur is that it doesn’t dump its refuse in the river, but purifies and reuses its wastewater.
Gossypium says it has experimented with natural dyes such as indigo, chestnut brown and khaki, but they made a mess in the washing machine. Khaki turned pink. The best method is to dye the fabric early in the production process, but this is not profitable for Gossypium given the small quantities it produces.
And yet there is still room for further improvement, even in Tirupur. The Kaytee cooperative dye factory only works with hand-plucked, oxygen-bleached organic cotton. The dyes with which thread types are produced contain no heavy metals. Even dyes containing potentially allergenic substances or that are suspected to be carcinogenic are excluded.
Back to my shirt. The cotton fiber that is transported to Tirupur by truck comes from Gujarat in western India. This is where Gossypium gets the cotton it uses for its clothing, and it is my next destination. Three domestic flights later I’m standing eye to eye with the cotton producer who may well have contributed to the shirt I’m wearing.
Harjibhai Patel switched to organic cultivation some five years ago when he discovered a link between his health problems and the pesticides he was using. ‘When I sprayed the field,’ he tells me, ‘I came home with a splitting headache and was dizzy, especially when it was warm outside.’ And it is often warm here in Kutch, a peaceful city in Gujarat. The biggest difference between then and now? ‘Now you see birds flying again over my field,’ Patel says, ‘and there are bees and insects. Before, when I sprayed, even a dog didn’t want to walk across my field.’
Now Patel also grows other crops on his field, which he shows me. It’s the middle of winter, but for a northern European like myself, the midday sun feels like an inferno. As we move along, Patel points out the crops he grows: peas, sesame seed and peanuts. He also produces crops for his own consumption, which is a luxury that many other cotton farmers in India do not have. Those farmers agreed to the demand of their seed vendors to cultivate cotton on their entire plot of land. This made them more vulnerable to disappointing crop yields, which force them to use their meager profit to buy food. This is unlikely to happen to Patel, for organic farming requires crop rotation to avoid the return and strengthening of nasty insects and plagues.
Organic cultivation does take more time and energy. Patel used to fill a tank with chemicals, tie it to his back and walk through the field spraying his plants, whereas now there is more manual labor. But it is pleasant work, he says, and he harvests the crop together with his family, which saves him the costly investment in expensive machinery.
Needless to say, the chance that Harjibhai Patel actually supplied the cotton in my shirt is small. After all, it takes three and a half square yards of acreage to produce enough cotton for one shirt, and Gossypium works with some 80 small-scale organic cotton farmers. They are affiliated with a company named Agrocel, from which they receive technical and financial support during conversion from conventional agriculture plus an 8% bonus for a ‘fair trade price.’ Its owner, Hashmukh Patel (no relation), wants to ensure that all the cotton grown in India is cultivated organically. This is no small task, for it is estimated that cotton farming uses half of all the agricultural chemicals used in rural India. ‘If we can get all cotton to be cultivated organically,’ Agrocel’s Patel forecasts, ‘we can do the same with the rest of our crops.’
Patel, the second of three generations of organic farmers, set up Agrocel 25 years ago in an effort to bring this goal one step closer. A unit of Excel Industries, Agrocel is not an all-organic operation. It develops and sells agricultural chemicals, among other things, and receives technical support from Britain’s Shell Foundation. In his office in Kutch, Patel laughs off the negative association. ‘If we only worked with the organic farmers, we would lose contact with conventional farmers,’ he says. ‘We would never be able to encourage them to make the switch to organic cultivation. In our shops we are introducing an increasing range of organic alternatives, and we instruct our sales people to point this out to customers.’
Patel has come up with a multi-phased plan for the cotton farmers in Gujarat. It starts with decreasing the use of agricultural chemicals and then, by stimulating the use of organic pesticides and effective water management, moves on to technical support for organic certification. So far, Agrocel’s customers include 15,000 organic cotton farmers in Gujarat and another 5,000 in the rest of India. Among other things, these farmers supply cotton to make the clothing sold in the catalogues of the World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth and Umama Wear.
The argument that convinces farmers to switch to organic cultivation is the cost savings. They can replace artificial fertilizer with compost from their own cattle, which would normally be considered useless and burned. Another economy comes from pressing the seeds of the popular neem tree to make an oil that exterminates undesirable insects. Recently several organic cotton projects in Africa have imported neem oil and report favorable results using this cheap and effective pesticide alternative.
