Ronnie Cummins is national director of the Organic Consumers Association and the author of the recent book, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers.
Monday, 2 Apr 2001
SANTA FE, N.M.
I woke up at 4:30 a.m. today thinking about organic coffee, social justice, and genetic engineering. Specifically, as I climbed out of bed slowly and quietly, so as to not wake my wife and my 3-year-old boy sleeping beside me, I was thinking about the Starbucks campaign that our organization, the Organic Consumers Association, launched two weeks ago with protests and press conferences in 100 cities across the U.S. and Canada. Our demands of Starbucks, a $2.2 billion-a-year transnational corporation operating in 18 nations and the owner of 20 percent of all the coffee shops in America, are that it (1) remove recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone and all genetically engineered ingredients from its beverages, chocolates, and baked goods; (2) brew and seriously promote Fair Trade, shade-grown coffee as the “flavor of the day” in its cafes; and (3) fulfill a promise it’s been making since 1995 to raise the starvation wages of coffee plantation workers who work for its coffee suppliers in Guatemala, Mexico, and other nations around the world.
After several years of preliminary consciousness-raising around the hazards of industrial agriculture and genetically engineered foods and crops in the U.S., we and groups like Greenpeace (who have targeted the upscale supermarket chain Trader Joe’s) have decided to go on the offensive. Since the government won’t listen to what 80 percent to 90 percent of consumers want (i.e., mandatory labeling and safety-testing of genetically engineered foods), we have no choice but to bring the “Frankenfoods” battle to the marketplace. Our goals are to take on the brand-name bullies and food giants and to build up a mass movement against genetically engineered foods — and for organic and sustainable agriculture — comparable to what our counterparts in Europe and Japan already have done.
As I turn on the light in the kitchen of the house/campaign office we’ve rented in Santa Fe and prepare to brew a pot of organic coffee, I’m reminded that we must be doing something right. Sitting on the counter next to my computer is an editorial from last Friday’s (28 Mar. 2001) Wall Street Journal, entitled “Sleepless in Seattle.” The article is basically a vicious attack on our organization and a condemnation of Starbucks for announcing that they are considering giving in to our demands. Earlier last week the right-wing Washington Times newspaper in Washington, D.C., denounced the OCA as “organic thugs,” while Feedstuffs magazine, the trade journal of factory farming and the international grain cartel, recommended that biotech and agribusiness firms get tough and declare war on public-interest organizations such as ours that have managed to gain the upper hand in a series of David versus Goliath food fights.
The OCA is a 3-year-old, rapidly growing, nationwide network of 125,000 organic consumers that deals with issues of food safety, genetic engineering, and sustainability. Besides talking about the problems of our food chain, we also talk about the solution: organic and sustainable agriculture. We have 12 staff members, thousands of volunteers, 40,000 subscribers to our monthly electronic and print newsletter, BioDemocracy News, a central campaign office located in the middle of the woods in northeastern Minnesota, and a series of virtual home offices scattered across the U.S. We work nationally and, to some extent, internationally, cooperating with consumer and farm activists across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Asia. Our political perspective is that the overall crisis of American and global agriculture, the damage to our environment, the steady deterioration of our system of food safety, and the economic crisis faced by most of the world’s 2.2 billion farmers and rural villagers are but symptoms of a deeper underlying problem — out-of-control corporations, unlimited technology, and unresponsive and nondemocratic governments.
I generally get up and begin work by 5 a.m., so that my email correspondence and postings to the daily news section of our website are completed by 9 a.m. Because I’m the national director of the OCA, I have to put in a lot of hours every week. I have to inspire and coach our staff, raise money, help in coalition-building, do media interviews, give talks around the country, manage most of the content for our gigantic website, and write leaflets, action alerts, and articles. In addition, I try to be a good father to my boy, Adrian (who wants to play and have fun every day, not just watch me sit in front of the computer or talk on the phone), and a good husband to my wife of 19 years, Rose, who also serves as the OCA campaign manager.
