When we get dressed morning, most of us probably don’t think much about the biotech giant Monsanto. But chances are that much of what you are wearing was created in one of the company’s top-secret labs: More than 70 percent of the cotton grown in the United States is a Monsanto-developed, genetically engineered product, and nearly 90 percent of the cotton grown in India (a fiber powerhouse) is genetically modified, much of it by Monsanto.
Farmers’ initial embrace of GMO seeds is starting to turn into a backlash. Here in the US, an increasing number of growers complain that reliance on GMO Roundup-Ready seeds have led the evolution of “superweeds.” And in India, poor farmers’ reliance on GM seeds has increased farmer debt, pushing many to the brink of despair and contributing to a horrific epidemic of farmer suicides that you might have read about here or here.
Shocked by the reports of Indian cotton farmers committing suicide and also concerned about how GM seeds reduce biodiversity and could lead to even more pesticide use, I wondered what it would take to end my financial support of Monsanto’s cotton wares. Like other consumers, I wondered if there were any alternatives. So as an experiment in compassionate shopping, I committed to avoiding Monsanto fibers for one whole month.
To prepare for this impulsive endeavor I was forced to set aside my usual aversion to shopping to track down two pairs of affordable organic cotton pants, two organic cotton shirts, two pairs of organic cotton panties, and a pair of hemp sneakers. (Because the US organic standards prohibit GMOs, buying organic would automatically make my clothing free of the Monsanto taint.) It wasn’t an exciting wardrobe, but fashion be damned — this was an experiment of the most passionately informal kind. But there was one thing I couldn’t seem to find, and simply would not go without: a bra. It seemed like I had more shopping to do.
I called up my good friend Miranda Valentine, who works as a fashion writer and stylist, and who always has energy for shopping. We agreed to meet in Venice Beach, where my online research had turned up three organic clothing boutiques. I circled each of the stores on a map. It like a military mission: Operation Organic Bra.
Our first stop was a long, narrow store with sparse racks of clothing and cement floors. It was immediately clear that the place sold no feminine delicates, but the shirts were cute, and so was the struggling actor behind the counter, so we stayed to do a little browsing. In the changing room I glanced at the price tag of the adorable purple shirt I had just slipped on — $60. I cringed and realized that this was the exact moment, in dressing rooms across the country, where social and environmental consciousness usually lose out to finances.
A study done in 2009 by the US Department of Labor showed that the average American household includes two and a half consumers (which they depict as a man, woman and child), with a household earning of $63,091 a year before taxes. On average they spent $1,881 on “apparel and services.” I would love to say that we were more frugal than that, but sometimes it seemed that our “point-five” of a child grew faster than a Roundup-resistant weed, and keeping her in clothing was no small task. I feared that buying all of our clothing in organic cotton would double our clothing expenses.
I stepped from the dressing room to show Miranda the shirt. She advised against the bright purple and steered me instead toward a grey top with a simple black design, on sale for $30. The neutral color would match more of my small organic wardrobe and the 50 percent discount didn’t hurt any either.
We checked out the other two boutiques on our map, but both were out of business. It seemed to me that most people generally tried not to spend $30 to $60 on a shirt they could get at Old Navy for $10.99.
With just one new shirt and no bra to show for our day’s shopping, Miranda and I arrived at our final stop: Patagonia. There were no signs screaming about organic fabrics or sustainable cotton farming, so with great skepticism I turned the tag on a blue and white striped dress. “100% organic cotton,” it said. Then I spotted a display in the center of the store. Delicately arranged over two concentric circles of shelving, lay a stunning collection of bras and panties, all in organic cotton. I let out a little squeak of excitement and dove right in.
In the dressing room I tried on a soft beige bra. It fit perfectly. True, it wasn’t as sexy as some of my Victoria’s Secret under things, but it was quite respectable. It even had a little girly, pink accent line along the cup. Very cute.
When I finally made my way to the counter to make my purchase I was struck once again by the underlying dichotomy of modern day shopping. Consumers either make their purchases based on price alone — in which case they are almost assuredly supporting companies with questionable practices such as hanging farmers out to dry and paying slave labor wages to unfortunate workers half a world away. Or they are exceedingly well-informed, and probably pretty affluent, and able to spend more money on products for idealistic reasons. Socially and environmentally responsible shopping, it seems, remains a luxury.
Striding back to the car with Miranda, I wasn’t yet ready to consign myself to such a discouraging conclusion. There had to be a way for my compassionate heart and bill-paying brain to happily co-exist.
In the weeks following I discovered that organic cotton is a booming industry, growing at a rate of 35 percent a year. Though often featured in expensive boutiques, organic cotton is no longer exclusively for the rich. Patagonia has been a pioneer in clothing with a conscious, but it’s not alone. In 2006 Wal-Mart became the world’s biggest purchaser of organic cotton. One need only search amazon.com for “organic cotton” to find thousands of options for any budget.
My Monsanto hiatus is officially over, but the lessons I learned will stick with me the rest of my life. My closet is less cluttered as I learn to use my dollars wisely and to invest in fewer, high quality articles of clothing. These days the outfits I consider fabulous not only flatter my figure, they remind me that I am part of a global community, fighting the good fight to make the world a better place.
This post was originally published by the Earth Island Journal.
Photo from origamidon via flickr creative commons