Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Organic cotton in Turkey

‘Fair’, ‘hiphonest’, ‘ethical’, and ‘sustainable’ clothing production are in the trend. More and more clothing brands are stepping in. Off course they use this to pimp up their image with smiling, dark skinned people between the white cotton fields. But how close to reality are these images actually?

We wanted to know more about what words like ecological, sustainable and ´fair circumstances´ mean in practice when it comes to cotton and clothing production. We traveled to Turkey and tasted a bit of what ecological cotton and clothing production looks like.

Please note that this report is subjective and may not be generalizable for the whole ecological cotton branch!

I met up with Mr. Mehmet Tozan in the morning. He is representing the ecological cotton producer BoWeevil in Turkey and also working for the Good Food Foundation, supplying Turkish ecological agricultural products to Europe. I got to know him as a very friendly businessman with his heart on the right place.
First we visited a factory where organic cotton clothing is manufactured. It was a not too large factory, the work floor did not look all too big, and it pretty much looked like an ordinary no-nonsense factory. We arrived during a break, giving an impression of a relaxed working atmosphere. The company office and working place were in the same building, just devided by some doors and stairs. The departments we visited had about thirty to forty workers. There was not much fun or laughing, just concentrated working. Organic and non-organic are both processed in the factory, and the percentage of organic is growing, now up to fifty percent. When a production is organic, this is recognized with signs above the production saying ‘organic’.

Next we visited a cotton dying factory. Cotton dying is a complex process, done with big, hot and steaming machines. Because of all noises it was hard to talk about the process while watching it. In the lab we saw all being tested in small scale. Every cotton order is here tested completely before it is taken in process. Material quality, washing, shrinking, slitting, and off course the color substance and reaction of cotton and color. Quite a complex process, this dying process. After coloring and drying, the cotton is also checked meter per meter on its quality.

We were in the wrong season for seeing the white cotton fields waving at us, but it was anyway good to hear the story of cotton farming and see the fields and the farm. The farm was on the foot of a small hill, and this hill was surrounded by their fields. On top of the hill you could have a nice view, and on its foot there was the farm buildings and the cows.
It is hard nowadays to grow cotton in Turkey, because of the high currency Turkish cotton has become too expensive for the world market, and less cotton is produced. The area we visited was in earlier times filled with cotton for almost hundred percent, now there is only a bit of it left.

For harvesting conventional cotton they use heavy pesticides to get the leaves of, which makes it possible to harvest the cotton with machines. Organic cotton is still harvested by hand, as they can't use chemicals. It is getting harder to find enough workers to harvest the cotton, it is expensive and they are only needed for the harvest time. Organic cotton does not give a much higher price than conventional, so one must be quite a believer to process organic cotton. All this doesn´t seem to make it too easy to be an organic cotton farmer. Respect!

Also other organic products here in Turkey are often just sold as conventional. We have seen organic olive oil, milk, cheese and vegetables sold without being labelled. There is not a developed market for these products, often there are no opportunities to process a product separately. And off course there are still small, local, traditional farmers that just don't use chemicals, without knowing anything about eco labels.

Last we visited a cotton ginnery close to the farm. During the ginning process the cotton is separated from the seeds, then it is cleaned and put together. The cotton here was of good quality with long fibers, you only had to turn it a bit around and you had a good, strong thread. The ginnery was pretty small and combined with a small olive oil pressing factory, which gave it a picturesque atmosphere.

Ecological cotton or clothing made in Turkey does on the surface not necessarily differ so much from conventional cotton or clothing made in Turkey. A lot of machines that are used are the same, the factories are often the same, it can be the same workers and the same working conditions. So what´s the difference after all?

When it comes to labour conditions, it merely means that certain minimum standards are controlled. The guarantee that there is no child labour, that workers are payed normal salleries, labour rights are fulfilled at least normally. It does not mean that the workers are living in paradise or that they are smiling all the time. Actually, it merely means that things are normal when it comes to labor. And that's a huge difference with the conventional woriking conditions, where child labour and all kinds of workers abuses are still a daily practice, despite all efforts and promises. Organic cotton gives a minimum guarantee, so you know: no sweatshops behind your shirt.

When it comes to the ecological aspects, it means that ecological standards are recognized and controlled in all stages of the process. Ecological cotton is grown on ecological farms. Ecological farms do not only grow cotton but also other crops in rotation. The farm we visited also has milk cows, of which the manure is used as a natural fertilizer. Organic cotton is grown and picked without insecticides or pesticides. This makes the growing of organic cotton much more risky, as with most organic grown products. Organic cotton has to be picked by hand, and this is a job where you need a lot of workers for in the harvest time. In development countries this often means a that a lot of people can earn a bit on it, in Turkey it is becoming a problem.

Conventional cotton is harvested by spraying the plants with chemicals until the leaves drop, so that machines can pick the cotton. Cotton is the most pesticide-dependent crop in the world, accounting for 25% of the world's pesticides. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 20,000 deaths occur each year from pesticide poisioning in developing countries, many of these from cotton farming.

In the ginnery, dying and clothing factories, organic production processes are kept separated from conventional ones, made visibly with signs on the machines. Most machines are cleaned between the processes. For dying the cotton basically the same process is used, the difference is that for ecological cotton only ecological acceptable ingredients can be used. Therefore not every color can be made as easily, in example it is almost impossible to make turquoise ecologically. But organic dying also means no dirty, cancer-stimulating chemicals in your trousers.

Some twenty years ago a few people started with this idea of growing organic cotton, and had the courage to try it hard enough. The branche of ecological cotton has been growing, and last years there has been a rapid growth. Quite some mainstream brands want to show off with an organic clothing line.

Concluding, organic cotton is way more normal than conventional. In the end organic is not alternative at al, and does not need an ethnic or idealized image. Producing cotton in a sustainable way with some care for the environment and the workers should not be more than normal. With all the serious critics on clothing production, child labour, the sweatshops and the 20.000 pesticides victims per year, it is the organic cotton that is shows us the new standard. Now the choice what to wear is ours!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to read an eyewitness story about ecological produced cotton.
Some weeks ago I read in a magazine about an ecologicical cotton of H&M for baby clothing. So I went to H&M. What a lot of childres and baby clothes they have! But where were the ecological babyclothes? I askeda freindly young woman: "can you tell me where I can find the ecological babyclothes?" She looked at me as if I had asked where I could find the Ufo's. Because I insisted that I had read about it, she went to a colleague. Fortunatley the colleague understood and pointed out where we could find what I asked for. The young lady went with me and saw what was meant. "Ooh, organic!" she called out. She showed me which baby clothes had the label "organic". I thanked her for helping me and then asked: "do you know what it stands for, organic?"No", she said, she thought it was just a design name. She turned out to be really interested to know and thanked me for telling her.
So I think there really is a job to do find creative ways to make people aware; it is not being tought in school!