Because I passionately believe in what I do, I feel fortunate. People often ask me after my talks or lectures how I can be so optimistic, in light of all the bad news and scary stuff that I report on and talk about.
Well, after I do my exercises in the morning and sip my java, here’s part of the reason for my optimism. When I turn on my PowerBook and open up my email inbox, there are a couple hundred messages and articles waiting for me. Some of the stuff, of course, is bad news (Mad Cow-like diseases in the U.S., a new virus resembling AIDS in pigs, the hoof-and-mouth holocaust in Europe, toxic pesticides, genetically engineered trees and fish to complement our 70 million acres of Frankencrops), but a lot of it is incredibly inspiring: Greenpeace is launching a national day of action against Trader Joe’s in 13 states on 17 Apr. 2001 (Trader Joe’s is growing increasingly nervous). Activists in Vermont and across the nation are organizing for mass protests at the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s annual convention in San Diego 24-26 Jun. 2001. Organic food sales are booming across Europe, Japan, the U.S., and even China. A million farmers in New Delhi, India, held a demonstration against the World Trade Organization. And, directly relating to our current corporate campaign against Starbucks, there are enthusiastic email reports from our coordinators in Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Madison, Ann Arbor, Minneapolis, and other cities — the bottom line is that we are going to win this campaign.
The best news of all is a note to me this morning from the OCA’s web master, Steve Urow, in Los Angeles. Our website received over 3 million hits in March, a 300 percent increase over our recent monthly averages. Our primary internet address used to be www.purefood.org, but some of our militant adversaries in Washington, D.C., set up a counterfeit site at www.purefoods.org, filled with lies and propaganda, called the “Pure Fools Campaign.” Since then, we’ve tried to publicize www.organicconsumers.org as our primary URL.
We and our allies may not have the enormous financial resources that Starbucks, Monsanto, McDonald’s, Cargill, Dow, DuPont, Kraft/Phillip Morris, and the rest of the food, beverage, and biotech giants have, but we do have the incredible power of the Internet, and increasingly, the hearts and minds of the people on our side. I look forward to another exciting day of campaigning. As the sun rises over the still snowcapped mountains outside Santa Fe, it’s great to be alive, fighting the good fight.
Tuesday, 3 Apr 2001
SANTA FE, N.M.
It’s 5:30 a.m. and still dark
outside. Last night, three of us from the Organic Consumers Association watched a video documenting the activities of a Zapatista coffee producers’ cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico, called Mut Vitz. The 30-minute film, produced by a U.S. solidarity group, the Chiapas Media Project, reminded the three of us how incredibly hard the men, women, and children who grow Fair Trade and organic coffee work so that we can have our flavorful brew in the morning. It was hard not to cry when a small-statured, soft-spoken Tzteltal man unloaded a 150-pound sack of coffee that he had just carried down the mountain off his back, and explained that the members of the Mut Vitz cooperative (1,000 families) hoped to sell more of their organic coffee in the future, and perhaps even get a better price, so that they could meet their survival needs and make a better life for their families. The Mut Vitz narrative graphically reminded us that we must win the international campaign that our organization launched against Starbucks on 20 Mar. 2001.
Besides demanding that Starbucks guarantee that the 32 million gallons of milk they use every year do not come from cows injected with the cruel and likely dangerous drug, genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone, and that they remove all gene-altered ingredients from their chocolates, ice cream, and baked goods, we are also demanding that the coffee shop giant brew up and serve certified Fair Trade coffee as the flavor of the day in all of their 3,500 cafes worldwide. Fair Trade coffee, certified by an international certification organization called TransFair, is coffee that is grown in an ecologically sensitive or organic manner. No pesticides or chemical fertilizers are allowed. The coffee bushes are generally grown, as the Mut Vitz video shows, under a canopy of trees or taller foliage, a technique that preserves the forests, prevents erosion on the steep hillsides where the coffee is grown, protects the bird and animal habitat, and maintains the overall biodiversity of the forest. In terms of economic justice, certified Fair Trade coffee farmers, now numbering 550,000 across the world, receive a minimum price of $1.26 a pound for their coffee beans. This year, Chiapas farmers who were certified as both Fair Trade and organic received $1.41. This is not a lot of money for the backbreaking labor documented in the video, but it is enough for a community to survive, and to survive with dignity.
