Cotton production may become the next big issue for the rag trade


If you think your underwear is clean, activists at London Fashion Week might beg to differ.

Top designers and models are championing "clean cotton" on behalf of the Environmental Justice Foundation, a nongovernmental group that hopes to call attention to the cotton industry's alleged connection to pesticide poisoning, child labor, environmental depletion and thousands of deaths a year.

The campaign, called "Pick Your Cotton Carefully," sells organic and fair-trade cotton T-shirts. The foundation hopes to ban cotton produced through forced child labor and to expose the use of pesticides in central Asia and West Africa that it calls deadly.

"Without a doubt it kills people and it kills wildlife," said Juliette Williams, the foundation's co-founder.

The foundation enlisted the help of four designers to create the T-shirts: Luella Bartley, Betty Jackson and Katharine Hamnett &

who are showing at London Fashion Week &

and French designer Christian Lacroix. Hamnett has worked for the cause since 2003, when a trip to cotton farms in Africa introduced her to impoverished farmers.

In the United States, organic cotton is probably the most common "green" fabric. Wal-Mart is now the biggest seller of organic cotton products worldwide.The British campaign follows the foundation's three-year investigation into trade and agricultural practices of cotton worldwide.

One of their main targets is Uzbekistan, the third largest exporter of cotton. The foundation claims the government forces children as young as 7 out into the fields to pick cotton. An official who refused to give his name at the Uzbekistan Embassy in London denied the allegation and said the former Soviet bloc country is the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by its competitors.

Retailers in Britain have taken notice of the foundation's cause. Tesco and Marks Spencer have banned the use of child-labor produced cotton from Uzbekistan.

But Terry Townsend, the executive director of the International Cotton Advisory Committee &

which promotes the cotton industry &

says these companies are misinformed.

"These kinds of claims are just unbelievable to people who work in the industry and travel to Uzbekistan and know what's going on there," Townsend said.

Townsend said that many of the problems identified by activists do not reflect the industry as a whole and that child labor, pesticide pollution and the draining of the Aral Sea in central Asia started and ended with the Soviet era.

The cotton industry employs 350 million people worldwide and produces 26 million tons of cotton a year.

Only 53,000 tons of cotton are produced by organic and fair-trade sources each year &

not enough to meet demand, Townsend said.

The cotton industry was valued at $32 billion in 2006, but activists claim sharecroppers in developing countries rarely see profits from their work and some wages are so low, parents often send children to work for supplemental income.

Townsend disputes the reports of widespread child labor abuses in Uzbekistan.

"For that to be true, there would have to be millions of children in fields all across the country for months," Townsend said. "That would be impossible. More people would have seen it."

Pesticide problems in the environment can also be traced back to the Soviet era, when an influx of thirsty cotton farms in central Asia shrunk the Aral Sea for irrigation and pesticide runoff disrupted the salinity of the water, killing the sea's fish.

The foundation's booth at fashion week is among environmentally-conscious designers who already buy organic and fair-trade materials.

Among them is 26-year-old Sarah Lucy Smith whose quirky underwear line, "GreenKnickers," was among the first brands to be awarded a fair-trade certification.

"It's really simple &

people die to make our clothes when we make things that are not fair trade," Smith said. "I think if people really understood the reality they'd probably say, 'I'd rather be naked' than wear something that someone had to die to produce."

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