The people behind our clothes
George Thomas - 28 March 2013
The idea that jeans or t-shirts are grown before they are made can seem quite abstract when we're clothes shopping. Yet the impact of our choices will be felt by some of the millions of people around the world who are involved in growing and processing cotton. I was lucky enough to meet some of the people behind our clothes when I spent 16 days in India last November.
With four states and dozens of factories and farms to visit over 3,000 miles, our journey was mammoth. In the south we visited the factories which pride themselves on sustainable, ethical practices. For example, we visited India's largest shirt manufacturer in Bangalore, employing 8000 people. 'It is by making working conditions good that we have been able to attract and keep the best staff,’ the manager told us, ’this increases productivity, and also the quality.’
In Coimbatore, once famous for the water pollution caused by textile mills, we visited a model eco-factory, Sree Santhosh Garments, which is leading the way for better production following the closure of hundreds of factories by the local government when they tightened up environmental control. The Manager’s pride as he showed us around his factory was clear. 'Though we had to invest heavily, we made savings on water and energy, and have an award-winning eco-factory to demonstrate our values – that is what sets us apart.’ Even Lily Cole has visited the factory to see what it's all about – you can see her visit on youtube.
Next on our tour was Gandhi’s home state – Gujurat. We were met by Hariharan of Agrocel Industries, who was to be our host for the next few days. We drove for hundreds of miles to Rapar, a partly restricted area near the Pakistan border. Rapar has harsh terrain, hot summers and little rainfall (on average 375 mm a year) which makes farming difficult. No wonder the industrious farmers of the region are known to be strong, especially the women.
We arrived at the farm of Parbhatbhai Suja Paradhiya from Kidiyanagar village. Our hosts were as excited to meet us as we were them, with much mutual photo taking. Parbhatbhai’s wife enthusiastically showed off her cotton picking outfit of pinafore and head scarf (with practical pockets to prevent contamination) and was pleased and amused when my colleague Amie tried on the outfit at her suggestion. With trust and respect gained, we were offered some buffalo milk tea (fresh from the buffalo right next to us) and we asked, simply, why do they choose to grow organic? Parbhatbhai and his family became animated: ‘Organic is better for our land and safer for our families, we want to grow organically.’ But they need a good price for their harvest to sustain production. ‘If brands want sustainable organic cotton, they must be willing to pay for it. We have to survive and protect our land for our family,’ he told us.
We were told a similar story by all the other farmers we met that day. Mrs Hemaben Deva Bhojak, a confident, strong Rapar woman, was completely unphased by the troop of westerners visiting her home. Hemaben emphasised the importance of leaving clean land and healthy soil to her sons so that they don’t have to migrate to the city and live in slums, like millions of other Indians have to every year. Finally. in the village of Bhimasar we met Mr Khima Bhavan Patani, who demonstrated the importance of how organic farming uses ‘free’ on-farm inputs such as manure and neem oil, avoiding the need for expensive synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
I saw the best side of cotton production in India: factories where people matter and working conditions are good; farmland which is biologically diverse and safe for families; healthy people who find dignity in their work. But as we all know, this is the exception. Most of the cotton we buy comes from farms polluted with pesticides, and factories with little social responsibility or facility for waste-water treatment.
The biggest eye opener for me was just how many people are involved in the supply chain – farmers, ginners, weavers, dyers, sewers, folders (!), quality control, shippers – the list is near endless. There are literally hundreds of people involved in making one t-shirt or pair of jeans. I used to wonder how that t-shirt could be so cheap. Now I know either people or the environment, or both, must have suffered.
This is why choosing organic cotton is such a powerful form of direct action. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the international organic standard for textile processing, which groups such as the Soil Association Certification certify to. If you’re buying GOTS certified organic cotton, then you know that people further down the supply chain aren’t suffering for your choice, and neither is the environment.
I saw a better way of making cotton in India. I think if most people could go on this same journey, they would not ask for their clothes to be made in any other way.
George Thomas is Textiles Manager for Soil Association Certification, working with the fashion and textile industry to develop the market for organic textiles. Born in Manchester (home of the cotton industry), with degrees from the London College of Fashion, and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) focussing on the ethics of cotton production, she has worked in fashion PR for sports brand Henry Lloyd and the ethical fashion label People Tree, as well as on development projects for NGOs. Hardly surprisingly, she’s been a driving force behind the joint Soil Association and GOTS Have You Cottoned On Yet? campaign.