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EFF SOURCE Fashion business success without compromise

1 January 2010


Contributor Ethical Fashion Forum


Pesticides, insecticides and other chemicals are used during crop growth and to dye and bleach fabric – and then to soften it and create finishing effects. These chemicals affect the environment where they are used, seeping into water and land, as well as posing serious threats to the health and safety of the people working with them.


1. Introduction
2. The problem with pesticides
3. Chemicals and the law
4. Summary
5. Useful Links

1. Introduction

Pesticides and insecticides are used by farmers to protect crops from pests, while other chemicals are used during processing to dye and achieve finishes on fabrics.

However, the use of such chemicals is increasingly linked to harmful side-effects. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Cotton uses 22.5% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of all pesticides, on 2.5% of agricultural land. Chlorpyrifos, used in West African cotton, causes brain and foetal damage, impotence and sterility.

22.5% of the world’s insecticides are used during cotton production

Chemical usage is an ethical issue for 5 reasons:

  • Pesticides and chemicals have been proven to contaminate water supplies. In developing countries this is a particular issues, as drinking water is often untreated.
  • Health issues linked with pesticides and chemicals : Cancer, respiratory problems, foetal abnormality, sterility
  • Pesticide poisoning affects up to 3% of agricultural workers globally
  • Inhibits bio-diversity
  • Chemicals are expensive- they can make up 60% of farmer’s production costs. Such cost can lead to debt, which has been linked to a rise in depression and suicide among Indian farmers

The most pioneering fashion businesses have chosen to reduce the toxic pesticides and chemicals used to make their clothes, through sourcing to organic standards, banning or phasing out the use of certain chemicals in their production processes.

More companies need to take a lead and follow suit. Consumers can encourage this by supporting businesses which have clear policies and which have taken steps to ban toxic chemicals from their supply chains.

2. The problem with pesticides

The purpose of pesticides and insecticides is to kill, repel or inhibit the growth of living organisms by damaging the essential biological processes that maintain life. The problem is that the pesticides affect not only the pest species but also the well-being of adults and children. (WHO)

In some areas, the cost of chemicals is now reaching 60% of farmers’ production costs.

Between 1 and 3% of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning with at least 1 million requiring hospitalisation each year, according to a report prepared jointly for the FAO, UNEP and WHO.

These figures equate to between 25 million and 77 million agricultural workers worldwide. Some of the symptoms of pesticide poisoning include headaches, vomiting, tremors, lack of coordination, difficulty breathing or respiratory depression, loss of consciousness, seizures and death.

Studies have been undertaken that have shown that countries producing cotton, such as USA, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Australia, Greece and West Africa, have detected pesticides in the water stream that are applied to cotton. This is concerning for developing countries where drinking water is rarely monitored and treated.

3. Chemicals and the law

It is only after undisputable proof of the negative effects of a certain chemical are it is banned. Chemicals that were used 20 years ago, in the production of cotton for example, are now banned. (PAN UK, My Sustainable T-Shirt 2007)

Following a report in 2004 scientists discovered that the pesticides that are applied to cotton during the production phase can be detected in cotton clothing in chemical residues that affect the wearer. (www.fibtex.lodz.pl)

Some dyes, from a group called azo-dyes, have been proven to release cancer-causing substances, and have recently been banned by a European Union law. Until very recently, these chemicals were widely used.

Finally, some chemicals such as formaldehyde, which is a skin irritant and has been linked to cancer, are restricted, but still allowed.

4. Summary

Concerns surrounding chemical side-effects continue to grow as research links chemicals to increasing amounts of health afflictions.

Searching for naturally dyed fabrics and organically grown cottons is the best way to reduce the amount of harmful chemicals in garments, though sourcing such products can still pose some difficulties.

Organisations such as GOTS ( the Global Organic Textile Standard) work with farmers, textile industry, retailers and consumers to ensure that textiles have the minimum environmental impact. GOTS provide a certification mark for textile products found to meet strict production standards.

5. Useful links

Global Organic Textile Standard – GOTShttp://www.global-standard.org/

Pesticide Action Network-PAN UK- works to eliminate the dangers of toxic pesticides, our exposure to them, and their presence in the environment where we live and work

Environmental Justice Foundations cotton campaign

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