Growing up, I had the most caring father who I could call to in the middle of the night. I would sing out “Daddy, daddy darling, I'm thirsty” and dear dad would pull himself out of his deep sleep, bring me a glass of water, and return to bed. He must have known I wasn’t truly thirsty; I just needed to know that he was close by.
Our family wasn’t wealthy but we had enough that my parents could pay for each of my sibling’s high school and tertiary education, until we each found our career passions. My passion was clothing design. I immersed myself in fabric textures, colours, and silhouettes; occupied my waking hours keeping up with fast-changing trends; and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with my work. But while I was infatuated with everything fashion, I didn’t realise that my passion was killing eco systems and … dads.
Years ago, a business partner and I undertook a new venture. We launched a fashion brand. With stiff competition in the market, I needed to think of something that would bring our new brand publicity and recognition, to put us on the leaderboard. This was more than ten years ago and our answer came in a flutter of eco-friendly green.
‘Global-greening’ was the buzzword at the time and I thought jumping on the ‘green washing’ bandwagon with a range of clothing using organic cotton could carve us a distinct space in the marketplace. Armed with lots of ‘green’ store signage, natural looking packaging, and a great deal of enthusiasm, we launched our first organic cotton clothing range. It was a success. Our environmental values were in tune with the social climate of the time and our products, consequently, were quickly snapped up.
In short, sales were great.
We were quiet smug with our first to market achievements and wanted to keep up the marketing edge we had created. This meant meeting with the owner of the mill who supplied our fabric to secure more organic cotton fabric for future orders. But the meeting came to mean a whole lot more than that; it would change my outlook on the industry I worked in and shift my business practices for the next decade to lead me to where I am now. I remember every moment.
This colossal shift in my outlook started with the owner of the cotton mill proposing a single question, he asked “do you know why so many cotton farmers in India commit suicide each year?”
The question left me so taken aback, that’s not the kind of thing you’re usually asked when sourcing fabrics. And I could hardly believe the answer.
“It’s due to their cotton crops failing.”
It all starts with a seed. A seed planted with much hope. Hope that will grow to produce a magnificent crop to be harvested and sold by the farmer. A harvest prosperous enough to provide for his family now; healthy enough to repeat this sowing and harvesting cycle again; and sustainable enough to provide stable and ongoing care of the farmer’s family.
But sadly, that cycle is mostly a fairytale.
Let me tell you the true story of conventional cotton growing and the heartbreak that invariably starts with a GMO seed.
GMO seeds are created by adding Biotech, or Bt, to the seeds to target specific pests. Not all pests are targeted by Bt so more pesticides must be used. With the promise of a better yield, GMO seeds are more expensive than organic seeds, they also need more water.
Once the seeds are purchased, one would assume it would be a matter of planting these supposedly more advanced seeds and watch them grow. But nothing grows well in something that has been spiked. The overuse of synthetic fertilisers and toxic pesticide application makes the soil infertile.
When the farmers see that the seeds are not growing, they add a sprinkling of synthetic fertilizer in the hope of a boost, but it also kills a significant percentage of beneficial microorganisms in the soil. This synthetic fertilizer does encourage growth but brings more trouble. With the growth of the plant, pests are attracted, and to deal with the pests, toxic pesticides are sprayed.
As with any crop, rain is always welcomed. But this worsens the situation as rain washes the toxic pesticides off the plants, into the soil, into the rivers, out to the oceans, and into the fish. And so the vicious circle of the struggling crops continues. Farmers add more synthetic fertilisers, throw on more toxic pesticides, more…. more…. more.
Bank loans can’t be paid.
Dignities are lost.
And so the farmer reaches for the bottle of pesticide to drink and suicide. Debt is left to survivors in the family. Seldom are the children educated. In India alone, more than 500 cotton farmers have committed suicide in the first 5 months this year. 41 farmers in general commit suicide each day.
For 15 years I had purchased thousands of meters of cotton fabric, meaning for 15 years I had been responsible for so many people in situations like this. That day more than 10 years ago, when I had learnt about the lives of conventional cotton farmers and this unsustainable cycle, I realised there was no other way forward.
We are all forever on the lookout for solutions and in the case of resolving cotton farmer suicides, we have a simple solution. By supporting organic farming practices, we’re supporting healthy lands and seas. And a healthy environment supports healthy and happy communities.
I love what I do now, designing and supplying on trend chef wear, restaurant attire, and health spa attire using organic cotton. In a very stylish way, I introduce the heroes of the hospitality world to the great benefits of sustainable products.
I was extremely privileged to have a loving, supportive mum and dad who were able to provide my siblings and I with an education. I could not imagine my life without my dad, and I wouldn’t want that for any other child. How could I support the practices that were taking fathers away from their children? Leaving mothers on their own. Leaving children without an education. Leaving children without a father. The worst of it was that it was my industry’s own hunger for cotton that was perpetuating this heartache.
There was no other way forward. My brand had to support organic farming practices for all future fabric orders and in doing so; support the families and fathers behind them. By supporting these practices, I am responsible for all those fathers, mothers, and children; but instead of causing their ultimate demise, I am supporting their livelihood. The change from conventional to organic cotton has meant children can be educated; mothers can be supported; and the mental health, financial stability, and personal dignity of fathers are continually reinforced. It’s daunting to think that our purchasing decisions have such far-reaching consequences but it’s comforting to know that with an awareness of these consequences, we are able to have a positive impact that is felt far around the world.
My dad is healthy and at the age of 84 he bought his dream, a farm where he cultivates beehives. That leads onto a whole other story about how pesticides are threatening a third of all the food we eat by killing our pollinators but for now this is the take home: if we don’t look after nature, the current situation for farmers like those I heard about in India continues. It really boils down to the simple truth that if we look after nature, it will look after us. Lucky for these farmers and the environment, we have a simply solution. And it lies in simple cotton seeds.
This is my contribution, what will yours be? We should be educating our target markets; insisting that retailers use organic cotton suppliers; and where organic cotton is offered investigating how much is on offer; and questioning future plans for organic options.
It’s also time to celebrate the brands supporting pesticide free farming practices.
photo credit : Simon Rawles