Vanita Baravkar was working in international public health when she travelled to agricultural regions in India and Bangladesh. What she saw triggered a turning point in her career.
Cotton was the dominant crop in these regions and the reality of how it was farmed and processed shocked her.
“I witnessed pesticide poisoning, toxic soils and farmer suicides,” Vanita says. “Women walked bare feet in the fields soaking up the pesticides and I wondered what that did to their bloodstream. Peoples’ arms were dyed from hands to elbows, there were stillbirths and children with deformities. It was such an eye opening experience. The pattern was the same in every village and I wondered what was going on. I was seeing things that we didn’t hear about.” What she was seeing were some of the human faces of the 77 million cotton workers around the world who suffer from pesticide poisoning each year.
Vanita threw her life into organic cotton, meeting growers, processors, manufacturers and those behind the certified organic cotton movement in Europe and the United States.
When she returned home to Australia, she started a business that would make everyday certified organic cotton products available. Bhumi Organic Cotton was born, stocking clothes, underwear and manchester.
The organic difference
Certified organic cotton products are made from crops grown without GMOs and synthetic herbicides and pesticides. They are also processed without harmful dyes.
Vanita says the significant growth of GM cotton (commonly called Bt cotton) has resulted in many farmers losing control of their crops, forcing them to buy seed each season from suppliers Monsanto, rather than use their own. Monsanto controls 95 per cent of the cotton seed market in India. GM cotton has been developed to be poisonous to certain pests; however many farmers end up using the same amount of pesticide to control a population increase in other pests.
The other upside to growing cotton organically is that farmers can rotate their crops with vegetables in the off-season because the soils aren’t contaminated. Vanita says, “The soils of GM cotton are so toxic you couldn’t grow anything else in them – a spin off into why there are a lot of farmer suicides across agricultural belts.”
Certification is key
What sets Bhumi apart is that it’s also a certified organic retailer, making its Melbourne store an experience from the moment you see the Australian Certified Organic logo loud and bold on the glass front door to the embracing smell of cloves inside. (Ingeniously, the cloves are suspended from the ceiling in over 100 glass pots to deter insects. It works.)
“Certification is absolutely key,” says Vanita. “Without it you can say it’s natural cotton or even organic cotton; which might be true about how it’s grown but then it could be treated with toxic dyes.”
For Vanita it’s important that there are third party certification audits from seed to sale. “I can be sure there’s nothing going wrong along the supply chain – no harmful pesticides, fertilisers, dyes, no carcinogenic substances, no child labour and no bad working conditions.”
The products she stocks have been certified to the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) – the largest internationally recognised organic certification scheme for the textile industry. Australian Certified Organic is accredited to certify products to GOTS.
Certification is also important for marketing. As a certified organic retailer Bhumi can use the Australian Certified Organic logo throughout the store – including the front door. Passer-byes see it and associate it with the food they eat, increasing their trust in Bhumi’s range of towels, bed linen, night wear, t-shirts etc. “When people see the logo they say, ‘Oh wow, I buy that. I look for that label on my food and you’ve got it on your products,” says Vanita.
For a textile store like Bhumi, retail certification means no harmful chemicals are used for cleaning or pest deterrents. They’ve taken the extra step to paint the shop with lime-based paints and all the shelving in the shop is made from recycled timber pallets that have been heat-treated.
Vanita is now looking forward to branching out into other exciting design developments in certified organic cotton manufacture, launching a lace range towards the end of the year.
In the words of a civil rights leader she enjoys quoting, Vanita is definitely being “the change you wish to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi.)
To find out more about organic certification for retail call Australian Certified Organic on 07 3350 5716.
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