Another organic farmer’s trick Harjibhai Patel shows me is a so-called pheromone trap on his field. The trap is impregnated with sexual scents, developed in a laboratory, that trick male moths into believing they are surrounded by feisty females. Drawn by the scent, they fall into the trap. Organic cultivation also often uses a parasitic wasp to drive damaging insects away from cotton plants to circumvent the use of chemical pesticides.
I wonder whether he is concerned that Agrocel will run into financial trouble once cotton farmers start to swear off expensive chemicals on a mass scale, but he beams at the thought. ‘Of course not,’ he says. ‘This is a win-win situation. Good for the environment, for health and for the wallet. It already gives me an enormous sense of satisfaction that I am contributing to saving the lives of so many birds, bees, insects, earthworms and micro-organisms in the soil.’
On a global scale, organic cultivation accounts for only a tiny portion – 0.04%, according to one estimate – of total cotton production. Major clothing brands say they are not interested because there is no consumer demand. So far, a different perspective comes from only one large clothing company, Patagonia, which uses organic cotton and recycled polyester (see box) for functional and fashionable outdoor sportswear and leisure clothing. ‘Because we know that all our business activity, from lighting our stores to dyeing our clothes, creates pollution as its by-product, we work steadily to reduce those harms,’ declares the company website.
Other major companies combine the use of organic and conventional cotton. Nike, considered one of the pioneers of organic cotton, says it uses 3% of it in its sports socks and shirts. Considering the volume of sports socks Nike sells, even this small proportion offers an enormous incentive.
Experience suggests caution when naming specific brands. Many companies boast loudly about their decision to embrace organic cotton, only to fall silent shortly thereafter. Jeans giant Levi-Strauss, for instance, patted itself on the back after purchasing over 300 tons of organic cotton for its 501 jeans – but that was a couple of years ago. Critics say that companies decline to make statements because every report about organic cotton implies that commonly-used raw materials are polluting, which they would rather not advertise.
In 2000 Marks & Spencer introduced an organic clothing line, consisting mainly of underwear, only to pull it quickly from the shelves. It didn’t sell well, according to the British clothing and food chain, because ‘our customers didn’t feel the additional cost represented value for money.’ But now Marks & Spencer is now giving it another go. Under an agreement with Agrocel, 1% of sales from this line goes directly to the Pure & Fair Cotton Project, which Agrocel hopes will convince Indian cotton farmers of the importance of organic cultivation in getting a fair price.
And then there is the Armani Jeans brand. Presumably the company was gratified by the appearance of actor Woody Harrelson in a Giorgio Armani hemp tuxedo during the Golden Globes a few years ago. Now the fashion king has taken further steps to integrate environmentally friendly raw materials in his clothes and has introduced jackets and sweaters made of hemp, recycled jeans and a small range of organic cotton shirts.
It is likely that these and other large players in the clothing market will make the critical difference, rather than smaller brands, shops and boutiques that rarely produce trendy items because their stock has to stay on the shelves longer. Why should big brands opt for organic cotton? Aside from the obvious reasons, the Cleaner Cotton Campaign cites the potential banning of most agricultural chemicals. This American organization also believes that possible new labelling regulations for genetically modified products may help convince clothing companies to guarantee their customers cotton that is ‘gentech-free’ – in a word, organic.
Doubling the salaries of Mexican workers in the ready-to-wear industry would mean a mere 1.6% rise in the retail price of the clothing they help manufacture. This was the conclusion of a study conducted by the Fair Labor Association in New York. Other studies show that consumers in the United States would be prepared to pay 5% to 10% more for clothes they were certain were produced under fair conditions.
I paid about $56 for my shirt, excluding shipping, which isn’t much different from the norm. Yet clothes made using organic cotton are often more expensive than conventional clothing. This is hardly surprising, given that most clothing does not carry a fair price tag. Companies that underpay or exploit their workers and fail to take appropriate measures to minimize pollution should end up with lower prices, whereas those that take these considerations into account during production fall into a higher but fairer price category.
There is also the matter of compensation for the cotton farmer’s yield loss. Organic cultivation produces less, particularly in the early years, which pushes up the price of the end products. And finally, there are the costs associated with certification. An independent institute, such as Skal in Europe, must check every step in the production process. In the initial phase, as much as 30% of the retail price may go to certification and control. It’s a rather curious price dichotomy: The customer wants certainty that the item is actually organic but would rather not pay more for it.
I would. Especially now that I better understand what’s at stake. Click here to buy. It’s that simple. Hmm, let’s see, which trousers would go with this…
Find more ethical clothings online. Click here.