Last month I traveled down to Chiapas for the coffee harvest and to talk to some of the Fair Trade and organic farmers. When I told the indigenous coffee farmers about our Starbucks campaign, they were delighted. They especially liked the “Frankenbuck$” logo, a parody of the Starbucks company logo, which we are using in our campaign. They complained that Starbucks had only bought a small amount of Fair Trade coffee beans in Chiapas this year, and were astounded when I showed them the brochures that Starbucks so proudly displays in its coffee shops describing how socially and environmentally responsible it is.
Of course, Starbucks doesn’t want to brew Fair Trade and organic coffee as its “flavor of the day,” not because there isn’t a large enough supply, but because it will cost the company more money. This year, Starbucks and the other coffee giants bought coffee on the world market for an average price of 62 cents per pound. Therefore, brewing Fair Trade and organic coffee, which costs $1.26 to $1.41 per pound this year, would reduce its profits.
Starbucks knows as well as we do that there is a massive supply of Fair Trade and organic coffee in the world waiting for a buyer. As the human rights group Global Exchange has pointed out, one-half of the world’s supply of certified Fair Trade coffee (16 million pounds out of a total production of 32 million pounds) now has to be sold on the commercial market at a loss — simply because coffee buyers like Starbucks aren’t purchasing enough of it. Independently owned coffee shops across America are brewing Fair Trade and organic coffee and serving it up as the flavor of the day. Starbucks can certainly do the same. Millions of the world’s 25 million coffee producers are growing coffee the way it should be grown, sustainably and organically. These producers, like the families in the Mut Vitz cooperative, need and deserve a mass market for their coffee and a fair price for their labor.
Starbucks claims that the Organic Consumers Association, Friends of the Earth, and the other groups in our coalition are being too hard on it. Avoiding the real issue, the company says that it gives lots of money to charities, and that it is socially responsible. Besides buying a lot more shade-grown and organic coffee from Fair Trade cooperatives, we are asking Starbucks to guarantee in writing that it will raise wages and improve the working conditions of the impoverished coffee workers who toil on its suppliers’ plantations. A 1997 study by the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project in Guatemala found that entire families of coffee workers on the plantations supplying Starbucks and other companies were typically making a grand total of $1.25 per day, while a Guatemalan family needs at least $10 a day to survive. USGLEP estimated that in 1997, it would have cost Starbucks a mere penny more per cup of coffee per day to guarantee subsistence-level wages for plantation workers. Meanwhile, Starbucks CEO Orin Smith takes home $60,000 a week in salary, while the former CEO, Howard Schultz, just bought control of Seattle’s professional basketball team.
I’m drinking a cup of certified organic coffee right now as I make up my list of things to do today for the Starbucks campaign. First, we have to order 50,000 more Starbucks leaflets from our printer in Wisconsin. We use this printer not only because they are a union shop, but also because they give us great service and are as happy as we are to use 100 percent post-consumer recycled, nonchlorine-bleached paper. We’d like to be able to afford non-tree kenaf paper, but for the moment it would cost four times more, and we can’t afford this.
My next task for today is preparing a mailing to our 15,000 small contributors, telling them about the progress of the Starbucks campaign and our other projects (the StarLink corn project, the Genetically Engineered Food Alert, Food Agenda 2000-2010, and our new Clothes for a Change project) and asking them to make a financial contribution for our efforts. And finally this morning, I have to do the last edits on a Starbucks Action Alert, which will go out as an email to 35,000 people across the world.
