Back in the turbulent 1960s, the battles for social justice and peace were waged in the streets and campuses, while their sometimes violent images were splashed across the television headline news. With time, the Hippies morphed into the Yuppies and their children have grown into Generation X and Gen Y. The collective voice for a higher quality of life has perhaps become less strident, but the desires for social justice, a healthy planet and a pure life filled with happiness and energy are still strong and vibrant.
One battle front has quietly moved into our closets. The organic clothing and eco-fashion movement has become a major and largely silent force in improving the life and health of our personal, social and global eco-systems.
Our clothes closets
When we think about global warming, growing cancer rates, deepening poverty in some of the world’s poorest countries, and even increasing chemical sensitivities, our clothes closets are probably not the first villain that comes to mind, but our clothes can be a significant, quiet co-conspirator.
The global clothing industry has a worldwide Dark Side of which most of us are not aware as we fill our shopping bags with inexpensive cotton shirts from mall clothing stores. The simple act of conventionally growing and harvesting the one pound of cotton fiber needed to make a T-shirt takes an enormous and devastating toll on the earth’s air, water and soil, which impacts global health. Also, policies and practices within the cotton industry from crop subsidies to garment sweatshops create poverty and misery that stretch around the world.
Just 2.4 percent of the world’s arable land is planted with cotton, yet cotton accounts for 24 percent of the world’s insecticide market and 11 percent of global pesticides sales, making it the most pesticide-intensive crop grown on the planet. The environmental damage due to toxic herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and synthetic chemical fertilizers is significant and sometimes deadly to farm workers and wildlife near the cotton farms. Irrigation and rainwater runoff contain high levels of chemical pollutants, which poison streams, rivers, lakes and seep into wells and reservoirs used for community drinking water. Many municipal water treatment centers lack equipment to eliminate these toxic chemicals before they enter city water lines. Residues of pesticides have been measured in human amniotic fluid and they accumulate in fatty tissues and have been found in human breast milk.
For the chemically sensitive and everyone concerned about the levels of chemical toxicity that ultimately travel into our bodies, the cotton fields are just the beginning of the long, chemical road to our wardrobes and closets.
A growing problem
Chemical toxins are a growing problem for everyone – you, me, your family, people everywhere. Dr. Dick Irwin, a toxicologist at Texas A&M University, stated that "chemicals have replaced bacteria and viruses as the main threat to health."
The diseases we are beginning to see as the major causes of death in the later part of (the 1900s) and into the 21st century," he said, "are diseases of chemical origin."
The chemical toxic overload growing around us is taking many forms, including increases in cancer, asthma and a condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), which medical researchers believe arises from a physiology that has been weakened by an overexposure to chemical toxins. This overexposure probably occurs gradually over many years. Researchers have long known that chemical toxins can be stored and accumulated in the fatty tissue and organs such as the liver. MCS is thought to be a result of the chemical "straw that breaks the back" of our body’s natural ability to purify and remove toxins, and it causes a temporary or prolonged breakdown in the body’s natural balance. Harsh and toxic chemicals from clothing dyes and easy-care clothing finishes can be directly absorbed through the wearer’s skin into the blood system.
The conventional garment industry has been like a silent, global tsunami that endlessly rolls across the world swamping communities in toxic pesticides, dyes, harsh manufacturing chemicals, polluting ground waters, killing wildlife, seriously harming farm workers, often trapping garment workers – many of whom are children – in developing countries to sweatshop conditions, while U.S. cotton subsidies to corporate American cotton growers depress global cotton prices to some of the world’s poorest cotton farmers in developing African countries. All this pain is for cheap, easy-care, chain-store clothing, which has been drenched in harsh and often toxic chemicals. And the final irony is that this chemically laced conventional clothing then aggravates and helps contribute to growing health problems and chemical sensitivities for the wearer.
Because of the vastness of the global clothing industry, any positive changes that we can produce in our clothes closets will have large rewards. There is a growing movement among fashion designers and independent, organic garment manufacturers to create apparel that is a positive, life-supporting and eco-friendly force. Katharine Hamnett, an English fashion designer deeply committed to ethically and environmentally sustainable fashions and recipient of the prestigious British Designer Of The Year Award, recently proclaimed, "I want to prove to the industry that there’s a viable alternative financial model the world can benefit from. The effect of the clothing industry has more impact on climate change than if the entire world signed the Kyoto Agreement."
Organic clothing has come a long way since the hippie, oatmeal-type of clothes. Linda Loudermilk, another eco-fashion designer of Haute Couture who is capturing global attention said, "I design to hit people at a gut level; to capture the soul and raw beauty of people and nature. The garments in my fall collection inherently bring up our universal connectedness and our responsibility to take care of each other and the earth. This collection is about the hope in the world and the we are all one spirit."
The deep desire to improve the quality of life individually and globally is spreading throughout the clothing and fashion world. Eco-designer to celebrities such as Charlize Theron, Gwen Stefani, Cameron Diaz and Sarah Jessica Parker, Deborah Lindquist simply declared, "I want to do my best to take care of the planet by designing with recycled and eco-friendly materials. I think we all have to start with what we know, because it can seem like a daunting task, because I feel the world is in crisis. I design clothing, so I figured I’d start there."
You need not be a celeb to begin to transform your clothes closet into a force for positive change. A growing number of organic clothing manufacturers are creating purely beautiful, healthy and practical clothing for everyday life using organic cottons, hemp, wool, alpaca and newer eco-fibers, such as bamboo and soya. As members of the Organic Trade Association, they also actively support the principles of Fair Trade and social justice for all farm and garment workers.
The organic and sustainable clothing industry has become a critical support for the holistic health movement. Yoga, for example, has become immensely popular to improve cardiovascular and respiratory efficiencies, while reducing mental stress. It is difficult to imagine doing yoga while wrapped in conventional chemical clothing.
The most practical way to transform your clothes closet from chemical to healthy is one garment at a time. Few can afford a dramatic "everything goes" experience. When you need to replace a garment, replace it with organic. If you are replacing clothing that is still wearable, donate it to a local thrift store or homeless shelter. There are many who need decent clothing even if it is conventionally grown and manufactured. Recycling is an important, eco-friendly principal. When shopping for new apparel, forget the chain store malls and check out local and online organic clothing stores.
Clothing is innately an expression of your values, so if you care about social justice and the environment then make your clothing express those values. Katharine Hamnett expressed it very succinctly, "Are you going to mindlessly go the easy way or are you going to go the ethical way?"