s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 31 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 31   (Spring 2003)


Clothes for a Change

by Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association

Compared to awareness about food issues, public consciousness and responsible consumer purchasing in regard to clothing and apparel is woefully inadequate. Environmental and anti-Frankencrops activism has barely begun to impact the US garment and fashion marketplace, a $300 billion industry. Unfortunately, just about the same can be said for the campus-based anti-sweatshop movement, despite a decade of activism, including spirited protests against Nike, the Gap, and other brand name bullies.

America’s fashion statement: Pesticides, frankencrops, and sweatshops

If Americans are what we wear, then we—even rebel youth, trade union members, and progressives—are increasingly corporatized. The fashion statement we’re apparently making with what we wear is that we don’t care. A look at the labels in our clothing or the corporate logos on our shoes reveals that the brand name bullies, the transnational giants in the garment and apparel industry, reign supreme.

If Americans are what we wear, then we—even rebel youth, trade union members, and progressives—are increasingly corporatized.

Walk into any department store or clothing retailer. Look for a label that says “Union Made in the USA with Organic Cotton (or hemp or wool).” Search through rack after rack, in store after store, but you aren’t likely to find such an item. In fact there are no union made and organic clothes or shoes on the market period, with the exception of a new company in Los Angeles called SweatX, which promises to provide USA made, union made, and organic clothes to the buyers who are demanding them. SweatX’s workers are members of the garment workers union, UNITE. Unfortunately even SweatX’s trade union customers, members of the AFL-CIO, seem unwilling at the present time to take a stand against agricultural sweatshops and pesticides by paying a bit more for organic T-shirts and sweatshirts bearing their union logos. Worse yet, a number of national environmental groups are peddling non-organic merchandise made in China, emblazoned with their logos.

There are, however, a growing number of clothing companies, mainly smaller ones, which offer non-sweatshop and organic clothes. These companies include Patagonia, Gaiam, Maggie’s Organics, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Hempy’s, Globalwear, and over a hundred others. Unfortunately, most US consumers, even organic consumers, have never heard of these socially and environmentally responsible clothing companies.

Do we care what we wear?

Do unions (except for the United Farmworkers Union) simply not care about toxic pesticides, genetically engineered cotton, or the literal “sweatshops in the fields” which characterize most cotton farms and plantations around the world? Don’t environmental, church, and social justice groups see a contradiction in putting their logo on pesticide-drenched or genetically engineered cotton items made in sweatshops? Do most green or natural fiber clothing and fabric companies feel that “bottom line” considerations make it impossible to deal with unions or to put a priority on producing garments in the USA?

Cotton is literally the most toxic crop on the planet.

Are anti-sweatshop campaigners aware that millions of cotton workers are poisoned in the fields and that millions of acres of genetically engineered Bt cotton are literally destroying the ability of ecological farmers to grow cotton organically? Do the trade union and anti-sweatshop movements care if small and medium-sized cotton farmers are swindled by large corporations who pay them next to nothing for their crops? Has the anti-genetic engineering movement forgotten about Bt and Roundup Ready cotton, the fastest growing Frankencrop in the world? Do North America’s 50 million socially and environmentally conscious consumers care what we wear?

King Cotton: Poisoning the earth and water

Cotton is literally the most toxic crop on the planet. While only 3% of the world’s farming acreage is cotton, these crops are sprayed with up to 25% of the world’s pesticides and herbicides, including some of the most toxic ones, such as aldicarb. Of course, cotton is present in many other consumer products besides garments—food products, tampons, bandages, baby diapers, mattresses, bed linen, etc.

Pollution, Congestion, Consumption Machine

According to www.sustainablecotton.org:

Because of cotton’s versatility, it is used for a vast variety of food and fiber products, making it one of the most widely traded commodities. Cotton provides almost 50% of the world’s textile needs Cotton represents an essential component of foreign exchange earnings for more than 55 countries. Yet the simple act of growing and harvesting the one pound of cotton fiber needed to make a T-shirt takes an enormous toll on the air, water, and soil, not to mention the health of people in cotton growing areas. The cotton grown for just one T-shirt requires 1/3 pound of agricultural chemicals. When all 19 cotton-growing states in the US are tallied, the crop accounts for 25% of all the pesticides used in the US. Some of these chemicals are among the most toxic classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency. In developing countries, where regulations are less stringent, the crisis is even more severe.

Genetically engineered “frankencotton”

On top of these destructive environmental and health impacts, cotton production is increasingly genetically engineered. Over 10 million acres of genetically engineered cotton are now being grown across the US. These cotton plants are gene-spliced with a soil bacteria called Bt so that the cotton plant emits its own pesticide, or else the plant is genetically engineered to be able to survive mega-doses of powerful toxic pesticides like Monsanto’s glyphosate or Aventis’ bromoxynil.

While the acreage devoted to genetically engineered crops such as corn, soybeans, and rapeseed (canola) has started leveling off in the US and across the world, due to the growing global opposition to genetic engineering, the acreage of genetically engineered cotton is increasing. These vast mutant fields of genetically engineered cotton already account for more than 60% of all US cotton, posing comparable hazards to human health and the environment as conventional cotton, while constituting a major threat to organic agriculture as well.