Later today, we’ll have a conference call of the field organizers working on the Starbucks campaign. We are discussing how to expand the campaign internationally — to Canada, the U.K., and Japan — and keep up the pressure by continuing to recruit and motivate volunteers to leaflet and call Starbucks coffee shops in several hundred U.S. communities. This is the only way we’re going to win this campaign. This is the only way that America’s organic consumers can help preserve the environment and provide fair wages and decent living conditions for the millions of folks like the Zapatista coffee growers. And as far as I am concerned, this is the only way to live.
Wednesday, 4 Apr 2001
SANTA FE, N.M.
It has taken our organization and our movement years of hard work to get to the point where we, working with our allies such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Center for Food Safety, are starting to make a real impact on the politics of food in this country. This is no small achievement, given that this is a $700 billion industry that we are trying to transform. But we are definitely making headway. We have put Monsanto, Aventis, Novartis, and the entire multibillion-dollar ag biotech industry on the defensive, and we have helped make food safety a fr
ont-burner issue for millions of Americans. Our alternative food system — which some of us began building in the late 1960s — has developed into a $10 billion a year organic food industry, the fastest growing component of U.S. agriculture. Between 10 million and 15 million households are now buying organic food on a regular basis. When polled by the biotechnology giant Novartis in early 1997, a full 54 percent of Americans said that they wanted organic agriculture to become the dominant system of food production in the U.S. And public awareness over food issues and the organic movement is growing even faster in Europe, the largest agricultural market in the world.
On the organizational level, the Organic Consumers Association now has over 125,000 people in our national grassroots network and an email action alert and subscriber list of 40,000 people, while several thousand people a day are visiting our website to download and read articles. On 20 Mar. 2001, the launch of a new international campaign against Starbucks, we were pleased to see that our volunteer network was capable of organizing protests and press conferences in 100 cities across the U.S. and Canada on the same day — generating significant press coverage and scaring the hell out of Starbucks.
But this is not enough. While the demand for organic food is growing by leaps and bounds, corporations maintain a stranglehold over the strategic institutions that impact our daily lives (energy, transportation, manufacturing, health care, clothing, education, media, government). The climate is destabilized, toxic chemicals are everywhere, genetic engineers are tampering with our food and the very blueprints of life, poverty and injustice are at epidemic levels, and indeed the ultimate “carrying capacity” of our earth is stretched to its limits. Congress and the White House are firmly in the grip of bottom-line corporados who seem determined to lead us down the path to destruction. Worst of all, most Americans have lost hope. You can’t fight city hall, you can’t take on the big corporations, you can’t change the world.
But this is nonsense. I am fortunate to have been an activist for more than 30 years and to have witnessed firsthand that you can change the world: the U.S. civil rights movement, the global movement against the Vietnam war, the women’s rights movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the Central American solidarity movement, and now the international movement against genetic engineering and corporate globalization.
Several experiences over the past 18 months have reminded me that we stand on the threshold of major change. The first event was the Battle of Seattle in late 1999, the headline-grabbing international mobilization against the World Trade Organization. What became clear to all of us who organized and participated in the teach-ins, marches, and street blockades in Seattle is that we finally are starting to see what radicals and visionaries have dreamed about for at least the last 150 years: a New Internationale, an international grassrooots-based movement of consumers and farmers. In the Seattle teach-ins and marches on food, genetic engineering, and agricultural issues, we were inspired and educated by representatives and speakers from more than 60 nations. And the most amazing thing, we all began to realize, was that we were all saying the same thing. Transnational corporations have taken over the world and must be stopped. Participatory democracy and sustainable development are the political and economic alternatives to corporate control. Chemical-intensive, genetically engineered industrial agriculture poses a mortal threat to the environment, public health, and the cultural and economic survival of the world’s 2.2 billion farmers and rural villagers. Global free trade agreements must be scrapped in favor of an international system of Fair Trade that promotes the re-localization of the global economy — local and regional organic and sustainable production for local and regional markets.
