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How fair is your eco gear?: Don't assume Big Apparel's organic threads are sweatshop-free

Someone must have slipped some thing in my water, because a giant two-dimensional sex kitten seems to be beckoning me to try on a bamboo bra. A few feet later, a billboard promises 10 per cent off anything in the store if I simply slip on a pair of organic jeans. But this is no hippy mirage. It's the mall at 6 pm on a Monday.

Welcome to the mainstreaming of eco chic.

Sure, global warming is on every politician's lips, but the real sign that the environment has made its way into mass culture is way more street. Consumers don't just want to munch on organic food; they want to wear their eco commitment on their sleeve. Literally. And Big Apparel is clearly catching on.

The question is, does an organic tag at a three-for-one panty sale guarantee that what you're buying is truly sustainable? Can you crank out a legit pair of green jeans for $49.99? Or does our definition of sustainability leave the workers who picked the cotton and sewed those garment in the dust?

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Except for a couple of big companies that started weaving organic fibres into their designs in the late 90s (think Patagonia, Nike) and a trickle of indy designers selling eco funk to a select crowd, there's no denying that the explosion in accessible green clothing has happened virtually overnight. Just a few years ago, the only ones browsing for earth-conscious threads were the peace 'n' love set content with big, baggy 'n' beige. Now Levi's has introduced its first organic jeans, La Senza rolled out eco lingerie last month, and Swedish mega-retailer H&M is putting its cheap 'n' trendy organic line on shelves as we speak.

Organic cotton production is officially booming ­ up 40 per cent from last year and a jaw-dropping 400 per cent from the start of the millennium. It's a welcome shift considering conventional cotton's devastating chemical dependence (which soaks up a quarter of the world's insecticides). No doubt it's good for farm workers who'd otherwise be stewing in toxins, but are they any better off financially when organic clothing is being peddled at such low prices?

"There's just no way you could afford to make jeans at these prices, even if you're paying $2 a metre for fabric," says Toronto-based Heather Schibli of Passenger Pigeon, who's been sewing edgy designs from organic fabric for over two years. "They're cutting corners somewhere, and I'm suspicious."

Cutting corners is, of course, what major apparel companies do best.

Kevin Thomas of the Maquila Solidarity Network worries that workers will be forgotten when a shiny organics label gets slapped on clothing.

"There's a danger that consumers see 'eco-friendly' as 'worker-friendly,' and they're not the same thing," says Thomas. "Obviously, it's great that they're using organic cotton, but that doesn't mean that either cotton farmers or the people sewing the garments are producing them under fair labour conditions."

The standard supply-chain-squeezing, lowest-price-for-the-quickest-turnaround business model still applies. Pressure to meet those conditions, notes Thomas, is enough to turn any organic op into a sweatshop.

It has certainly been enough to drive organic cotton farms and mills out of the U.S. to cheaper pastures in India, Turkey, Pakistan and China, where labour rights abuses are common. And it definitely doesn't help that working conditions aren't built into government organic regs or that corporate codes of conduct don't extend to fields. Even organic farm workers in California are scraping by on minimum wage without benefits or health insurance, according to a 2005 University of California, Davis study.

Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association, a body representing 850,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, says the lack of worker protections in organics can manifest in troubling ways. "You can slap on an organic label that's government-approved even if it's produced under slave-labour-type conditions in China or India or causing deforestation in Brazil in the Amazon," says Cummins.

"The major problem is that companies like Wal-Mart and Nike are doing this to greenwash themselves, to be able to maintain their overall labour exploitation and non-sustainable operating practices."

Nevertheless, Rebecca Calahan Klein, director of Organic Exchange, a California-based not-for-profit that works with industry to boost organic cotton use in apparel and more, maintains that the certified organics system is a transformative force.

"One of the most powerful things about making the decision to use organic ingredients in your product, whether it's food or beauty or apparel, is that the organic system requires you to track an ingredient through the process. For the first time in almost every industry, we're taking a black-box industry and making it transparent."

Take child labour. It's used in agriculture whether it's conventional or organic, says Klein. But she explains that the transparency of organic structures makes its use a lot less likely.

For its part, Organic Exchange is pushing conversations with its corporate members about farm worker rights and creating sustainable farming systems by pushing for long-term contracts with farmers.

But while, to their credit, a few companies like Nike and Levi Strauss have actually made such long-term commitments (both use organic fibres for at least 3 per cent of their clothing), most are just testing the waters.

"This is not permanent. This is just to see how customers respond," says an H&M rep about the company's latest organic line, whose tags all say the clothes are sewn in Turkey. Wal-Mart and La Senza are also reluctant to commit to the longevity of their organic collections, though Wal-Mart insists this is part of its larger long-term commitment to going green. "Organic cotton is one of the areas where we're trying to make a significant difference," says Andrew Pelletier, director of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Canada.

However, when I ask how Wal-Mart's organic yoga and baby clothes can be so cheap, Pelletier says, "'Everyday low prices' is our mantra, and that applies to organic cotton as well."

It's enough to make consumers giddy and enviros gasp. Yes, rock-bottom prices might boost the accessibility of organics, but they also mean buying into the long-distance supply chain that comes with heavy carbon costs. Not to mention a drop in quality that's bound to cut into the very nature of a green garment that should be designed to last more than one season.

Max Valiquette of the Youthography marketing agency says it's tough for consumers to keep track of conflicting shopping requirements when they're walking around the mall.

"Think about the amount of time and research and energy it honestly takes in your own life to make sure everything you ever consume is eco-friendly, made under the proper working conditions, by companies that are giving a significant portion of their profits back to charities that you support. It can be really, really difficult, so what we end up looking for are symbols that provide a shorthand."

The OCA's Cummins says it's time for a new label that can draw consumers to eco-friendly, socially responsible products. Some progressive European certifiers are already folding the two together. If we want to see it here, Cummins notes, "we the grassroots are going to have to implement these standards ourselves and force them on the marketplace."   the end adriav@nowtoronto.com

NOW Magazine, www.nowtoronto.com
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MARCH 22 - 28, 2007 |
VOL. 26 NO. 29 Entire contents are © 2007 NOW Communications Inc. story
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