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Organic Matters

By Jamie Brisick

We’re hoping that 2020 will be a breakaway year with regards to ethical and sustainable practices within the apparel industry. Never has it been more glaring and urgent. Fast-fashion was once an arcane term, then it became commonplace. Today, fast-fashion is downright irresponsible. To borrow a catchphrase: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

On that note, I sat down with Megan Stoneburner, Outerknown’s Director of Sustainability and Sourcing. I knew a few very basic things about organic farming — that it’s better for our soil and waterways and farming communities, and that conventional cotton farming accounts for 25% of the world’s pesticide use. But there’s so much I didn’t know. Megan has worked in the apparel industry for over 10 years. Having seen the ill effects of unconscious practices, she swiftly switched over to sustainability, as she put it, “to course correct and do something about it.”

What are the advantages of organic farming?
Organic farming supports healthy soil and protects biodiversity. It means farming the land without adding any harmful synthetic chemicals or using any GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) — synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are replaced with natural ones, supporting the regenerative cycles of the planet. Soil is an incredible living thing and, beyond growing what we need, it can filter water, sequester carbon, and lay the groundwork for future growing seasons. Healthy soil is an essential building block for this planet and for all of humankind.

“Healthy soil is an essential building block for this planet and for all of humankind.”

And the downsides of conventional farming?
When chemical pesticides are used on a regular basis — and not only pesticides, but herbicides and insecticides — soil health essentially deteriorates over time, requiring more and more chemicals to be added each season to stimulate any growth. Not only that, polluted water runoff from conventional farms inevitably feeds into local waterways. Conventional farming nowadays is a lose-lose.

Outerknown always opts for the organic kind?
Of course! Outerknown has sourced organic cotton since day one. Each year, the percentage of organic cotton we use increases — in 2019, over 95% of the cotton we sourced was organic, and we plan to reach 100% in 2020. The cotton we use is organically-grown OCS (Organic Content Standard), or GOTS certified.

“In 2019, over 95% of the cotton we sourced was organic, and we plan to reach 100% in 2020.”

Beyond the planet, organic farming has human implications too?
Yes! In every decision we make, we have to consider the environmental impact and, of course, our impact on people: worker safety and the well-being of our manufacturing and farming communities. We choose organic because it protects farmers, their families, and surrounding communities from toxic chemicals getting into their food or water supply. The U.S. has more advanced machinery and technology to spray crops, but in various regions throughout the world — China, India, Uzbekistan, Turkey, etc. — people are still spraying their crops by hand, and they’re inhaling known carcinogens. There has been an overwhelming amount of research done showing higher incidents of serious health issues and cancers in communities exposed to agricultural chemicals. It’s also important to note that through most organic third-party certifications and farming collectives, the workers are actually paid more.

Why is it important for us to shop organically?
Customers have a significant role and say. What they ask for and demand, brands have to deliver. Buying organic is essentially asking brands to source more organic materials and sends a signal to the broader industry. We ask that our customers spread the good word to help increase demand for organic fibers and sustainable clothing and to encourage the industry to not only do good but simply do what is right.

According to the Textile Exchange Organic Cotton Market Report 2019, “Global organic cotton production grew by an impressive 56 percent in 2017/18, well exceeding the previous year’s growth rate of 10 percent.” Although this is promising, organic cotton only represents 1% of total global cotton production. We have a ways to go in converting an industry, and we need to transition quickly if we want to secure our future cotton and food supply, take climate action, and ensure the well-being of farmers.

“We need to transition quickly if we want to secure our future cotton and food supply, take climate action, and ensure the well-being of farmers.”

What else should everyone know about organic cotton?
It’s not just about buying organic. It’s also about buying less and using products for as long as possible. So instead of buying 10 fast-fashion tees, buy one that’s sustainable, durable, and that will last you 10 years. You can be just as effective with your budget while making buying decisions that are better for people and planet. Also, watch The Biggest Little Farm! It talks about regenerative and organic farming — it’s a fascinating film if you’re interested in learning more about some of these best practices.

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