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"My battle to green the clothing industry"

Katharine Hamnett

1st April, 2005

Katharine Hamnett is one of the UK’s leading fashion designers. In 1984 she famously wore a T-shirt opposing the purchase of US Pershing missiles at a reception attended by Margaret Thatcher. Since then she has campaigned on nuclear power, Third World debt, human rights, HIV and environmental issues.

In 1989 I did some research on the social and environmental impact of the global clothing and textile industries. The results of this research were shocking. The clothing industry is the third or fourth largest industry in any developed economy, employing one billion people worldwide. Millions of these people work in police states in conditions of slavery. Textile production causes pollution and environmental degradation on a colossal scale: dioxins, the world’s number-one pathogen, are released into the environment in enormous quantities by PVC and chlorine bleach; heavy metals seep out of dye stuffs; rivers are contaminated by stonewashing; toxic chemicals are released into the environment in all viscose fibre extraction; and poisonings occur due to sheep dip in wool farming (there have been over a thousand in the UK alone).

The farming of conventional cotton is a modern-day nightmare: 400 million cotton farmers in the developing world are living in conditions of abject poverty due to the high costs and negative health impacts of pesticides used on cotton; up to 100,000 people (Pesticide Action Network) are dying every year of accidental pesticide poisoning; up to 1 million a year are suffering from acute long-term poisonings; 200,000 farmers commit suicide per year. Conventional cotton farming also causes long-term contamination of aquifers, rivers, the seas and air and desertification.

Growing cotton organically can reverse this situation. It delivers a 50 per cent increase in income by cutting the cost of inputs by 40 per cent and allowing farmers to access the 20 per cent premium for certified organic. It enables farmers to feed and educate their children, dig wells and afford healthcare. It makes agriculture viable, and it stems migration to the cities and the accompanying spread of HIV.

It’s marginally more expensive. It would put 70p on a Zara shirt, and £1.89 on one from Helmut Lang. Farmers do get a drop in yield initially, but this is more than compensated for by the drop in the cost of inputs.

Organic cotton is neither brown nor lumpy. If you’re in any doubt about this visit the textile department at the Victoria & Albert Museum or Bath’s Museum of Costume and look closely at pre-1840 clothing: you will see that the cotton, all organic, is a finer quality then virtually anything on the market today.

Conventional cotton agriculture in Africa is bordering on collapse.

Growing cotton organically tips the balance from extinction to beyond survival. It makes farming communities sustainable. All of this without outside international aid; all of this for 1 per cent more on the price of a T-shirt. How can you argue with that?

Since 1989 I have been campaigning and trying to change the fashion industry from within, with little success. I did a menswear collection for a huge UK chain store that wouldn’t PR the collection as organic because it said people would ask what was wrong with all their other cotton. An Italian jeans manufacturer refused to hand over the percentage of the price of the garment to be paid to the cotton farmers, so I had to go in with a Channel 4 TV crew to pick up the cheque. A famous manufacturer I was working with substituted all the organic cotton qualities I had selected with conventional cotton; when I refused to have a chlorine bleach-wash on the jean he told me that if I ‘carried on with this environmental shit I could fuck off with my collection’ (which I did). At one textile fair, a large cotton mill asked me: ‘Why should we do organic cotton when you are the only one asking for it?’ The industry doesn’t give a fuck.

I terminated all my contracts in 2004 and am now working on developing a new collection myself with a completely ethical supply chain as environmental as I can get it. I will start out by using organic cotton, pesticide-free wool, vegetable-tanned leather and other environmental and ethical fabrics that become available. The Katharine E Hamnett range will be available online from the website http://www.katharinehamnett.com/ beginning this September.

What can YOU do now?

Use your power as a consumer. Industry listens to consumers even if governments don’t.

 As from now don’t buy anything from a country with a poor human rights record.

 Buy one organic cotton garment this year.

 Contact your favourite brands and tell them you love their stuff, have bought loads in the past, but in three years’ time you want all the cotton that you buy from them to be organic, and you won’t buy anything more from them until that is so.

Topshop www.topshop.co.uk
Hennes www.hm.com
Levi’s cs.ukeire@levi.com
Nike www.nike.com
Puma www.puma.com
Marks & Spencer www.marksandspencer.com
La Redoute www.redoute.com
Ralph Lauren www.polo.com
Liz Claiborne www.lizclaiborne.com
Asda www.asda.co.uk
Wal-Mart www.walmartstores.com
Harrods www.harrods.com
Gucci www.gucci.com
Prada www.prada.com
Diesel www.diesel.com
Louis Vuitton www.vuitton.com
Jasper Conran www.jasperconran.com
Karen Millen enquiries@karenmillen.com
John Lewis www.johnlewis.com
Gap www.gap.com
Adidas www.adidas.com/uk

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2005

 


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