Fashion Statement Katharine Hamnett is making green the new black by Marilyn Berlin Snell
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Hamnett, shown above in Mali, would like the developing world to get a bigger piece of the $7 trillion global retail industry.
The clothing and textile industries, along with related industries like agriculture, footwear, and jewelry, are among the most water-intensive, labor exploiting, and polluting in the world. According to Keith Slater, author of the book Environmental
Impact of Textiles, the industry's sins are so widespread that it's almost impossible to catalog them all.
The worst problems occur in developing nations, where environmental regulations are lax. "Their governments want hard currency and are prepared to be more lenient than Western nations in permitting pollution," Slater says. "Until recently, it was quite usual for a textile company to do all the clean operations in its home country, ship the dirty processing abroad, then re-import the treated goods for sale as Western products."
Comparing textiles with mining, Slater adds, "Both are heavy polluters, but the mining industry leaves behind long-term visible traces like tailings, whereas textile pollution leaves hidden traces"ľairborne fibers, insecticide residue, and polluted waterways, for exampleľ"that lead to disease and the destruction of wildlife."
The day I visited Hamnett, the London
Times published a page-three story titled "Organic Cloth Rescued From Fashion Hell," with photos from an organic clothing line called People Tree and extensive quotes from Hamnett. She peruses the article, takes a drag on her ever-present cigarette, and shakes her head. She doesn't like the way the shirts are cut or the baggy way the skirt falls on the model.
"They're a bit worthy," she says, using a term at once diplomatic and tart. "We're being worthy too, but you can't look it! We've done research on 'organic' and it has appalling connotations. People think 'oatmeal' and 'awful.' You don't have to sacrifice fashion. There are sartorial standards: gorgeous, posh, sexy. It's possible to produce in harmony with nature and at the same time not turn back toward wearing hairy sacks."
A pair of Hamnett's organic jeans will run from $128 to $240. She obviously isn't trying to compete with the low-cost producers. "You can call it hoity-toity, but I'm a fashion designer and I make long-lasting, beautiful clothes with a classical design, which is actually quite resource-efficient. I hate the word 'holistic,' but the concept is important. I need to convince the consumer that my line is different; that it's worth investing in clothing that has been made without harming the environment, by people who have been paid a decent wage."
Someone always pays the real cost of clothing, Hamnett says, whether it's the consumer, the sweatshop worker, or the Third World farmer who can't read the label on the cotton pesticides he's using. "There's a threat to creation implicit in our consumer choices," she says, adding that it doesn't have to be that way. "Your aesthetics, your values, and your principles can really count for something."
Hamnett has a regal bearing even in denim and flip-flops. When she swears, which is frequently when discussing the fashion industry, she doesn't lose that cultivated air. She knows she's being provocative when she rails against the insipid chatter that passes for conversation in the fashion world, or against those who pay the child seamstress pennies a day. "I don't care what the industry thinks of me or my product," says Hamnett. "I'm interested in the consumer, who has far more conscience than industry has." She believes in consumer power. Her job, as she sees it, is to design change and thereby give consumers better choices.
Hamnett's road to green jeans hasn't been easy. She's been trying to develop an organic line since 1989, when she started researching a speech she was to give, along with The Body Shop's Anita Roddick, at a fashion conference in New York. "I found out about the poisoning deaths associated with the textile industry, especially cotton growing," she says. Twenty thousand deaths a year have been attributed to accidental poisonings that occur during pesticide mixing, from leaking equipment, from inhalation of fumes while spraying, and from pesticide-saturated work clothes. "It was untenable."
Back then, she found it impossible to get organic cotton in the quantity and quality she needed. Now, out of necessity, Hamnett is involved in the process from seed to storeľan exhausting, exhilarating endeavor. She's a good multitasker, though, having raised two sons while running a multimillion-dollar business. As she says, "It helps to have a 'grasshopper mind.'"
