The following is an excerpt from Naked Fashion: The New Sustainable Fashion Revolution (2012, New Internationalist) by Safia Minney.

It seems like a very small thing to us, choosing a T-shirt or a dress made of organic rather than conventional cotton. but it can make a big difference at the other end of the chain. The environmental impact of fashion is something that needs to concern us all. What’s clear is that fashion’s environmental footprint at the moment is unsustainable. The evidence is overwhelming. For example, the British clothing and textiles sector alone currently produces around 3.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, two million tons of waste, and 70 million tons of waste water per year—with 1.5 million tons yearly of unwanted clothing and textiles ultimately ending up in a landfill. This means that we each throw away an average of 30 kilos a year.

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PLAYING FAIR

We need to consume less fashion and wear our clothes for longer, while the fabrics and clothes that we do buy need to have more “value added”—benefitting not only the farmers but also as many artisans as possible in its transformation to clothing.

People will destroy the environment they’re dependent on only when there seems to be no alternative.

Fair trade can make a big difference here.

Fair trade takes a long-term view, working in partnership with producers and enabling communities to “invest” in environmental initiatives and diversify. It recognizes that, if farmers are given even half a chance, they will protect the environment.

After all, why would people whose lives are so dependent on the resources of their natural surroundings, destroy their environment? The answer is that they only do so when driven to it by low prices, unfair terms of trade, and the insecurity that comes from not knowing where your children’s next meal will come from. They only do it when there seems to be no alternative.

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PEAK EVERYTHING

Fair trade, social businesses, and new economics are leading the way in showing how we can protect the environment and help the poor feed themselves.

Organic farming takes 1.5 tons of CO2 per acre per year out of the atmosphere.

Supporting low chemical inputs, transitional and organic farming is also vital. Polyester, the most widely used manufactured fiber, is made from petroleum. The manufacture of this and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing millions of tons of CO2.

With oil supplies dwindling, we have to find alternatives to oil-intensive farming methods now, before it’s too late. Organic farming takes 1.5 tons of CO2 per acre per year out of the atmosphere.

Organic and fair-trade cotton has helped to reduce water consumption by over 60 percent in the Indian state of Gujarat.

Water is another vital resource being overconsumed by the fashion industry. Conventionally grown cotton is one of the most water-dependent crops to be grown. It takes over 2,000 liters of water to produce the average T-shirt with conventional cotton. Organic and fair-trade cotton has helped to reduce water consumption by over 60 percent in the Indian state of Gujarat by supporting farmers who invest in drip irrigation.

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TOXIC LEGACIES

The conventional cotton industry has a devastating effect on farmers and the environment. Heavy pesticides use reduces biodiversity, disrupts ecosystems, and contaminates water supplies. Worse still, pests exposed to synthetic pesticides build up a resistance to them so that, each year, farmers have to buy and use more pesticides to grow the same amount of cotton.

The World Health Organization estimates that three million people are poisoned by pesticides each year.

Cotton growers typically use many of the most hazardous pesticides on the market, many of which are organophosphates originally developed as toxic nerve agents during World War II. At least three pesticides used on cotton are in the “dirty dozen”—so dangerous that 120 countries agreed at a United Nations Environment Programme conference in 2001 to ban them, though so far this hasn’t happened.

The World Health Organization estimates that three million people are poisoned by pesticides each year, most of them in developing countries. When pesticides leak into the environment, chronic poisoning can affect entire communities. Symptoms include numbness or weakness of arms, legs, feet, or hands; lethargy; anxiety; and loss of memory and concentration. Young women are particularly vulnerable—exposure to pesticides can affect the reproductive system, causing infertility and spontaneous abortion.

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PRICING THE ENVIRONMENT

In light of all this, any support we can give to small farmers growing organic cotton is vital. Organic cotton is grown as a rotational crop alongside organic foods that are often consumed by the family, with the surplus sold locally. But cotton farmers in India trying to make the transition to organic often struggle because the soil takes five years to recover its yields as it is weaned off agrochemical methods.

The same global trading system that keeps so many of the world’s people poor also destroys the environment.

They desperately need more support from the government. The only support at present is coming from non-government and advocacy organizations—and from consumers prepared to pay a fair-trade premium and to insist on organic cotton.

If we pay farmers a high price for their cotton, they will be able to diversify their crops, use less polluting farming methods, and protect the environment.

The same global trading system that keeps so many of the world’s people poor also destroys the environment. The economic and accounting system we have today only measures financial outcomes, not the social and environmental bottom lines. Our present system pursues short-term profit, propelling environmental destruction and widening the gap between rich and poor.

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VOTING FOR CHANGE

Faced with these huge issues, it is easy to throw up our hands in despair and feel powerless. But at least in the area of supporting fair-trade fashion, organic fabrics, secondhand, and upcycled clothes, we have something clear and positive we can do.

Every time you opt for fair-trade, organic, or secondhand clothing, you are making a difference.

Fair trade and organic fabrics currently account for a tiny percentage of the total amount of cotton sold worldwide. We have a lot to change! But every time you opt to support fair-trade, organic, or secondhand clothing, you are making a difference.

+ People Tree