Although fewer pesticides are being sprayed on Bt cotton to control pests like bollworms and budworms, even more toxic pesticides than before are being sprayed to control pests like aphids and stink bugs that seem to thrive once their bollworm or budworm competitors decline. Even worse, Bt cotton is a mortal threat to organic cotton farming, the real “no pesticide” alternative. This threat is two-fold.

First of all Bt cotton is a source of genetic pollution (like GE corn or canola), spreading its altered DNA to native cotton varieties and organic fields, Even worse, Bt cotton is slowly but steadily building up resistance among cotton pests, creating the preconditions for cotton superpests to arise that will be resistant to non-GE Bt spray, the most important biological pest control tool for organic farmers.

Business as usual in the clothing industry

Levi-Strauss, the largest cotton buyer in the world, continues to buy only pesticide drenched and genetically engineered cotton, and has recently announced that they will be following the lead of other US brand name bullies and moving all their production overseas to low-wage areas. The Gap buys GE cotton, pesticide cotton, and relies upon a notorious network of sweatshop sub-contractors. Companies like Ralph Lauren and Wal-Mart drape themselves in the flag, while selling non-union, non-USA made clothing produced in overseas sweatshops. Finally, Nike, one of leaders of the pack, in terms of sweatshop production, is held up by many in the organic industry as a shining light for greenwashing themselves by blending 6% organic cotton into its clothes. Sweatshop Nike has now become the largest buyer of organic cotton in the world.

Underlying America’s lack of “clothes consciousness” is a multi-billion dollar advertising and fashion industry. This industry deliberately avoids all mention of the ecological and social impacts of our clothing purchases-while relentlessly delivering the same spiritually deadening message and images: clothes make the man and the woman. In other words, worry about what you look like, not what your clothing purchase is doing to the Earth, to cotton plantation workers, to exploited women and children in garment sweatshops.

Brand name sweatshops: Free trade’s fashion statement

“A United Nations study in 1997 found that in 80% of developing countries, manufacturing wages are now lower than they were in the 1970s and early 80s. Hourly wages paid by clothing giants such as Wal-Mart, Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, Esprit, Liz Claiborne, Kmart, Nike, Adidas, J.C. Penney and others in China’s ‘special economic zones,’ are as low as 13 cents an hour—and all of them are paying well below the estimated 87 cents an hour minimum living wage for an assembly-line worker in China.”[1]

Even expensive designer clothing lines are now commonly produced by shadowy sub-contractors in developing countries. Workers toil overtime for a dollar to three dollars a day to produce garments or shoes that will sell for many times more in the industrialized North. Water pollution, air pollution, social dislocation, economic exploitation—these are merely the “externalities” of the global marketplace and free trade. The occasional bad publicity surrounding brand name sweatshops—whether it accrues to Nike, Adidas, or Wal-Mart’s Kathy Lee Gifford sports clothes line—are managed by public relations firms and “solved” by temporarily shifting contracts and operations to yet another maquiladora (sweatshop assembly plant) or export zone.

Organic and Fair Made fibers: Moving beyond the niche market

“Almost unheard of just a few years ago, apparel and other items made from organic fibers can be found at a wide range of retail outlets including stores, catalogues, and the Internet.”[2] Inter-national agribusiness, the biotechnology industry, and leading clothing companies appear quite willing to tolerate an organic food and clothing sector, based upon fair trade and sustainable production practices, as long as it remains nothing more than a small, niche market.

Underlying America’s lack of “clothes consciousness” is a multi-billion dollar advertising and fashion industry.

If organic products threaten to break out of this niche market then transnational corporations will attempt to buy into strategic sectors of the industry and make certain that the “organic alternative” stays under their control. As long as this organic/fair made niche market is low volume and mainly restricted to the upper middle class, the cotton giants and the brand name bullies will never change their bottom line, nor their business practices.

And yet the survival of the planet and the well being of the global body politic demand a rupture in “business as usual.” The globalization and industrialization of food, fiber, and clothing, part of the takeover of civil society and culture by transnational corporations, is a major link in a chain of events that have brought the world to the brink of disaster. The time is at hand to build upon the widespread pro-environment, anti-genetic engineering, and anti-sweatshop consciousness which already exists and create mass consumer demand for organic, non-sweatshop, and fair made clothing and other products.

Clothes for a change: Care what you wear

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is launching a new public education and marketplace pressure campaign to raise awareness about the negative social and environmental effects of conventional and biotech cotton production and the institutionalized exploitation of clothing sweatshops. OCA and our allies will highlight the organic and fair made alternatives already on the marketplace. This will be a long-term campaign, similar to the ongoing and successful anti-GE, pro-organic, Fair Trade campaign that the OCA has been waging against Starbucks over the past 18 months. The Clothes for a Change, however, will be even larger.

This new “Clothes for a Change Coalition” will demand that major clothing retailers and manufacturers such as the Gap, Nike, Ralph Lauren, Levi-Strauss, and Wal-Mart:

Fifteen years ago organic food in the USA was a tiny niche market. Now it’s an $11 billion a year industry, the fastest growing segment of the American food system. Similarly, organic and union or fair made clothing constitutes a tiny niche market today, but we can meet our long term goal of having at least 30% of all clothing in the US be organic and fair made by the year 2010.


1. Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (1999).

2. Press Release put out by the Organic Trade Association (Jan. 7, 2000)

[18 apr 03]

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | s/r 31 Contents