Not only do food and agricultural activists from all over the world agree on the problems and solutions, but, thanks to the Internet, we have begun to cooperate on a day-to-day basis to wage and win the individual campaigns — for example, against genetic engineering — that will eventually turn the tide. When Monsanto makes a misstep in India, campaigners all over the world know about it the next day. Individual campaign insights become common knowledge, and shared strategy and tactics lead to common victories and a growing confidence that indeed the biotech juggernaut can be brought to a halt.
Three weeks ago, 11 Mar. 2001, I stood in the hot sun in the Zocalo, or central square, in Mexico City with 250,000 other people and cheered as the 24 commandantes of the Zapatista movement emerged from the jungles of Chiapas, announcing an end to “business as usual” and the beginning of a new era of solidarity and change. Triumphant in the wake of a two-week, nonstop caravan across Mexico reminiscent of the civil rights marches through the South in the 1960s, the Zapatistas put down their weapons for the first time since 1994 — when they launched an insurrection against NAFTA and for indigenous rights — and called for the people of Mexico and the people of the world to organize and start the nonviolent revolution we need in order to survive and live with dignity in this chaotic and unjust world. Deja vu. “The times, they are a-changin’,” as Bob Dylan announced almost 40 years ago. I feel fortunate to be alive and working in this global campaign.
Thursday, 5 Apr 2001
SANTA FE, N.M.
Five o’clock in the morning. After doing my morning stretches, calisthenics, and a few karate exercises, and brewing up a pot of organic coffee, it’s time to check my list of “campaign priorities” for the week. My ingrained habit is to make a handwritten list of things to do every week, categorized as high, medium, or low priority. As the week goes by, I check off each task as I complete it. Those tasks left incomplete at the end of the week get put on the upcoming week’s list, while the old lists get filed in a file folder for future reference and review. At the top of my list every week are the tasks dealing with research, information, media, and communications. The bottom line is that we, the public interest community, or the global grassroots, are engaged in an information war with the multinational corporations and the special interests. Unless we can outorganize and outperform our well-financed and powerful opponents on the terrain of information and communications (i.e., basically win the battle for the hearts and minds of the people), we will lose. But right now, I believe we’re starting to gain the upper hand in this strategic arena.
Every day I get 200 to 300 emails from around the world dealing with issues of food safety, genetic engineering, organic farming, environmental issues, and movements against corporate globalization. These include newspaper stories and articles from scientific journals, as well as original commentary and reports by leading activists from around the world. I also get regular postings from several listservs, including one very interesting internal corporate discussion list that I have managed to infiltrate, which deals with corporate strategies on how to gain and maintain political power. I don’t have time to carefully read every single email, but I do try to answer all the correspondence I receive from journalists, activists, and individuals. Fortunately, I am able to forward some information requests or activist inquiries to one or more of our 12 staff members. But I like to personally review all the news and analysis, and, if I find something interesting, I read it carefully.
If an article or commentary is especially good, I forward it to Loranda McLeete or Craig Minowa, two of our staff members in Minnesota, who post it under the appropriate category (Genetically Engi
neered Food, Organic News, Mad Cow, Get Involved, Corporate Abuse, etc.) on our website.
The Organic Consumers Association website, managed by Steve Urow, our Los Angeles-based webmaster, is getting more and more traffic every month. In March, we got 6 million hits, which amounted to several thousand people a day (74,000 for the month) going to our site and reading or downloading 10 pages or more of information. One of the most important things about our site is that it’s popular with journalists. It offers “one-stop shopping” and nearly “all you can eat” for journalists looking for story leads and information on food safety, genetic engineering, and organics. Every day, we get calls from a number of journalists — from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and ABC News to community radio stations in places like Madison, Wis., and Boulder, Colo. We also get calls and emails from overseas journalists, as well as steady requests to reprint articles from our website and our newsletter, BioDemocracy News. In addition, we have an interactive database (which services and helps us to empower our most enthusiastic 18,000 volunteers across the country) and a calendar of upcoming events posted on our site. The Internet and our website are our most important tools when it comes to launching nationwide campaigns such as our current campaign against Starbucks, which we launched on 20 Mar. 2001. We have an extensive section on our site about Starbucks, including background information, downloadable leaflets and posters, a “How to Get Involved” section, and news and activist reports from many of the 100 U.S. cities where we currently have campaign activities.
