Prama Bhardwaj, CEO and founder of Mantis World, explains why using more sustainable fabrics can benefit growers, factory workers, the environment… and garment decorators
Why do you believe organic farming is preferable to non-organic?
Intensive agriculture was seen as the solution to concerns over population growth and after WW2 the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers and artificial pesticides boomed. Giant agro-businesses come at a heavy price: a push towards genetically modified (GM) crops and mass monoculture farming that’s heavily reliant on synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. These chemicals deplete the soil of its naturally nutrient-rich, water-retaining properties promoted by millions of microbes in the soil. The pesticides quite indiscriminately affect many species of plants, insects, birds and animals, and pollute not just the soil, but the water supply and air. Over time the soil becomes depleted, reliant on ever-increasing quantities of chemicals and loses its ability to hold water, resulting in land erosion, a need for more irrigation and an increased potential for flooding.
Additionally, the chemicals used have a large carbon footprint as they are made using fossil fuels. Organic farming, on the other hand, uses natural methods to promote growth and get rid of pests. These methods do not harm other wildlife and plants and encourage naturally rich, ‘living’ soil. Organic farming also embraces crop rotation and leaving the fields to rest – this means increased food security as farmers in developing countries can actually feed themselves and earn an income from growing food while the cotton is resting.
What is the evidence for non-organic cotton production being harmful to the environment and a risk to human health?
Chemical pesticides and artificial fertilisers use many chemicals that have been found to be harmful. These include nitrogen-based fertilisers and neonicotinoids, a major contributor to loss of biodiversity – eg bees and pollinators, birds, etc. The anecdotal evidence on the health of farmers from using these chemicals is overwhelming and, in March, a US jury ruled that giant agro-business Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, was liable for a California man’s cancer and ordered it to pay him US$80m in damages after previously finding that its product, the weedkiller Roundup, was a substantial factor in his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. For textile workers, if they are using the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) system of organic manufacture, only the safest dyes and chemicals are allowed to be used, thus making it much safer than cheaper alternatives on the market.
What about yields; aren’t they lower in organic farming?
One often cited criticism of organic farming is that yields are lower. Sometimes this can be because of a lack of farmer training and know-how, which definitely needs to be addressed. However, also it is because the measurement of yields does not take into account the ‘resting’ period for fields lying fallow or in crop rotation. The most remarkable thing for me is that organic agriculture can actually reverse climate change through carbon sequestration as carbon taken from the atmosphere is trapped inside the soil. In fact, soil is the second largest carbon sink on the planet after the oceans.
You mentioned GM crops; what are the question marks over GM cotton?
GM was seen as a way of increasing yields and therefore incomes. GM seeds are expensive and farmers in developing countries often go into debt to buy them. The cotton cannot be bred by the farmers themselves, so they have to go back and buy seeds every season. The most prevalent strain is called Bt cotton. Lifecycle analyses show that unlike on large organised cotton farms, such as in Australia or the US, yields are not necessarily better in smallholder farms in the developing world, which is where most cotton is grown. As a case study, Burkina Faso in West Africa stopped growing its heritage endemic cotton strains and switched to Bt cotton. They suffered not only a drop in yield, but also a dramatic drop in quality. The government has now stopped the use of Bt cotton in favour of reintroducing heritage seed strains, as well as organic cotton.
What about recycled polyester; how does that fit into the sustainable textile discussion?
Polyester is produced from the petrochemical industry and therefore has a heavy carbon footprint. Recycled polyester is made from plastic that is already out there in the world – usually from post-consumer plastic bottles – which is then converted into polyester yarn. This keeps plastic out of landfill and the oceans. There is still an issue with microfibres getting into the water supply with clothes made from recycled polyester. There are two main entry points in the garment’s lifecycle – one is at the effluent treatment plant (ETP) after the dyeing process and the other is in domestic laundry. A study of various ETPs in several countries found that a plant in Finland discharged virtually no microfibres, so there is a way for stopping it that needs to be investigated and replicated. For home laundry, I believe it should not be too much of a stretch for washing machine manufacturers to include a filter for microfibres.
Is viscose a sustainable fibre alternative?
Viscose – also known as rayon – is a fibre made from wood pulp. It makes a fabric that feels silky and is used in garments where the drape is important and it is also widely used in small quantities to create a mélange-effect in cotton-based fabrics. It has two main sustainability hot spots – firstly, it uses a very chemically intensive process to make the fibre, which is harmful to health and the environment (this is the same problem we see with using bamboo). The more critical point is that up to 40 million trees were being cut down every year from critically endangered forests to create viscose. We have partnered with an NGO called Canopy that has been engaging with the main viscose manufacturers to ensure that they have transparency in their supply of wood and have stopped sourcing wood from endangered forests.
Why should decorators care about all of this?
Apart from the obvious benefits for the workers, wildlife, the soil and the waterways, along with the reduced carbon footprint, research done by the VF Corporation, which owns brands such as Timberland, Wrangler, Dickies and The North Face, shows that 77% of millennials prefer to buy from environmentally conscious brands. As a result of the increased media coverage of the issues of ‘fast fashion’ in recent months, and TV programmes such as Blue Planet II, customers are asking more questions of companies before choosing which one to buy from. Walking through PSI this year, it was astonishing how many companies had moved from single-use throwaway plastic items to recycled, recyclable or biodegradable, and I believe this is a direct result of the massive awareness of the environmental damage from plastic use. Is our industry ready if that same spotlight is shone on us?
Do you think challenging suppliers will make a difference?
Yes, absolutely. I think we have all seen many clothing suppliers wanting to talk about sustainability and this is in large part coming in response to their customers asking these questions.
How can decorators measure their impact?
This can be done by signing up to organisations such as SCAP or Textile Exchange Preferred Fibre and Materials benchmark or using Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index and entering data relating to what garments you have sold by fibre type. This will give you a rough calculation of your impact. As an industry we are uniquely positioned to make a real impact. Rather than a retailer trying to convince 1,000 individual consumers, we need to convince the one buyer of a print run of 1,000 garments.
What are the first steps decorators should take to make their business more sustainable?
First off – start the journey! It’s perfectly okay not to be perfect – none of us is and we can all take it one step at a time. Map what you are doing already within your own business. What inks and processes are you using? What are your energy requirements and carbon footprint? You might consider switching from plastisol to water-based inks or switching energy suppliers to a greener source. Look at what garments you use and what the impact of that fibre choice is – can you improve the mix? The most important thing from a sustainability perspective is to curb overconsumption. By simply trading from cheap, disposable clothing to a higher quality and long-lasting garment, it’s a big win for the customer who gets more longevity of their brand message and it’s a win for the planet at the same time. I can’t put it into better words than Vivienne Westwood: “Buy less, choose well, make it last.”