English fashion designer, Katharine Hamnett, is responsible for a lot of firsts. She created the first slogan t-shirt in 1983 with the words "Choose Life" (taken from a Buddhism exhibition) emblazoned across the front in bold block caps. Made famous by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley in the Wham video which brought the band to international attention (Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go) and by Boy George at the height of Culture Club's success, the shirts were appropriated by the anti-abortion movement in an effort to pair the slogan with its own mission. Ms. Hamnett has gone on record as being pro-choice and claims to want to take back the slogan. She has done so quietly, in the same peaceful way she has moved through the rest of her career in fashion. After Chanel, she is probably the most influential woman in the business and one who seems to act out of a sincere wish to do good rather than from a need for personal recognition.
Katharine Hamnett invented distressed denim, stonewash denim, stretch denim, parachute silk, garment dyeing, military-inspired sportswear, leggings, lycra, and, most importantly, the environmental clothing movement. A follower of Buddhist philosophy, Ms. Hamnett experienced an epiphany when faced with the Buddhist insistence on "right" livelihood: making a living without hurting anyone or anything. It was 1989 and Hamnett had enjoyed tremendous success, being labelled the most copied designer in the industry. A little research, however, revealed that her livelihood was indeed harming others and that the fashion industry was condoning what she calls "a living environmental nightmare". (Read here for more on the human and environmental benefits of buying organic cotton.)
From 1989 to 2003, Hamnett says she attempted to change the fashion industry from within. In 2003, she conceded what most of us now know for certain, the power to effect change lies with the consumer. What Hamnett finally realized after over a decade of fruitless efforts to get industry and politicians on board is that "industries must sell but consumers don't have to buy." She decided to appeal to consumers' sense of justice by raising awareness around issues in the clothing industry, especially the benefits of buying organic cotton. Organic cotton is cotton grown in soil that has been pesticide and chemical-free for at least three years. Conventional cotton uses one-quarter of the world's pesticides even though it only represents 10% of its agriculture. What's even worse than the environmental degradation created by the cotton industry is its human cost--the two often go hand in hand.
As consumer demand for cheaper and cheaper cotton goes up (think about the $5 t-shirt you congratulated yourself for getting such a deal on), the treatment of cotton farmers and workers becomes more abysmal. 100 million conventional cotton farmers are living in deplorable conditions bordering on starvation. 20,000 people die every year from accidental pesticide poisoning, death by starvation is not uncommon, and 200,000 farmers commit suicide annually due to overwhelming debt incurred from purchasing pesticides. Another million per year suffer long-term pesticide poisoning. The numbers sound depressing but the bright side is that the situation can be reversed simply by switching to farming cotton organically. Farmers will benefit from a 40% reduction in costs and a 20% premium that they can use to improve the quality of their lives and those of their children.
As a clothing consumer, choosing organic cotton is probably the most powerful and empowering action you can take to change the lives of others, and even yourself as your choice prevents further harm to the Earth. As Hamnett says of her desire to increase demand for organic cotton: "By choosing organic cotton t-shirts you'll see how soft, stylish, and luxurious they are. More importantly, you'll help change thousands of lives for the better."