Every interesting article or commentary in my email inbox gets read and filed electronically in one or more of the several hundred topic files on my computer — ranging from the American Corn Growers Association to Xenotransplantation. This way, if I or another journalist or activist needs background information on just about any topic, whether it is Mad Cow disease, feeding antibiotics to animals, or genetically engineered crops in China, I can easily find it on my computer. I keep a special file for story ideas or news items for BioDemocracy News. I also subscribe to dozens of hard copy publications, ranging from Mother Jones and the Progressive Populist to the Coop Grocer, the Left Business Observer, and O’Dweyer’s PR Monthly. In addition, I’m something of a book addict. When I’m on the road, one of my favorite pastimes is to go into bookstores and newsstands and search out new relevant books or articles.
Fortunately I can read and skim key articles rapidly, and I have a detective’s zeal for finding articles or information that might be newsworthy or of strategic use in grassroots campaigns. Those articles or book sections that are the most important are clipped or copied and filed in hard copy form. Over the years I’ve found that, quantitatively, more and more of the most important information is coming in electronically, although much of the qualitative and in-depth information is still circulated in hard-copy form. Even though my computer and my electronic files are the most important items in my activist toolbox, I still love the feel and experience of reading newspapers, magazines, and books. I’ve been collecting books and magazine articles and keeping thorough files for most of my activist life — which goes back to the late 1960s — but over the past eight years or so (thank goodness, because there’s no more room in my office or my house), I have begun to store most of my information electronically.
When I started to write a book last year (coauthored with Ben Lilliston) on genetically engineered food, I was very happy that I had kept such good files over the years. What would have ordinarily taken us two years, took just six months. Now the book, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers, is out in bookstores and for sale over the Internet, and is doing quite well. Thank goodness for the Internet and computers. Were it not for this technology, food activists and the global grassroots in general would not be gaining the upper hand in the information war.
Friday, 6 Apr 2001
SANTA FE, N.M.
Friday is my day to review the week’s activities, catch up on any priority tasks that still need to be done, and think about the next steps we need to take in our campaign work. Yesterday afternoon we had a staff conference call for an hour. Because our permanent staff live in seven different cities across the country (Little Marais, Minn.; Duluth, Minn.; Superior, Wis.; Minneapolis; San Francisco; Los Angeles; and Seattle), weekly conference calls are necessary to keep up communications and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of our work.
This week’s conference call focused on the Starbucks campaign. Simon Harris, our Starbucks coordinator, reported on his conversations with activists from the U.K. and Canada, who are enthusiastic about spreading the campaign internationally. Tom Taylor, our Midwest field coordinator, and Connie and Craig Minowa, our field support people, spoke about Organic Consumers Association’s outreach efforts to Green Party chapters across the U.S., our attempts to involve students from the United Students Against Sweatshops network, as well as our special effort to recruit volunteers from the deep South. We agreed to make a special push during Earth Day week, 15-22 April, to get volunteers to leaflet Starbucks outlets across the country.
Simon and I reported on our successful meeting last week in San Francisco with a group of organic farmers to establish a new OCA campaign this fall, called Clothes for a Change. The basic idea is that we will develop a national public education campaign on the public health and environmental hazards of chemical-intensive and genetically engineered cotton production, as well as the injustice of a global system of garment sweatshops. Besides just criticizing what’s wrong, we’ll promote the marketplace alternatives: organic cotton and hemp clothing, made in a non-exploitative, “Fair Made” manner.
