Interest in sustainable fashion is booming as the Fashion Revolution sweeps the globe, but don’t forget about the small-scale cotton farmers at the beginning of most supply chains.
Stop reading this article. Now, do a search for ‘sustainable fashion’.
(Don’t worry, we’ll be here when you return.)
Interest in a more enlightened mode of dress that supports human rights, environmentally-friendly practices, and a dignified life for all has spiked. The results abound with ideas of how you can improve your shopping, reduce your impact, and build awareness.
There has been much progress in the five years since the tragedy at Rana Plaza that took the lives of 1,133 people and injured thousands more. Commitments have been made, research has been done, change has been touted, but there’s still much more to do.
At this juncture, it’s important to remember that we – consumers like me and you – hold the power. We are in a prime position to push for greater transparency and drive change in the textile industry.
Honor the work in your wardrobe.
Roughly one in six people work in the global fashion supply chain – the world’s most labor dependent industry. As you begin unraveling the supply chain, you realize that many of those threads lead back to cotton, the world’s most important fiber crop.
Look through your wardrobe. Ignore the cut or how good they look in the mirror. How much do you really know about where your clothes come from? Who produced the raw material? Pour yourself a Fairtrade coffee and take some time to peruse the tags in your favorite items. And then realize that the hard work of hundreds of people made those pants possible.
Check out Unraveling the Thread, a short film on the path cotton takes from the field to your closet.
A challenging environment
Cotton as it is grown currently fails to provide a sustainable and profitable livelihood for millions of small-scale cotton farmers around the world – pre-dominantly in Africa and Asia. Addressing the challenges faced by cotton farmers is part and parcel of creating truly sustainable fashion.
Small-scale cotton farmers are virtually invisible in the supply chain. They wield little power or influence and are often at the mercy of a highly volatile market.
Since the 1960s, real cotton prices have fallen by 45 percent, from more than $3 per kilogram to $1.73 in 2014. Subsidies to large-scale farming operations in rich countries also affect impoverished farmers in countries where cotton can be grown more sustainably. Studies estimate that cotton price deflation caused by subsidy schemes in developed countries is associated with an annual loss of income to African farmers of $250m.
Conventional cotton also takes a heavy toll on the environment. It’s estimated that cotton production required $3.3 billion worth of pesticides in 2014, including many that are classified as hazardous by the WHO. Poor storage and lack of training often results in health problems for workers. Inefficient irrigation systems can deplete local water sources, and flood irrigation results in fertilizer and pesticide runoff polluting rivers, lakes and water tables.
Fairly traded cotton can make a difference
So how can you take a positive step for small-scale cotton farmers? The Fairtrade Foundation estimates that a one percent increase in the retail price of your clothing could result in a 10 percent increase in the seed cotton price for farmers. This is a negligible amount given that consumers have shown that they are willing to pay more for ethically-produced products that respect human rights and retailers often take more than half the final retail price of cotton products.
Here are a few things to consider before you buy:
- Look at the label & do your homework – Ask your favorite brand or look online to see if they list where they source their cotton.
- Seek out textiles using Fairtrade cotton – Research shows that the social and environmental footprint of cotton from Fairtrade farmers is five times lower than conventionally-produced cotton.
- Buy less, buy better – Ethically-produced, sustainable clothing can cost more. Don’t try to change everything at once. Research brands and what they’re doing and find one piece to start your journey.
- Share the message – Join the Fashion Revolution, a global movement to change the textile industry. Take a selfie with the label in your clothing on display and tag the brand and add the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes!
The tragedy at Rana Plaza was a wake-up call for the world. Though five years have passed, the journey is only starting. The movement to change our clothes continues to build strength, but we need your help.
For more information on joining the Fashion Revolution, visit www.fashionrevolution.org.