To make sure everything comes together, she must pay attention to every link on the supply chain. "I buy the organic cotton from the farmer, pay the spinner, pay the weaver, and get rid of the middlemen making unnecessary commissions. It'll cost me 30 percent less that way, and I can still pay the worker more than in the traditional structure." Her new line will be made of organic cotton from west Africa. A factory in India that pays its workers decently and has an on-site school and teacher-training program will spin and weave her cotton into fabric. She's also using factories in Italy that adhere to the European Union's fair-labor standards. The clothing will be manufactured in her home country, because she wants a "Made in UK" label.
Her commitment to using organic fibers from Africa was inspired by a 2003 trip sponsored by Oxfam, which works to relieve poverty and promote self-sufficiency around the world. One of the people she met while in Mali was the 22-year-old wife of a cotton grower whose desperate hard work had failed to make ends meet for his family. The woman, Hawa Diakite, had had seven children, three of whom had died of malnutrition. "The system is unbelievably brutal; I can't find the words to describe what I saw," Hamnett says.
Cotton growing and processing in west-central Africa provides the only real cash crop and employment for an estimated 10 million people. But low prices on the world cotton markets are driving millions of African farmers deeper into poverty. If one follows those depressed prices to their source, the cotton thread winds back to the United States, a nation that can afford to overproduce at artificially high rates because of hefty agricultural subsidies doled out to large-scale farmers and agro-industries.
That African farmers like Diakite's husband must compete directly with U.S. industry infuriated developing-nation negotiators at the World Trade Organization meeting in 2003. When the United States refused to change its policies, proposing instead that Africa's cotton growers move away from this essential crop, the meeting ground to a halt. The London Financial Times summed up the debacle with "Talks Unravel Over Cotton," driving home the irony that U.S. cotton-farm subsidies are sometimes larger than the entire U.S. Agency for International Development budget for Africa.
Hamnett and the Oxfam representatives met with Mali's minister of agriculture,
who offered the group a chance to run a model farm. Hamnett says the project
would require about $250,000 but could teach farmers how to grow organic cotton
-- a project she has on her massive To Do list.
One bedeviling item she's been able to check off has to do with organic certification,
a serious obstacle for farmers in Africa. Conducted for the most part by organizations
from developed nations, certification costs each farmer upwards of $8,000,
while many make less than $350 a year. To reduce the burden, Hamnett found
a way to involve associations from the UK that she trusts -- a collaboration
she's proud of. "Look, I've done the Paris shows, where all these people come
backstage and air-kiss and say they loved the line, and I'm just trying to
face because I don't give a damn. That life never gave me the kind of high
I got when PAN UK and the Soil Association agreed to help train local organic
certifiers in Mali."
Hamnett believes that organic growers in Africa could be competitive with conventional cotton growers if certification were cheaper, the global trading regime were fairer, and (this is where she really comes in) the farmers had a market. Finally, things are rolling her way. As of October, her menswear line was in production. At her insistence, the company will make her clothes out of organic fabric, sourced and paid for ethically.
As Hamnett designs her new line, she understands that creating a market means
creating a lifeline to farmers, spinners, dyers, and seamstresses. She's even
calculated, with the help of PAN UK, that for every thousand pairs of jeans
she sells, she can bring another African farmer off pesticides and into the
organic fold. "All you have to do is get the clothes made right and in the
shop, then take some of that money and put it back into your projects" -- like
the model farm in Mali or research into using the Ugandan black ant, the nginingini,
which is a natural enemy of cotton pests. In Hamnett's world, the supply chain
isn't abstract, or someone else's problem; it includes living things to which
she feels a responsibility.
With less than 1 percent of global cotton organic, Hamnett pretty much has the haute market to herself. "The fashion industry tends to attract people with serious personality defects. They just want to be rich and famous," Hamnett says. "But at some point you have to decide: Are you going to mindlessly go the easy way or are you going to go the ethical way?"