The Clothes for a Change action plan will include the following: (1) Boycott the clothing and shoe products of companies employing sweatshop (non-Fair Trade certified) labor; (2) drive genetically engineered cotton and other fibers off the market; (3) phaseout, as rapidly as possible, chemical-intensive production of cotton and other fibers; (4) convert at least 30 percent of all clothing in the U.S. to organic and sustainable fibers (cotton, hemp, and others) that are Fair Made by the year 2010.
Our allies and we are making tremendous headway in terms of building up a nationwide alternative food network. Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said for clothing and shoes. If Americans are what we wear, then we, even rebel youth and boomer progressives, are corporate. The fashion statement we’re apparently making with what we wear is that we don’t care. A look at the labels in our clothing or the logos on our shoes indicates that the brand name bullies, the transnational giants in the garment and apparel industry, reign supreme. Walk into any department store or clothing retailer and look for a label that says “Union-made in the USA with organic cotton (or hemp).” Search through rack after rack, in store after store, but you aren’t likely to find an organic/Fair Made alternative that embodies both ecological and social justice principles.
There are no U.S.-produced, union-made, and organic or transition-to-organic clothes or shoes on the market, period. Do unions just not care about ecological production methods or the literal “sweatshops in the
fields” which characterize most of the cotton farming and fiber production around the world — even in North America? Do most green or natural-fiber clothing and fabric companies feel that “bottom line” considerations make it impossible to deal with unions or to put a priority on producing garments in the U.S.? Do anti-sweatshop campaigners believe that it doesn’t matter if cotton workers are poisoned in the fields, if small and medium-sized cotton farmers are swindled by large corporations who pay them next to nothing for their products, as long as factory garment workers get a better wage? Our Clothes for a Change movement will be built along the lines of our Starbucks campaign, which simultaneously raises issues of economic equity and ecological sustainability.
Patagonia has an all-organic clothing line, but the clothes are neither union-made, nor, for the most part, produced in the U.S. Levi-Strauss in the past has blended organic cotton into their jeans, but it doesn’t tell its customers about it. Even though there is a mass consciousness developing, especially among millions of politically aware youth, that overseas sweatshops are bad and that transnational corporations like Nike, the Gap, and Wal-Mart are making obscene profits off these non-union overseas sweatshops, there is no real mass-market alternative (except for buying used clothes and shopping exclusively at rather expensive outlets like Patagonia) for those who wish to cast a vote for sustainable clothing and social justice. It’s true that hemp clothing and organic cotton products are out there, but for the moment they are nothing more than a tiny niche in America’s $200 billion annual clothes market.
Underlying Americans’ lack of “clothes consciousness” is a near-total lack of awareness of the life cycle, if you will, of our clothing and all the other everyday products containing cotton fiber (food products, tampons, bandages, baby diapers, mattresses, bed linen, etc.). Most people have been conditioned since childhood to worry about what they look like. This is partly why consumers spend billions of dollars every year on clothing items and personal care products. But most consumers are unaware of the fact that cotton is one of the largest (3 percent of all agricultural land in the world), most destructive (25 percent of all toxic pesticides, including many of the most poisonous, are used on cotton), and exploitative (in the cotton fields and in clothing sweatshops) industries in the world. The history of that non-organic T-shirt, pair of jeans, shirt, or underwear that you’re wearing inevitably involves environmental destruction, harm to animals and fish, exploitation of workers (often children and women), not to mention pollution of the mind — relentless corporate advertising that tells you to buy, buy, and buy. Underlying the multibillion dollar garment and apparel industry are the endless Madison Avenue images and commercials with the same spiritually and ethically deadening message: Clothes make the man and the woman. The style and cut of what you’re wearing is more important than who you are inside.
Clothes for a Change will be one of our next major campaigns, along with a nationwide campaign to change school lunches and school curricula on food and agriculture, called SOS — Safeguard Our Students. Unfortunately, to launch these campaigns will cost us a lot of money. So the major thing I’m doing today and all next week is fund-raising: writing grant proposals, calling funders on the phone, and basically making the case that we’re making great headway but we need a campaign war chest that matches our aspirations for building a stronger and more powerful organic consumers movement over the next few years.