From Boll to Baby

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-By Kristy Attard

Organics… What was once dismissed as the domain of hippies is now a fashionable choice for consumers. Today people feel comfortable with eating organic foods, believing that not only is it better for their health, it’s better for the environment. The only factor most people grumble about is the price. How about buying an organic bib for your baby? Organic shirts for your kids? Organic textiles are a niche market, but they have a green appeal that is fast becoming popular with today’s eco conscious consumer. People today are seeking ethical alternatives to products laced with artificial pesticides and dangerous chemicals. Besides being trendy, organic cotton gives the ethical buyer peace of mind. It’s all about having a choice in what you buy for you and your family.

Cotton is the most widely grown crop used for textiles production in the world. It’s a durable, breathable and easy to wash fabric. Many people like the idea that cotton comes from a plant; it’s natural as opposed to man-made fabrics like polyester, and this is often, it itself, a selling point. But how natural is conventional cotton really? From the fluffy cotton boll in the field to what you see for sale in the shops, producing conventional cotton uses a deadly chemical cocktail. Cotton happens to be the most pesticide dependent crop in the world, accounting for approximately 25 per cent of the world’s pesticide use. Worryingly, many developing countries that export cotton do not have chemical use regulations when farming and processing cotton. The business of producing conventional cotton may be the lifeblood of poverty stricken communities, but often at a crippling cost to their health. The improper storage and application of chemicals can have deadly side effects. In third world cotton growing communities a multitude of diseases and health problems from headaches to birth defects are directly linked to pesticide use.

Many Australian consumers would be horrified to know that child and slave labour is still used in a number of overseas cotton producing countries. It’s a pressing social issue fuelling the vicious poverty cycle that continues even today. Children, mainly girls, are deprived of an education and forced to work long hours under deplorable conditions. They suffer horribly, being ruthlessly exploited and abused in fields and sweatshops. From farming cotton to processing the fibre into fabric, workers are exposed to highly toxic chemicals. Lacking basic PPE (personal protective equipment) like gloves and face masks, their bodies absorb pesticides and chemicals which poison them causing nausea, vomiting, fainting, respiratory illnesses, and other ailments.

Cotton is one of Australia’s most important agriculture crops, with 95 per cent being exported worldwide. Australian cotton farmers deserve credit for reducing the amount of pesticides they use by a massive 90 per cent since the 1960s. Much of this reduction in pesticide use is due to the introduction of Bollgard II, a genetically modified species of cotton introduced in 1996. Genetically modified products, however, carry with them their own health and environmental concerns, and are already very unpopular with consumers. Genetically modified cotton is not widely marketed, as a majority of consumers simply feel uncomfortable with the idea of wearing it. Despite the considerable reduction in pesticide use it imparts, genetically modified cotton sounds too space age, too scientific.

Cotton, unfortunately, is attacked by a variety of pests – the Heliothis moth being particularly damaging. The moth lays its eggs inside the cotton flower, with the hatched larvae then destroying the cotton bolls. Left uncontrolled, the pest can devastate entire crops, financially ruining farmers. Traditionally the way to control the Heliothis moth was through chemical spraying, but the legal application of chemicals when growing cotton kills millions of birds and aquatic life every year. Chemical runoff ends up in the watertable of the field, which rises up during rain. One solution – genetically modifying the Heliothis pest with the genes of a jellyfish – has been considered to spread infertility in the breed. The long-term environmental effects of such an action are unknown.

The pros and cons of genetically modifying plants and animals are fiercely debated among scientists, professors, farmers and consumers. The idea that we as a society are scientifically manipulating Mother Nature is scary to many consumers. The general trend is to get back to Earth and protect it. No matter what side of the fence you sit on regarding genetic modification, the process raises numerous ethical, social and environmental questions. Is this symptomatic of a world that’s turning into Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ dystopia of scientific engineering in the quest for perfection? What are the long term effects of the process on the birds, bats and spiders that feed off the Heliothis moth?

In organic cotton farming, absolutely no genetically modified cottonseeds and organisms are used. Organic cotton farming utilises environmentally sound, sustainable practices of land management and pest control. Yes, contrary to popular belief, organic cotton is sprayed to control pests. However, it is sprayed using plant based sprays containing neem oil, garlic and chilli extracts, not synthetic chemical sprays. Predatory species to that of the pest may be introduced. Mulching prevents the onset of weeds, with any weeds being removed by hand. Crops are rotated to ensure the nutrients in the soil are replenished. Farmers alternate using crops like Lucerne, Canola and Mustard to reduce the onset of diseases, promote beneficial insects and put nutrients back into the soil. It keeps the biological balance in check. Organic cotton farming works in harmony with the Earth’s natural processes, with a focus on prevention rather than cure.

The benefits of organic cotton production don’t end in the field. The cotton manufacturing sector has an ugly relationship with the environment, mainly concerning water pollution. Harsh chemicals and detergents are used to turn the raw cotton fibre into items during the manufacturing stages. Vast quantities of acidic grey water from the washing, dyeing, printing and treating stages wind up in waterways, upsetting the delicate ecological balance. If these slow-to-biodegrade chemicals do not kill fish outright, they affect their reproductive systems, often leaving them sterile.

No formaldehyde, petroleum scours, chlorine bleaches and the like are used when processing organic cotton fibre. Instead, gentle alternatives like potato starch, earth clays and vegetable or mineral based inks and binders are used to create items without any harmful chemical residue. To be certified organic cotton, the chemicals used to process the fibre into fabric must be natural or plant based.

Organic cotton farmers do get a smaller yield compared to their conventional counterparts, therefore organic cotton is more expensive to buy with the cost being passed on to the consumer. With the rising cost of living, price becomes an issue for many people. However there is one area where people are happy to buy only the best and that’s where their children are concerned. There are increasing numbers of babies and children who experience chemical allergies and sensitive skin. Eczema is one common skin complaint that can be exacerbated or even caused by chemical allergies. The condition causing itchy red rashes and oozing blisters is not life threatening, but nonetheless distressing in babies and infants with their delicate skin.

Using organic cotton to design and manufacture clothing imparts a unique selling point to the product. Organic cotton has a sense of ethical luxury to it; not only is it a beautiful fabric, it was grown in harmony with people and with nature. While organic cotton production may never fully take the place of conventional cotton, the health, social and environmental benefits are huge. Organic cotton alternatives are out there and are worth pursuing. Just think, by making an informed choice we can change the world with our spending, one humble organic cotton tee at a time.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

September 20, 2018, 5:32 AM AEST